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When Sal DiMasi, the allegedly corrupt former House leader, assumed control of the Massachusetts House in 2004, the gavel was passed down with great fanfare in a fawning coronation ceremony in a packed State House chamber.
Tom Finneran, the departing speaker who would later plead guilty to obstruction of justice, led the procession that alerted DiMasi he had been chosen.
Looking on was a little-known Beacon Hill power player, a special guest of the House, Jack O’Brien, the commissioner of an agency called Probation. The commissioner was an afterthought in a chamber overflowing with Beacon Hill superstars: Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, Attorney General Thomas Reilly, Auditor Joseph DeNucci, Democratic Party Chairman Philip Johnston and Secretary of State William Galvin.
DiMasi, Finneran and O’Brien were together again this week, sans celebration, in a report that tore down the walls of the state Probation Department and laid bare rampant abuses of the hiring and promotion system within the agency.
Paul Ware, the SJC-appointed attorney who authored the report, flogged O’Brien thoroughly and threw him to the attorney general and feds for potential prosecution. Along the way, Ware roped dozens of lawmakers, past and present, whose friends and political contributors found jobs in the Probation Department with help from the elected and with stunning regularity. Ware went out of his way to insist that the evidence against lawmakers is statistical, anecdotal and far from definitive.
One name that dotted Ware’s 337-page tome, released Thursday, was Robert DeLeo, DiMasi’s successor as House speaker, who hasn’t been doing much speaking these days.
DeLeo’s name appears 41 times in Ware’s report, which also details the startling assertion that the legislative budget process, controlled largely by DeLeo, probably artificially boosted the probation department in exchange for lawmakers’ influence on hiring. DeLeo’s response: a flat 26-word statement that said the report “appears” to make disturbing allegations and omitted any defense of the House or his own actions.
For most of the day Thursday, DeLeo’s aides couldn’t even say whether the speaker was in the building, and on Friday reporters waiting for him to emerge from his State House lair threw up their hands and left. His counterpart, Senate President Therese Murray, who appears in the report three times, has been equally silent. But at least the public knows where she is: in Russia.
DeLeo has had a lot to answer for since Election Day. What lessons does he take from the first Democratic losses in the Massachusetts House in 20 years, while Bay State Democrats prevailed in the Senate, Congress and statewide races? Will he work to preserve the substance abuse programs funded by the alcohol tax that voters repealed on Election Day? Why should his 40 new House colleagues vote for him as their leader in one of the first actions they take in January? Will the sales tax come down from 6.25 percent? Will Thomas Petrolati, a central figure in the probation report who plead the Fifth to escape testifying, continue to serve on his leadership team, even during the lame-duck period?
Ware, the author of the probation report, which crashed down upon a largely empty Beacon Hill on Thursday, emphasized his focus was not on the Legislature but went out of his way to exonerate DeLeo, saying no evidence showed he abused his power to get jobs for his friends and political contributors.
Meanwhile, Gov. Deval Patrick called the report his “worst nightmare” and reiterated a plan to merge the “rogue” probation agency into the Executive Branch.
The release of the Ware report brought to a resounding thud another flare-up over immigration – legal and otherwise – that escalated this week when the governor threw his second-term capital behind plans to extend in-state tuition rates and driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. The proposals, part of a larger package intended to help legal immigrants integrate into Massachusetts society, provoked a swift response from House Republican leader Bradley Jones, who predicted they would fail.
But it was another governor’s comments this week that were perhaps more telling. Former Congressman, Clinton cabinet secretary and outgoing New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, noting immigration issues are a daily task in his state, told reporters the odds of comprehensive immigration reform making it through Congress are improved due to the election of new Hispanic Congressmen, but not “dramatically” improved. If that’s the case, and if Patrick’s claim that tuition discounts and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants are riding on federal law changes, there’s a strong argument that the reform-free status quo will continue.
The Ware report also stamped out of the public discussion glimmers of economic progress that emerged Thursday morning. The state added 10,000 jobs in October – most of them outside the Probation Department – and the unemployment rate dipped to 8.1 percent, its lowest level in 18 months. Meanwhile, foreclosure starts dipped and retailers issued relatively rosy predictions for the Massachusetts holiday shopping season. On Friday, Massachusetts’ bond rating was affirmed by three independent rating agencies, a welcome sign for budget wonks and politicians in need of a talking point.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Ware Report.
FOLLOWING THE RULES: Republicans in the Legislature have never been shy about calling out their Democratic brethren for using intricate rules to cut off debate or avoid tough recorded votes. So it was a surprise to see the Republican Party leadership employ the same tactic to avoid a protracted fight over party leadership. With Jennifer Nassour standing at the podium in a Newton Marriott meeting room Wednesday, a member of the Republican State Committee called for her ouster and moved to remove her from power. Nassour had helped raise the number of Republicans in the House to 32 out of 160 but the GOP was washed out in its attempt to win any state Senate, Congressional or statewide seats. After a brief discussion, Nassour ruled the debate out of order and quickly gaveled the meeting to a close.
This program aired on November 19, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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