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State House Roundup: Out Damn Spot

As retailers prepped for the start of the holiday shopping season when they hope to fill their ledgers with plenty of black ink, House Speaker Robert DeLeo this week was busy doing the opposite, trying to erase black marks from his own lineup card.

For DeLeo it was an attempt at addition by subtraction, announcing late Tuesday afternoon that Speaker Pro Tempore Thomas Petrolati, the number three Democrat in the House, who has served successive speakers in that top leadership position, would be out come January.

By removing Petrolati, DeLeo took a step toward averting what could become an acrimonious election come January when members will be asked to reaffirm the Winthrop Democrat as the speaker of the House.

Though the possibility of a credible challenge to DeLeo emerging between now and Jan. 6 seems remote, the ascending sophomore speaker would do well, according to some of his own allies, to remove all political distractions – yes, some remain despite this session of reform, reform, reform.

For clarity’s sake, Petrolati’s decision not to seek reappointment as speaker pro tem was a “mutually agreed” upon decision between DeLeo and the Ludlow Democrat.

Petrolati became a central figure in the scandal that has rocked the state Probation Department, characterized as a maven of patronage with the uncanny ability to place supporters into jobs. An investigation for the Supreme Judicial Court led by independent counsel Paul Ware culminated in the release of a scathing report that detailed a hiring system rife with political calculation.

Despite not cracking the top 10 list of lawmakers using their political clout to recommend supporters for jobs in probation, Ware – no doubt aided by Petrolati’s refusal to testify under oath – came to the conclusion that Petrolati’s “involvement in patronage hiring within Probation is far greater than the Sponsor Lists demonstrate."

Had it been Petrolati’s first strike he may have survived, but the Ludlow Democrat has also played smaller character-roles in the scandals that brought down former speakers Salvatore DiMasi and Thomas Finneran, though he was never charged or disciplined.

And so came the answer to one of the many searing questions for DeLeo that members of the Fourth Estate have been dying to ask him, but couldn’t because he won’t face the press.

For a man who carries the title of speaker, DeLeo has seemed more comfortable with silent reflection these days. Along with the news of Petrolati’s demotion, DeLeo laid out his plan, by statement of course, to make an overhaul of the state probation department his sudden, top priority.

But even the opportunity to claim the mantle of true reformer could not draw the speaker from his office to take questions leaving the following unanswered: Will Petrolati become a backbencher, or get another post in leadership like a chairmanship? Will there be a larger shake-up in his leadership team come January? Was the rampant cronyism defined in the Ware report confined to that agency, or did the Legislature play a role in fostering the pay-to-play atmosphere? Did probation benefit in the state budget for rewarding lawmaker-sponsored applicants with jobs? Did DeLeo, himself, do anything wrong in recommending a dozen people for jobs?

While the Petrolati news stood out during a typically quiet holiday week on Beacon Hill, there was no shortage of fodder for water-cooler chit-chat among idle workers counting the hours until the long-weekend.

First came the shocker that just three weeks after winning re-election to another six-year term, Middlesex County Sheriff James DiPaola planned to resign after being caught in a pension-boosting scheme – albeit legal – that would have undoubtedly put the capstone on his long career in public safety.

Perhaps most surprising was the letter of explanation penned by DiPaola that thanked the reporter who called him out on the plan, assuring the gregarious sheriff that if he went ahead with his plan he would surely be remember for nothing else.

Technically, DiPaola sought to do nothing illegal when he quietly filed retirement papers in October so that he could take advantage of a loophole in state pension laws that allow retirees to run for public office without giving up their pension checks. Had he gone forward, DiPaola would have collected both his $98,000 a year pension and $123,000 a year salary.

DiPaola’s “moral epiphany” saved taxpayers, if not the sheriff himself, who no doubt will still be remembered for this final chapter.

The sheriff’s public pension ploy may have gotten even more attention if not for a report in the Boston Globe that the search committee tasked with finding a successor to UMass President Jack Wilson – who plans to retire in July – had begun to narrow in on UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan, a former U.S. Congressman from the 5th District.

The story suggested that Gov. Deval Patrick and his administration were uneasy with Meehan’s front-runner status, sensitive to the public perception that this $550,000-a-year job had been earmarked for a political insider.

Patrick, after meeting with two trustees to discuss the search, offered little to work with, expressing no public concern over Meehan or the search process except to say that he wanted it to be “fair and open” with a hope that it could net a leader with the ability to bring “national stature” to the five-campus system.

But Meehan - the consummate politician who now shuns that moniker since leaving Congress in 2007 - was miffed that his named had leaked, insisting he wasn’t even sure he wanted the job anyway.

Asked whether the headlines had rendered Meehan unhireable for the UMass president’s post, one knowledgeable observed note: “For any other mere mortal, yes. But for Meehan, I don’t know.”

At least Meehan has a back-up school in mind, often mentioned as a potential successor to Suffolk University President David Sargent.

Through it all, it was hard not to think that the public would have been better served with Kevin McNicholas still roaming the halls.

McNicholas, a veteran radio reporter and the dean of the State House press corps, died Thanksgiving Day after a brief bout with bladder cancer.

R.I.P., Kevin.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Political Triage

This program aired on November 26, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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