State House Roundup: Legal Etchings

A summer-like breeze wafted through the capitol corridors Friday, the collective exhale of elected leaders releasing their breath after months of anticipation of indictments.

Jittery pols, for now, appear unscathed – in a legal sense.

Far from the nuclear fallout some feared, federal indictments from the investigation into probation department hiring finally landed this week at the feet of predictable suspects, accompanied by the not-exactly-inspiring caveat from prosecutors that patronage is not a crime. Prosecutors, however, noted that their investigation remains ongoing.

That means potential ramifications for legislators seeking re-election under a cloud of suspicion remain real as prosecutors look to secure convictions against three former probation department managers accused of using a rigged hiring scheme to bring on board sometimes unqualified candidates recommended by state lawmakers.

Meanwhile, a whole new generation of political junkies were introduced, courtesy of Mitt Romney’s brain trust, to the 1960’s toy sensation the Etch A Sketch, somehow befitting a candidate who can sometimes seem trapped in another era. And while he might have enjoyed the Romney camp’s stumble, the enduring Republican assault on Gov. Deval Patrick’s jobs record had to leave the governor thinking it might be nice to simply shake and start over.

Massachusetts began the week by opening a report card to find it received a grade of C for government corruptibility from the Center for Public Integrity – a middling grade to be sure, but one that put the state in the company of 19 others on a scale where no one state received higher than a B +.

It went downhill from there with former Rep. Brian Wallace admitting in court to campaign finance violations, and the Moakley courthouse once again taking center stage.

In the annals of Bay State political corruption, the book is still being written on the probation department scandal, but the federal indictments unveiled Friday by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz failed to advance the plot very far, except if we’re talking about possible political ambitions.

As already detailed in the 2010 Ware report, Ortiz threw the book at former probation commissioner John O'Brien and his two former top deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III for an alleged hiring scheme for which sponsor lists were kept, application scores fudged and jobs delivered to the unqualified but politically connected.

Missing were the names of politicians long rumored to be swept up in the corruption scandal, and answers to the question of whether or not lawmakers were privy to the rigged system, or knowingly boosting funding for O’Brien’s agency in exchange for jobs.

The indictment contained only thinly veiled references to underqualified applicants recommended by unspecified lawmakers, Senate President Therese Murray, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and former Speakers Sal DiMasi and Thomas Finneran.


“My office receives many requests for assistance each year, including requests for public, private and institutional referrals. But we have no control over any hiring process and the indictment does not suggest that I was aware of any fraudulent conduct within the probation department,” Murray said in statement.

Though Ortiz insisted the investigation was an ongoing process, the indictment lacked that smoking gun, or even a hint of rock-solid evidence that might link lawmakers who recommended job candidates to a broader hire-for-funding budget scheme.

“There's a lot of patronage that was clearly going on, but patronage in and of itself is not illegal,” Ortiz said.

If you’re a lawmaker, it’s this line that might have provided some comfort from an otherwise unsettling election-year script written for political opponents.

“At all times, I have only recommended candidates I believe to be qualified to fill the positions. It is up to the hiring authority to determine the most qualified in accordance with state law,” DeLeo said in a statement.

The winner in all of this could be Ortiz, herself, who has - purposefully or not - inserted herself into the conversation for governor in 2014. If last Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in Southie was notable for the side-by-side comparison of potential 2014 gubernatorial candidates, Friday’s press conference at the Moakley courthouse gave Ortiz the stage to herself, again.

What should have been good news – 9,100 jobs added in February, and an additional 7,300 jobs added in January above previous reports – got lost in the intensified skepticism of jobs reports in general after the Bureau of Labor Statistics proved last week that gains and losses might as well be tabulated on Eric Fehrnstrom’s Etch A Sketch.

Fehrnstrom, a former Herald scribe-turned-Massachusetts Republican king-maker, got a little too cute this week in a CNN interview describing how Team Romney planned to pivot from a bruising GOP nominating contest to a general election matchup against President Obama.

“I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again,” Fehrnstrom said.

The comments might have rung true to political operatives who know the themes, issues and focus of a general election can vary widely from inter-party primary squabbles. The Etch A Sketch metaphor, however, fit all too nicely with the whack on Romney that he can be whatever he needs to be at any time to satisfy his ambitions.

While even Romney acknowledged that his long-time sidekick had figuratively stepped in it, you can’t accuse Fehrnstrom of lacking a sense a humor about the clear gaffe, Tweeting, “Etch A Sketch stock is up? Psst, I'll mention Mr. Potato Head next. Buy Hasbro.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley, Treasurer Steven Grossman and Patrick rounded out the five-member Gaming Commission with two final appointments, and Joint Rule 10 day came and went this week with legislative committees rendering verdicts on hundreds of bills filed over the past 15 months. Among highlights were endorsements of bills increasing the minimum wage to $10 an hour, introducing competitive bidding to long-term renewable energy contracts and reforming voter registration laws.

Some committees requested extensions to deal with bills relating to the bottle redemption law and paperless ticketing for concerts and sporting events, while other bills were released reluctantly, i.e. one bill lifting the statute of limitations on child sex crimes.

After releasing the bill from the notoriously stingy Judiciary Committee, the committee co-chairman Rep, Eugene O’Flahery had his colleagues buzzing after defending himself in an email from perceived personal attacks levied by a Boston Globe columnist over his opposition to the bill.

So hurt was O’Flaherty by the implication that he didn’t care about children, the Chelsea Democrat said that after 10 years of helming the Judiciary Committee, and tackling some of the more emotional and controversial issues facing the Legislature, he would not seek the post next session if re-elected.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The wait for indictments is over, or is it?

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It's really difficult for people to see the whole picture. I understand because Scott is complex. He's not just the regular chocolate, he's the chocolate with all the nougat and the caramel and the nuts.” – Gail Huff, former WCVB-TV reporter, Digney Fignus video star and spouse of U.S. Sen. Scott Brown. Brown has been called a lot of things, good and bad, but Huff’s depiction of her husband this week in a national magazine may have endeared the Republican to a whole new subset of sweets-loving voters. Interviewed for an Esquire magazine profile of Brown, Huff lamented that the press often focuses on single issues while losing sight of the bigger picture.

This program aired on March 23, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


More from WBUR

Listen Live