Making a Federal Case Out of Patronage in Probation Is Not as Easy as It Sounds

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Many people on Beacon Hill were expecting the news to be worse than it was last week when a federal grand jury issued indictments in connection with an alleged hiring scandal in the Massachusetts Probation Department.

The indictments were limited to three former top officials in the department: John J. O’Brien, former Probation Commissioner; Elizabeth V. Tavares, First Deputy Probation Commissioner; and William H. Burke, III, a Deputy Probation Commissioner.

The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts had been investigating the department’s hiring practices for months, and right up to the moment on March 22 when the grand jury made the indictments public, rumors swirled around the State House that some legislators would be charged.

The next day, there was a lot of talk in the media about legislators breathing a huge sigh of relief because the indictments had left the State House untouched.

I don’t know if anyone in the building was actually sighing, but if they were, I imagine they weren’t for long because avoiding an indictment is not the same as extricating yourself from this story first brought to us by the Boston Globe.

If you are a member of the legislature and had succeeded in getting your favored candidates jobs in Probation time and again, you can’t help but be concerned at the prospect of former Commissioner O’Brien and his deputies going to trial.

O’Brien and company are undoubtedly angry about the legal predicament they are in, and the legal predicament that the legislators they helped are not in. It’s the kind of anger that might lead the indicted parties to say all sorts of things now to the U.S. Attorney.

When you think about it, maybe that’s why the feds played the indictments the way they did: to get the appointed officials to tell tales about the elected officials. Politicians make bigger trophies than bureaucrats.

I have a friend who has never seen what all the fuss about patronage in Probation was about. “What did they do that was different from what politicians have always done, and what their constituents want them to do, and demand that they do, which is get jobs for people in their districts?” he asks.

This same gentleman, who once served in the Massachusetts House, predicts that O’Brien, Tavares and Burke will all be found innocent if they go to trial. “This is a weak case,” he says. “What did O’Brien and the others (allegedly) get in return for their contributions to this ‘scheme’? The feds can’t point to anything.”

After reading the entire indictment against O’Brien and the others, I have to admit my friend has a point.

“Between 2000 and 2010, the defendants…devised and intended to devise a scheme and artifice to defraud and to obtain money and property,” the indictment says, “by means of false and fraudulent pretenses and representations, in that the defendants and their co-conspirators did award employment and promotions to individuals who were solicited from and sponsored by members of the state legislature and others when those sponsored individuals were not the most qualified candidates who had applied for the employment or promotion.

“In so doing,” the indictment continues, “the defendants obtained money and property, to wit, jobs and salaries for individuals who were not the most qualified candidates, but who had the sponsorship of a member of the state legislature or some other individual of significance to members of the enterprise.”


Doesn’t that say that the “money and property” derived from this alleged scheme consisted of the jobs and salaries given to under-qualified applicants sponsored by legislators?

If so, what did O’Brien, Tavares and Burke get?

I’m no Perry Mason, but I predict that the defense lawyers will make this a major argument to the jury: What did our clients derive from this so-called scheme?

And with the jurors pondering why only appointed officials are sitting before them at the defendants’ table, it will not be easy for the U.S. Attorney to win a conviction.

A Bill Can Be Very Good, Yet Incommensurate to the Tragedy That Inspired It

Monday, March 19, 2012

In August of 2002, I accompanied my 21-year-old daughter, Catherine, to New Mexico, where she was to begin a new job as a teacher in an elementary school for Navajo children. A newly minted graduate of Emmanuel College, an overlooked star in Boston’s educational firmament, she had made a two-year commitment to teach at the St. Bonaventure Mission in Thoreau (pronounced thuh-RUE), a small, high desert settlement seven miles east of the Continental Divide.

We flew to Albuquerque on a Sunday, rented a car at the airport, got a suite at Motel 6, and started looking for a good used car for her to buy. After three days of car shopping, we settled on a 10-year-old Honda Accord with low mileage, bought and registered it, arranged financing and insurance, and returned the rental. On Thursday morning, we headed to Thoreau, which is located approximately 140 miles west of Albuquerque, just off Route 40, (formerly Route 66).

For someone like me, a lifelong resident of Massachusetts with a love of cities, it didn’t look like there was a lot to Thoreau or a lot that went on there. My urban bias, I am sure, blinded me to the virtues and charms of the place. As for St. Bonaventure’s itself, it is quite interesting -- if your curiosity extends to old trailer parks.

The mission sits in a vast, flat, sun-scorched landscape stretching for miles in all directions. The teachers all live in mobile homes arrayed on an elongated loop spread over several acres. The air rings constantly with the faint whistle of a wind from the west that drives a powdery, reddish dust through the tiny cracks of window frames and doorways. On the day we drove in, tumbleweeds were blowing across the road.

The closer we got to the trailer housing the mission office, the more I wondered, How am I going to leave my daughter in such a desolate place, more than two thousand miles from her home?

Having learned in Albuquerque that the state of New Mexico operates prisons in the rural towns near Thoreau, the first thing I did when we got to her trailer was check for locks on the windows and doors. I had this terrifying picture in my mind of an escaped convict lurking in a nearby gully, watching Catherine’s trailer as darkness descended on the desert, and waiting for the moment when he could break in, beat her (or worse!) and steal away with her car.

All parents, alas, must learn to let their children go, even if one day they are heading into potentially unsafe or risky situations. It is worse to deprive them of the opportunity to go where their hearts lead them than to expose them to something that might harm them, somehow, someday. You do not want to wound their spirits, diminish their confidence, or deprive them of chances to fulfill their dreams.

Parents everywhere, in every age, have learned to accept this truth.

Catherine, I am happy to report, spent a total of three years at St. Bonaventure’s and the closest she ever came to real danger (that I am aware of) was the day the Girl Scout troop she was leading on a camping trip saw a rattlesnake up ahead on a trail they were walking. “The Navajo girls see snakes all the time, so they weren’t fazed at all,” she said, “but I couldn’t run fast enough in the opposite direction.”

Not all parents, though, are as fortunate as my wife and I, and I do not like to dwell on the unfortunate ones. Their sorrow is too great, their pain unending.

Whenever I see something on the State House News Service about Senate Bill 2006, however, I can’t help but think of the parents of Stephanie Moulton, a young woman who took a job as a counselor at a group home for mental patients in Revere not long after graduating from college. On January 20, 2011, a day she was working there alone, Stephanie was brutally murdered by one of her clients.

Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry of Peabody filed SB 2006, An Act Requiring Employees at Residential Facilities Licensed by the Department of Mental Health to Be Equipped with Panic Buttons, in the aftermath of her murder, and with the full support of Stephanie’s parents, Kim Flynn and Robert Moulton. The idea behind the legislation is to provide a level of protection to mental health workers that Stephanie tragically lacked.

I do not know Stephanie’s parents, but I’m certain that they worried about her safety when she took that job at the group home. I say that, of course, at the risk of offending those who suffer from mental illness and those who care for, and advocate for, those with mental illnesses. I apologize in advance to anyone so offended. I’m sure that the great majority of mental patients never pose a physical threat to anyone else.

And in writing this, I’m not criticizing any individual, group, program, or system.

I’m merely trying, in a way almost certainly doomed to fail because of my limitations, to commiserate with the parents of a young woman who died a violent, senseless death, a unique human being whose life of great hope and promise was ended suddenly one morning because her commitment to serve others put her in the wrong place at the worst possible moment.

SB 2006 is a good bill. I hope the legislature enacts it soon. I also hope that no parent in Massachusetts is ever again compelled, as Kim Flynn and Robert Moulton have been, to seek a scrap of consolation in imperfect solutions like panic buttons

Coakley Tries to Win Minds on a Top Court Ensnared in Presidential Race

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

“Obamacare should be the number one issue in the campaign. I think it’s the gift that keeps on giving.” - U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican Minority Leader

We keep hearing that economic conditions will determine the outcome of the contest this November between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts.

While the economy is likely to be the key “decider,” don’t discount other issues, such as the endless war in Afghanistan, a possible new war between Israel and Iran, and the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on constitutional challenges to President Obama’s health care reform legislation of 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) -- or, as the Republicans like to call it, Obamacare.

The Supreme Court is due to hear oral arguments for three days at the end of this month on the appeal by the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services of the federal court decision in Florida that Congress did not have the constitutional authority to make citizens buy health insurance or pay a penalty. In the normal course of business, the Supreme Court could decide the case as soon as this summer, when the presidential election is starting to get really hot.

If the top court kills the PPACA, the energy boost to the Republicans will be enormous. Close your eyes and imagine you’re listening to the soundtrack of the TV ad Romney will have on the air within 24 hours:

“A vote for Obama is a vote for the biggest blunder by a president in modern times: the illegal federal takeover of health care. Vote for Mitt Romney. He’ll honor our sacred constitution.”

Consider, conversely, what the Democrats could make of a favorable Supreme Court ruling:

“The Republicans tried everything imaginable – Everything! -- to destroy health care reform and the common-sense protections it provided to hardworking Americans. President Obama fought the GOP all the way to the Supreme Court, where he won an historic, lasting victory. Re-elect President Obama, the people’s champion.”

Some people believe Obama will benefit no matter how the Supreme Court decides. If the constitutionality of the PPACA is upheld, Obama will take on the aura of a courageous visionary, this line of thought goes; and if it is overturned, the core Democratic constituencies will be enraged -- and driven to express that anger by working like demons for the president’s re-election.

But with the populace evenly divided in its support and antipathy for national health care reform, a negative decision would probably turn folks who are tentative supporters of the PPACA against it, and lead them to conclude that Obama was seriously misguided in attempting reform on such a grand scale.

Looming always in the background is the experience of Massachusetts and of Governor Romney in fathering our state’s universal health care legislation, a still popular measure whose success rests on the individual mandate to purchase health insurance.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 13 arguing that the PPACA is constitutional on three grounds:

One, that the economic effects of the Massachusetts reform bill demonstrate that Congress had a rational basis to determine that “free riders,” i.e., those who decline to obtain health insurance but avail themselves of free care in emergency rooms when they are sick or injured, affect interstate commerce.

Two, that the Massachusetts experience demonstrates that the elimination of “free riding” is rationally related to the successful implementation of the other components of federal health care reform, and that Congress thus had the authority under the “necessary and proper clause” of the constitution to impose the minimum coverage requirement.

Three, that federal health care reform is necessary to address the significant interstate aspects of health care that are beyond the scope of any individual state’s authority.

You do not have to be a lawyer to profit from a close reading of the Coakley brief, which can be found at:

A good way to conclude is by citing a few of the informational gems in the Coakley brief:

· In the filing letter attached to his initial health care reform bill in July, 2005, Gov. Romney asserted, “…it is fair to ask all residents to purchase health insurance or have the means to pay for their own care. This personal responsibility principle means that individuals should not expect society to pay for their medical costs if they forego affordable health insurance options.”

· Since the enactment of health care reform in Massachusetts, the amount the state spent on care for uninsured persons from the so-called “free care pool” dropped by nearly $235 million annually over a four-year period.

· The total cost, nationwide, of providing uncompensated care to the uninsured was $43 billion in 2008, and has certainly increased significantly since then. To pay for uncompensated care, health care providers pass on the cost to private insurers, who pass on the cost to families. This cost-shifting, Congress found, increases family premiums by more than $1,000 a year on average.

It's Time This Nation Had a Serious Discussion on Presidential Blue Jeans

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

I’m kind of tired of hearing Mitt Romney’s thoughts on the economic policies of the nation. It's time for the former Massachusetts governor to address more serious and important topics.

I’d like to hear him explain, for example, how he got those blue jeans to look so perfectly faded and worn when he never wore jeans before late-2011?

Did he hire someone to wash them hundreds of times before he’d go out in public with them on?

I’d also like to know if the jeans are helping him get deeper into the obligatory “Man-of-the-People” role?

And has he consciously adopted the approach taken by Jack Nicholson when he played The Joker, i.e., “I’ll just have to let the clothes do the acting,” or have those jeans mystically provided a newfound comfort in campaigning?

Regardless of the answers, we have to hand it to Mitt. His dress-down-for-success routine has coincided with a prolonged run as the favorite in this painfully long Republican presidential primary season.

Romney is nothing if not practical. He understands that appearances do matter, that clothes do make the man, that the uniform you wear sends a very clear message.

But at least to me, there will always be something faintly comical about Romney in jeans, something a little goofy, like a tourist wearing lederhosen on his first trip to Bavaria.

Romney in jeans on stage at a high school auditorium in Michigan is like seeing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wearing love beads and a flower in his cap in Harvard Square.

I’m not saying there are no presidential candidates who can get away with wearing jeans. George W. Bush pulled it off quite nicely in his Western, brush-clearing mode. It’s impossible only for the Romneys of this world, guys whose fathers enrolled them in executive training programs in high school, whose demeanor hints they went straight from baby clothes to white shirts, neckties and blazers.

Joe Queenan, the great humorist and Wall Street Journal columnist, takes a more doctrinaire view. “Personally, I think blue jeans on an older man look ridiculous," Queenan observed, " – the French call it vieux jeune homme, which literally means ‘old young guy,’ ” (“How to Dress Like You Just Might Win,” March 3-4, 2012).

Even more than jeans, Queenan is bothered by presidential candidates wearing dress shirts without neckties. " real beef," he wrote, "is: Would it kill these guys to wear a tie every once in a while? Dress shirts literally scream: Please, please complete me with a tie. Please, please festoon me.

"OK, OK, if you're running your mouth on a beach or in a factory or while attending the Daytona 500, the tieless look is tolerable. Same deal if you're visiting a swamp or a filling station or the Bronx. But if you're up there on a dais and there's a podium right in front of you, and there's some sense that what you're saying might be important, could you please put on a dress tie to go with your dress shirt? I think they still make these things.

"Otherwise, you look like a dink. You're running for the most important office in the entire world, and here you are dressing like somebody working the night shift at Wal-Mart."

When we try too hard to fit in, I guess we all can look like dinks, which is why I probably should not wear my Red Sox cap backwards next time I attend parents weekend at my daughter's college.

Read the entire Joe Queenan column at: