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SPOTLIGHT FOLLOW-UP

Top House leader downplays finding of corruption in probation agency

By Michael Levenson and Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / November 20, 2010

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A top House leader signaled yesterday that state lawmakers were in no rush to overhaul the troubled Probation Department, following a devastating report that said the agency is riddled with fraud and “systemic corruption.’’

Representative Charles A. Murphy, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo were still digesting the report and were not ready to embrace Governor Deval Patrick’s demand that they move quickly to transfer control of the agency from the judiciary to the executive branch.

“It’s 337 pages, and we’re going to take our time to go through it,’’ Murphy told reporters outside the office of DeLeo, who has not spoken publicly about the scandal. “We’re not going to make rash judgments.’’

The governor has been trying to take control of the department since January, saying he wants to professionalize the hiring and operations of what he called a rogue agency and “let some sunshine in.’’

But Murphy’s comments, the first time a member of the House leadership has spoken about the report, indicate that the governor may have a major fight on his hands.

Murphy, a Burlington Democrat, pushed back strongly against the report, saying that nothing uncovered by Paul F. Ware Jr., the special counsel appointed by the state’s highest court following revelations by the Globe Spotlight Team, indicates that lawmakers were feeding the agency’s budget in exchange for campaign donations and jobs for their supporters.

Murphy pointed out that Ware could not prove that any legislator explicitly asked for campaign contributions in exchange for probation jobs, which could constitute bribery.

“Is there any evidence to suggest that jobs are for sale?’’ said Murphy. “Did Paul Ware say in his report that any legislator got money for jobs? The answer is no. He didn’t. It is not there. He says there is a statistical probability of something like that, a chance. That’s not evidence. And he was very clear to state that.’’

Murphy also strongly defended Representative Thomas M. Petrolati, the number three official in the House, who refused to testify under oath about his success in placing supporters on the Probation Department’s payroll. Murphy said that he still has confidence in Petrolati and that there is nothing wrong with legislators trying to find jobs for their constituents.

“Phone calls were made to help people, and I’m not going to apologize for that,’’ Murphy said. “That’s what people do. . . . And that’s what he’s done, apparently.’’

Murphy is not named in the report but acknowledged yesterday that he has tried unsuccessfully to get constituents hired at the agency.

“Clearly, there are some issues in the Probation Department that have to be addressed,’’ he said. “But I’m not going to get ahead of myself about the steps we’re going to take, because I don’t know.’’

The governor reiterated yesterday that he wants lawmakers to move swiftly to combine the Probation Department with the Parole Board and place it under his control. “I look forward to working with the Legislature on a permanent fix,’’ he said. “I’d love to see them act on it soon.’’

Republicans, meanwhile, lamented that the scathing report was released after the Nov. 2 election, which produced a Democratic sweep of statewide races.

“It’s too bad that this critical report highlighting the rampant corruption and influence peddling between multiple Beacon Hill Democrats and the Probation Department wasn’t available before Election Day,’’ Jennifer Nassour, chairwoman of the state Republican Party, said in a statement.

“We suspect this troubling report is merely a harbinger of a much bigger and pervasive problem in the way state government does its business,’’ Nassour said.

Charles D. Baker, Patrick’s vanquished Republican rival, took to his Facebook page to comment on the report.

“It’s very compelling,’’ Baker wrote. “Suffice it to say that there are huge reform opportunities all over the place here. Let’s hope it happens.’’

DeLeo remained behind closed doors for a second day since the report was released. He released a two-sentence statement Thursday that said he was studying the report and that it “appears to make some very disturbing allegations.’’

Ware’s report also names several Senate Democrats, including Senate Ways and Means chairman Steven Panagiotakos of Lowell, Mark C. Montigny of New Bedford, and Marc R. Pacheco of Taunton, among the politicians who most frequently sought jobs in the Probation Department for supporters.

Senate President Therese Murray, who is traveling in Russia, has not released any statement about the findings.

Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan said that he was continuing with his own investigation of staffing levels and procurement at the agency, to see if there was waste, fraud, or abuse.

Sullivan launched the probe this year at the request of the governor, who said that probation officials had repeatedly failed to justify their annual budget requests. Sullivan said patronage was, for decades, “a way of life’’ on Beacon Hill.

“But this investigation is suggesting something that’s worse than that,’’ he said of Ware’s report. “They’re suggesting there was a pay-to-play overlay to these job requests and that the budget amounts were reflective of their degree of cooperation. That is a corrupt element.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com; Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.

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