Political patronage is here to stay; let’s talk about ways to do it right

The judge got it right in sentencing former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and two of his top aides. They were instruments for others who formulated a plan to facilitate patronage. Under the circumstances, severe sentences were unwarranted.

A former legal counsel to Gov. Francis Sargent, Federal District Court Judge William Young is certainly familiar with the role patronage plays in state government. As old as human institutions, patronage has been, and will continue to be, a factor in the hiring process. People need jobs, and politicians need to do favors. Most people who contribute to or work in political campaigns hope to realize some benefit.

There is nothing wrong with sponsoring or recommending a candidate for a position. Many sponsored candidates are highly qualified, but just being “connected” should not be enough. The problem is one of degree, involving the creation of unnecessary jobs; the rigging of the selection process to exclude unsponsored applicants; and the hiring or promoting unqualified candidates.
O’Brien himself was a patronage appointment. He was placed in charge of the probation department to do precisely what he did: Provide direct access to well paying jobs for powerful politicians. Most judges knew what was happening, and some participated in it.

Judicial leaders were reluctant to confront legislative leaders, who controlled judicial salaries and budgets. Rather than rock the boat, they tolerated a system that was patently unfair. While those responsible for the administration of justice viewed fairness as essential in the courtroom, they failed to assure its application in the management of the court system.

A handful of judges led by the late Springfield District Court First Justice Robert Kumor and the late Clerk-Magistrate of Dorchester District Court Richard Dwyer took it upon themselves to expose the scheme. Knowing the powers that be would only act when they had to, they cooperated with the Globe Spotlight Team’s investigation.

Early on, the problem should have been addressed administratively. Had O’Brien been forcefully confronted by judicial administrators, he could have explained to sponsors that his power of appointment was restricted by a selection process that had been designed to at least control patronage by limiting his authority. The best he could do was assure that sponsored candidates would be considered, not that they would be selected.

Instead, he involved others in corrupting the process, not for personal gain but because he believed that is what he was there for. His budget was increased, not in exchange for his compliance, but to create more jobs that would be accessible to legislative leaders. The selection process provided O’Brien with a way out, but he didn’t take it.

By channeling all probation appointments through O’Brien, legislative leaders made a diffuse problem more visible with O’Brien failing to realize he would be the fall guy if and when the system was exposed. It was not the patronage that did him in; it was the rigging of a system designed to foster merit-based appointments.

Patronage is not going away. The only way to control it is to establish selection procedures that restrict the appointing authority to candidates approved by an impartial panel charged with interviewing and rating candidates based on their qualifications. Such a panel existed within the probation department; O’Brien’s crime was in subverting it.

This case should encourage such panels. Among other things they would provide cover to administrators who feel pressured to make appointments based solely on the recommendations of powerful sponsors.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.