, Salem, MA


May 20, 2014

Our view: Probation trial exposes corrupt world of patronage

You can always assume that an employee hiring based solely on being a state representative’s cousin, or the daughter of a favored donor, or some such cozy arrangement, is going to result in, er, subpar performers.

And that is exactly what we are seeing as the state puts Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and his two top cronies on trial for corruption. O’Brien oversaw a department that handed out good-paying jobs to the friends and families of state lawmakers and their favored coterie. Prosecutors say he manipulated the interview process to ensure that the best qualified candidates lost out to those who had political favor.

O’Brien argues that he’s done nothing wrong, that he was acting in the well-established ways that lawmakers had laid out for him. It’s the well-worn path of patronage hires.

Sadly, he is right. There is nothing really new here. It’s as if an old and mossy rock has been overturned, and we are shocked to see the various crawling, scuttling and fleeing creatures that live underneath it. Truth is, they’ve been there all along, we just didn’t bother to look.

The patronage system is as old in Massachusetts as the hallowed Puritans themselves, who were not above concocting colonial government jobs for a well-connected (and unemployable) family member. It’s hardly confined to Massachusetts: Rhode Island seems to be very familiar with it.

None of that makes it right, of course. It’s good to see it rooted out and exposed, as prosecutors are doing right now.

Each day, the trial is trotting out another tale of an unqualified person led by the nose to the front of the line, passing by people who are far better suited for the job.

One fine example is Patrick Lawton, the scion of a South Shore political family who was put up for a job by Senate President Therese Murray.

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