Murphy Calls Probation Probe the ‘Elephant In The Living Room’

By Kyle Cheney

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, DEC. 13, 2011…..Law enforcement probes into legislatively-driven patronage in the probation department could lead to conclusions that will require changes in the Massachusetts House, according to Rep. Charles Murphy, the Burlington Democrat ousted from his leadership post last week by Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Murphy, who aspires to succeed DeLeo when the Winthrop Democrat gives up the gavel, acknowledged Monday that he discussed the law enforcement probes during private meetings he held with House members to let them know he intends to be a candidate for the top House job whenever it opens up.

“What I did speak to was – and it’s the elephant in the living room – probation. There is a probe going. Everybody is aware of that,” Murphy said during a TV interview on WGBH’s “Greater Boston.” “Nobody knows to what degree or to what extent. And I said who knows what’s going to happen with that and I’d pretty much leave it at that.”

Murphy continued: “It’s speculative. And nobody knows. As we sit here today nobody knows if anybody is getting indicted, if the feds are doing this, if the attorney general is doing it. Nobody knows. The rumor is, or the accepted rumor appears to be, that something is out there and something’s going to happen and we have to adapt when the time comes. That’s all. But again, for doing that, and for having the audacity to do that, the speaker wasn’t happy.”

A DeLeo spokesman declined to comment.

Murphy resigned his post as House majority whip last week shortly before DeLeo was prepared to call on House Democrats to remove him. DeLeo declined to elaborate on his reasons for removing Murphy other than to say he wanted to reshuffle his team to advance a 2012 agenda. But the speaker’s defenders said the demotion was over accusations that Murphy had been jockeying to succeed him.

Nearly a week after being relegated to the House backbench by DeLeo, the former House budget chief and assistant majority leader said he “absolutely” wants to become speaker some day but said he feels he’s up against a tradition in which speakers orchestrate the handoff of the gavel to a preferred member. His decision to go on the air with his grievances days after last week’s turmoil had subsided suggests that Murphy may plan to maintain a high profile as his public defection continues to play out.

If elected speaker, Murphy said he would empower committee chairs to advance bills without sign-off from the speaker’s office, which he said is “too often” the practice in the DeLeo-led House.

“What I would do is change the mindset. I would change the mindset and it would start with the membership,” Murphy said. “I would make it very clear with the membership that the chairmen, chairwomen of committees own their committees -that if you have a bill you want to put out, don’t ask my permission, just put it out. But recognize the fact that you own it.”

DeLeo rose to power with the support of his predecessor, Salvatore DiMasi, and after fending off a challenge from former House Majority Leader John Rogers, an ally of former Speaker Thomas Finneran who was unable to win the speakership when the gavel was passed from Finneran to DiMasi.

In November 2010, an independent counsel appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court to examine allegations of patronage in the state Probation Department, stunned Beacon Hill when he issued a 300-page report documenting “systemic abuse and corruption” within the agency, and described “statistical evidence” to show that lawmakers played a role. In particular, the report indicated that lawmakers had frequently recommended candidates for jobs in the Probation Department and that those “politically anointed candidates” were hired in exchange for an increased budget for the agency.

The report, issued by attorney Paul Ware, was referred to prosecutors in the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley and U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, as well as to the State Ethics Commission, the Board of Bar Overseers and the state inspector general.

DeLeo was named in the report as a sponsor of 12 candidates, seven of whom were hired or promoted, including his godson Brian Mirasolo. DeLeo was also in the report’s list of the top 20 “most-frequent recipients of contributions from Probation Department employees since 2000.”

“Independent Counsel did not uncover direct evidence that legislators were explicitly offering to sponsor candidates in exchange for campaign contributions, but there is statistical evidence that ‘pay for play’ was the reality,” according to the report.

At the time Ware noted DeLeo’s cooperation with the probe and said, “I have no reason to believe Speaker DeLeo did anything inappropriate. I do not think [the report] sheds any negative light on Speaker DeLeo.” Ware also added that key witnesses – Probation Commissioner John O’Brien, who has since been removed from his post, former DeLeo deputy Rep. Thomas Petrolati, and former House Speaker Thomas Finneran – exercised their Fifth Amendment rights to avoid testifying.

DeLeo’s aides latched onto Ware’s comments to suggest that “there should be no feeling of any impropriety on behalf of the speaker.” But Ware’s deputy counsel emphasized that the report drew no conclusions about the speaker’s or any lawmakers’ role in promoting patronage.

“The report does not accuse any politician of criminal conduct in connection with hiring or exonerate any politician. We only drew conclusions with respect to individuals in the Probation Department,” said Kevin Martin, deputy independent counsel to Paul Ware, the veteran prosecutor tapped by the Supreme Judicial Court to investigate allegations of patronage and abuse in the department. “While we did not find any specific evidence of wrongdoing by Rep. DeLeo, that was not our focus. We leave it to other government agencies to follow up on the statistical evidence we noted with respect to legislators.”

About Statehouse News Service