Patronage and Power

It's a big problem that, after four years, a lot of folks on Beacon Hill don't seem to know what went wrong with the Probation Department.

Photo via Associated Press

John O’Brien leaves court after closing arguments / Photo via Associated Press

After Deval Patrick got caught making that call to Citigroup on behalf of Ameriquest these many years ago, it occurred to me that people who ascend to powerful positions should receive training on the nature of power as currency, how it is perceived by others, and when it is and isn’t appropriate to trade in it. Because, frankly, it isn’t always clear and obvious.

Those lessons would still be handy around Beacon Hill, where an awful lot of people seem to have no idea, after four years, what anybody did wrong in the Probation Department patronage scandal—which on Thursday resulted in convictions for John O’Brien and two others.

“It makes me angry that the people are trying to make the things we do for our constituents suddenly a bad thing,” House Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad told the Globe the other day. Which is essentially the same thing a high-ranking Patrick administration official ranted to me at a holiday party soon after the Ware Report came out in 2010: that suddenly the perfectly innocent and appropriate act of writing a letter of recommendation for a constituent is being treated like an unethical act.

I have sympathy for these folks because I believe that for the most part they really did mean well and—because they didn’t get the training I’m talking about—they really have no idea that what they’re saying is utter bullshit.

A letter of recommendation from the House Speaker or Senate President or Ways & Means Committee Chair is not just a letter of recommendation to the person receiving that letter, any more than a request from the boss to attend something after work is just a request to the underling, or a reference from the new governor to the head of a company that does business with his state is just a reference to that company head. Especially if those letters or requests are followed up with calls checking in on whether action was taken.

That doesn’t make it illegal. But it’s not a simple, innocent letter.

Let me use a cultural reference: If your husband is Tony Soprano, your request for a letter of reference to Georgetown for your daughter Meadow is not just a friendly request. The recommender didn’t write the letter because she appreciated the nice ricotta pie Carmela made for her, or because of Meadow’s own merit—she wrote it because, even though nobody actually said anything about breaking kneecaps, that threat is always implicit when a Soprano asks for a favor.

As for the recipients of these requests, some might treat the requests just like any others—hiring the best candidates and the best candidates only—and go no further, and they may or may not find themselves punished or not rewarded; others will find a way to accommodate a little bit to avoid finding out if there would be consequences.

And some will embrace the opportunity to curry favor with the powerful. They will want to be known as the accommodating one, the go-to for these requests, as their own way of trading in the currency of power. That’s what John O’Brien did at Probation. And this willingness can quickly become apparent to those making the requests, who then begin directing more and more requests there.

Again, that’s not inherently a crime. Managers often have discretion to hire as they please, so if they want, they can stock up with inferior staff to curry favor with powerful people. That’s a waste of government resources, and it’s unfair to other job applicants, and in some cases it can get quite extreme—witness Auditor Joe DeNucci’s office. And that’s clearly bad even if it’s not illegal.

And it’s disingenuous for the powerful people sending those requests to keep acting as if they’re just making simple requests with that ricotta pie. When you look at the sponsor lists, with certain lawmakers—especially those with the most direct power over the Probation Department—recommending a dozen or more people; or when you consider the testimony and evidence that senators knew to bring requests for Probation jobs through the senate president; it’s pretty obvious that they knew they had a particularly accommodating friend in O’Brien.

And let’s speak frankly: everybody knew Probation was a patronage dumping ground, and that was why Governor Patrick wanted control over the department, and why the legislature refused to hand it over. Governor Patrick said it to me on camera, in an interview not long before the scandal broke. That’s taking nothing away from the superb reporting of the Globe in uncovering all the stunning details.

So these were not just innocent, ordinary recommendations. What made it all illegal was that the Probation Department had a system in place to ensure a fair process for applicants, and the people running it deliberately chucked it out the window in order to accommodate hiring requests from those power players they were trying to curry favor with, in cases when the system would clearly not lead to that person getting hired.

You can’t do that. A state agency can’t set up a specified, defined process for awarding something of value, tell everybody what the process is, let everyone apply and go through that process, and then secretly award the thing of value to somebody who failed that process because somebody in power said so. That’s not patronage, that’s fraud. And that, as the jury found (quite reasonably, to the extent I can tell without having sat through the trial), is exactly what O’Brien and his accomplices did.

And then, of course, the feds have a bunch of ways to turn one crime into a whole series of them, because that’s what they and the statutes are set up to do.

Now, that’s the O’Brien side. Everybody is understandably walking around asking why the other side—the powerful legislators making the requests—aren’t prosecuted as well. How can there have been a quid without a quo?

But it’s not inherently true that the legislators knew that their very accommodating friends at Probation were committing fraud. In fact, I suspect that they didn’t know. That they didn’t really think about it.

Power is a currency on Beacon Hill, and that reality isn’t going to disappear any time soon. There will be Ways & Means chairs who use the funding of projects to build loyalty (and punish disloyalty) on the way to becoming Speaker or Senate President. There will be horse trading for votes, and wording in bills, and for office space and staff and everything else. And an awful lot of this happens implicitly, not in explicit quid pro quo exchanges.

So it really can be confusing for those same power-wielders to see that there’s anything wrong with recommending that the very accommodating people at Probation hire a certain person, whose gainful employment would earn some goodwill in the district or make their girlfriend or family member happy. Especially since that kind of thing has always happened, especially in a state like Massachusetts, where modern politics grew out of urban machine operations.

Which gets me back to where I began: the need for people who attain positions of power to have this awareness taught to them.

It’s fine to have a system where power is currency among legislators, as they perform their prescribed duties. It’s not fine if power is used like Carmela’s ricotta pie to get anybody to do what you want without a lot of questions.

And I’ll close with another favorite Sopranos moment (with apologies, I swear I’m not trying to tie any Italian-American stereotypes to Bob DeLeo; it’s just a great show). His therapist has essentially just suggested that normal people don’t resort to physical brutality. Tony, clearly perplexed, asks in response: “then how do you get people to do what you want?”

The answer, of course, is that you’re not always supposed to get what you want. Not even if you’re the Speaker, or the Senate President, or whoever else. That can be difficult for some people to see, whether their accustomed technique for getting what they want is leg-breaking or budget-writing.