BOSTON (State House News Service) – Rep. James Lyons is laying the groundwork to potentially seek a House Ethics Committee investigation into what role lawmakers played in probation department hiring, aiming to draw out more information on patronage now tainted with criminality.
The Andover Republican, who is not being challenged by a Democrat this fall, said he is compiling information and will potentially take a step toward seeking an official House review within the next 30 days.
After three former probation officials were convicted last Thursday of federal crimes for rigging hiring in the department, steering jobs to politically wired applicants, Lyons said he wants to learn more about the other side of the equation: the lawmakers whose political influence infused the hiring.
“Clearly the legislators were actively involved in the whole process of what was taking place in the probation department,” Lyons told the News Service. He said, “The folks who were convicted did not operate in a vacuum.”
Last Friday, Reps. Shaunna O’Connell, Marc Lombardo, Geoff Diehl and Lyons wrote a letter to House Counsel James Kennedy asking “how to initiate an ethics investigation into this matter.” The Boston Herald reported on the letter last weekend.
The four Republicans are often at odds with party leadership in the House, which takes a less antagonistic approach toward working with the Democratic majority. In a May radio interview, Lyons said, “In my opinion we have to change the leadership within the Republican Party.”
While he declined to share Kennedy’s response, Lyons said the House attorney was “very forthcoming” and said “we need to prepare an affidavit.” Kennedy declined to comment to the News Service.
A former aide to House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Kennedy testified during the trial about a legislative idea from probation officials, which never became actual legislation. During the trial, federal prosecutors marked the speaker and another former aide to DeLeo as unindicted co-conspirators. The jury determined former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien gave House members illegal gratuities in the form of the ability to recommend supporters for jobs in the probation department. The same jury found it unproven those jobs constituted bribes.
Current and former members of the House testified at the trial that DeLeo, who was then chairman of Ways and Means, and his former aide Leonard Mirasolo offered them the opportunity to recommend a person for jobs, and said there was no quid pro quo.
The allegations have angered DeLeo, who followed three speakers that either pled guilty or were found guilty of various federal crimes.
“My integrity and how people view me as a speaker are very important to me. They look at me and say there’s an honest speaker of the House,” DeLeo told NECN. He said, “One thing that I can suggest is that I’m going to leave this job on my own terms.”
DeLeo claimed federal prosecutors cleared him of any wrongdoing and named him a co-conspirator merely as a procedural move to allow hearsay evidence.
“They did a four-year investigation, found that I, you know, they had done nothing wrong, that there was no impropriety,” DeLeo said.
The speaker’s office declined to comment on Lyons’ efforts. Since the verdict, DeLeo has not been made available for an interview with the News Service, though he has appeared on television programs. The U.S. Attorney’s office has declined commenting on DeLeo’s remarks.
Peter Lorenz, spokesman for House Minority Leader Brad Jones, said Jones is “not aware of any formal request being made to the House Committee on Ethics by members of the Republican Caucus. Therefore, he cannot comment on something that is non-existent.”
After taking up no matters last session, the House Ethics Committee has been tasked with at least two issues since the start of the two-year session in 2013 – which began with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, then a member of the House, as chairman.
John Fresolo, a Worcester Democrat, resigned from the House after a committee investigation. Carlos Henriquez, a Dorchester Democrat who was convicted of assault and battery in January, decided not to resign his House seat and was removed from the House by his colleagues after an Ethics Committee report recommended his expulsion.
On Tuesday, Walsh told WGBH he didn’t think O’Brien was guilty.
“I don’t think so. Being in the Legislature for so long one of the things that I was responsible for – not responsible for, but expected of by a lot of people – was writing letters of recommendation and trying to help people’s employment just like I try to help on anything,” Walsh said on the Boston Public Radio program. “It seemed like it was an easy target to target the whole Legislature.”
A potential second federal trial against the same three former probation officials on federal bribery charges is tentatively scheduled for February, which would be the start of what is likely DeLeo’s final session as speaker. DeLeo himself pushed through the eight-year term limit on the speakership right after taking office in 2009.
Of the four Republicans who inquired about the process of initiating an ethics investigation, O’Connell is the only member of the Ethics Committee, whose members are prohibited from speaking about investigations.
Lyons said O’Connell might take a diminished role in asking for an investigation, and said he did not know whether there would be blowback from his colleagues.
“We believe that this conviction speaks to the corruption that took place in the probation department, and the perception, I believe, is the corruption has been allowed to exist on Beacon Hill,” Lyons said.
House rules allow the Ethics Committee to conduct an investigation after a written complaint, at the direction of the speaker or by a majority vote of the members of the committee. With the departure of Walsh, the committee has six Democrats and four Republicans, with Lowell Rep. David Nangle holding the position of vice chairman.
Lyons, Lombardo, Diehl and O’Connell are a vocal group but have failed on multiple occasions to even garner enough support to force recorded votes during House sessions. The verdict prompted Republicans and some Democrats to decry corruption.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Don Berwick said, “The latest round of patronage shenanigans are, sadly, all too familiar. Legislative leaders who were complicit by their actions or by their silence have allowed taxpayer dollars to be wasted, and, worse, have once again damaged faith in government.”
A major argument of the defense was that O’Brien and his two co-defendants, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, were not operating any differently than other officials at state agencies. In their opening statements, defense attorneys noted who wasn’t charged by prosecutors.
“No judge is charged, no legislator is charged,” said defense lawyer John Amabile in his opening.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Denner said, “If in fact the allegations are correct, then you need a lot more courtrooms and a lot more buildings to put all the people who should be defendants in this case. It’s pretty clear this is not a crime where you need those buildings to round everybody up, legislators, judges, law enforcement people, attorneys general, everybody who’s been a part of this entire process. I suspect that if it were a crime those people would be answerable as well. They’re not, so I don’t think these people should be either.”