Friday, November 04, 2011

Contributions May Connect Councilor to Probation Scandal...

Councilor Ferrera (Urban Compass)
Not quite five years ago, with then Council-President Kateri Walsh looking on, Judge William Boyle swore in at-large councilor James Ferrera, III as the city’s newest councilor.  His effective predecessor, Angelo Puppolo, had resigned his seat in order to join the Massachusetts House of Representatives.  Ferrera got the gig by being only a few votes short of securing a seat in the 2005 election.  On that day, however, there was somebody other than family and friends haunting 36 Court Street who may have been among Ferrera’s most important political allies: Senator Stephen Buoniconti.

Over the years, Ferrera would receive only $100 from Buoniconti or his campaign directly even as Ferrera and members of his family would contribute thousands to Buoniconti’s campaign and other influential Beacon Hill politicians.  During this time, Ferrera would begin to work at the Probation Department, which runs under the auspices of  the commonwealth’s trial courts.  This employment began and continues when, in the word of counsel investigating the department, “[hiring] and promotion processes have been fraudulently orchestrated from beginning to end in favor of connected candidates.”

Until around the time Ferrera was sworn-in, he worked as a finance officer at Marcotte Ford in Holyoke.  Some time after that, however, Ferrera began working as an Assistant Court Services Coordinator at the Department of Probation’s Office of Community Corrections.  The exact date of that employment is not fully clear, but it does appear to correspond with the approximate time that Ferrera joined the council.  According to campaign finance records, Ferrera and his mother would donate nearly $3,000 between 2006 and 2010, the year Buoniconti ceased to be an elected official after losing last year’s district attorney race.  However, the year Ferrera joined the council he or his committee gave an annual donation of $100 dollars to State Representative Thomas Petrolati of Ludlow whom the Boston Globe called the “King of Patronage.”  The donations seemingly ended when Petrolati narrowly avoided scandal when Sal DiMasi resigned from the House amid separate accusations.

Ferrera is not the only member of the family to work in Probation while contributing generously to Buoniconti.  His cousin, Jill Cocchi works as a Probation Officer and between her and her family members, has contributed nearly $1000 to Buoniconti, including a $500 contribution in 2007, the year Ferrera joined the council.  Cocchi’s own employment started no earlier than 2005, but that could stretch back to earlier employment elsewhere with the commonwealth.  Between both families, Buoniconti received nearly $4,000 dollars.  According to the Globe's analysis of campaign records and probation documents, Buoniconti had received the most money from Probation employees after Petrolati and current House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

At the time of posting, Ferrera had not responded to a request for comment from WMassP&I on this story and his relationship  with Buoniconti.

Cocchi, whose name appears on the Globe’s 2010 list of possibly-connected employees, was linked to Ferrera after a Republican story highlighted an overpayment Ferrera’s campaign committee made to the candidate.  That story noted that Ferrera had overpaid a loan he made to his campaign by almost $4000.  The Republican reported on a letter from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance to his grandmother and campaign treasurer, Catherine Cocchi.  A search of public records and newspaper clippings linked Ferrera and Cocchi as cousins.

That Ferrera and his cousin would hold public employment is not itself surprising.  His maternal grandmother and grandfather were a firefighter and teacher respectively and   Cocchi’s father, Mark is a Springfield Police Officer.

Fmr. Sen. Stephen Buoniconti (Valley Advocate)
At no time, did either Buoniconti or Petrolati represent Ferrera in the legislature.  Furthermore, no other elected official representing Springfield or anywhere else in Massachusetts got the same amount of contributions from Ferrera as Buoniconti including Brian Lees, Gale Candaras and Puppolo who have represented Ferrera’s Palmyra street residence over the years.  With the exception of Puppolo, records confirm, none received contributions from either Ferrera or his mother Joanne after Ferrera joined the council despite the fact that Lees is now Clerk of Courts and Candaras a state senator.

Politicians giving to one another, whether one represents the other or not, is common.  However, it is not so for Springfield City Council candidates especially in the amounts Ferrera and his family have given.  Former councilor and present council candidate Bud Williams has given $450 to Petrolati over the years.  Candidate Charles Rucks gave $100 once to Buoniconti.  Of incumbent at-large councilors only Tim Rooke has ever given to Buoniconti or  Petrolati, although in the case of the latter as recently as this year.  Nevertheless Ferrera’s overall contributions to Beacon Hill politicians outstrip anything contributed by other sitting councilors and council candidates.

The Probation Department was exposed in a long term Boston Globe investigation that led to a formal investigation ordered by the Supreme Judicial Court which manages the Probation Department.  The official report produced by Independent Counsel Paul F. Ware, Jr. and unsealed last November found Probation Commissioner John  O’Brien and others "committed pervasive fraud against the Commonwealth.”   Ware found evidence of rigging in the hiring process, solicitation for campaign contributions for representatives on state property and accused the department of hiring job candidates favored by legislators in exchange for a bigger budgets. 

The report focused mostly on the side of the department that includes Probation Officers.  While it did not go into the same detail for the Office of Community Corrections, it nevertheless found that division’s processes suspect.  Stephen Price, the Executive Director of the OCC, where Ferrera works, claimed that he merely told candidates if an elected official had recommended that individual.  Both he and his deputy, Patricia Horne claimed that this played no role in the actual decision-making process of hiring.  However, the Ware report noted that Price admitted to being close to the now-indicted O’Brien and found both his and Horne’s testimony "not credible" on the matter of hiring.

Ferrera’s date of employment remains difficult to pin down due to conflicting statements Ferrera made in campaign finance reports as to his current job.  Contributors giving more $200 to a candidate in a calendar year must declare their employment.  Nevertheless, the contributions continued in 2009 a year when the Republican reported on the Probation’s strange escape from the budget axe.  In that October report, the Republican noted how the Probation Department was not included in a broader bill passed that summer which allowed the trial court to move resources where they were needed within the system.  Previously, Beacon Hill doled out resources directly to the trial court regions in what had been criticized then as a blatant recipe for patronage.  The bill that changed this shielded Probation, a unit of the Trial Court, from that same transferability hampering the Trial Court’s ability to realize efficiencies and cost savings.

Mass. State House (WMassP&I)
An, October 21 2009 Boston Globe story (link unavailable) on the same subject noted that a supplemental appropriation restored over $4.1 million to the Probation Department saving 142 jobs throughout probation.  While legislators defended the money, specifically to Probation Officers, the same article noted that while the number of probation officers had declined in recent years, the number of probation employees had gone up.  At the same time the money was approved to reduce the probation department’s anticipated cut for FY2010 by one quarter, Gov. Deval Patrick, who opposed the probation funding, was warning that 2000 state employees may be laid off.

Assistant Court Services Coordinators facilitate the community service of those on Probation and appear on the surface to provide a valuable service to the department.  However, in the Republican’s report, Buoniconti is quoted defending the oddly rapid growth of Community Corrections.  “They went from, like, zero to 100 over the past 10 years,” Buoniconti told the Republican.  He said at the time that it made sense because prisons and county jails could close or merge.  On the other hand, the Ware report charged Probation Department leaders with handing out jobs to the connected in exchange for Beacon Hill’s largesse.

The 2007 job description for coordinators only requires an associates degrees and among other things mandates applicants must be able to drive a vehicle.  Indeed, some in City Hall have described Ferrera’s job as simply driving a van, although the average coordinator does do more than that.  Nevertheless, Ferrera, a graduate of AIC with a degree in Marketing does appear to meet the rather minimal requirements of the coordinators.  However, in light of their role in reducing pressure on prisons and jails, those minimal requirements seem themselves suspiciously low however benevolent the duties of coordinators are.

Since the scandal broke O’Brien has been arrested and indicted.  The agency’s top lawyer has been removed and, according to the Boston Phoenix, a senior member of the Probation Department Hampshire County Office has also been suspended (the AG denies he has been arrested).  At this point, further prosecutions are more likely to be focused on the politicians that received donations and provided Probation‘s funds.

However, Ferrera is, according to the Boston Globe’s May, 2010 list of scandal-linked employees, the only one currently serving in elected office himself.  A spokesman for US Attorney Carmen Ortiz would not even confirm any investigation was ongoing.  Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office would neither confirm not deny that any employees, including Ferrera in particular, were under investigation.

The National Association of Government Employees, an SEIU local, has filed suit against the state over unfair promotions of some politically connected members.  The NAGE did not return a request for clarification as to whether it represents Community Corrections officials in addition to probation officers.  Still the union’s suit, which could harm members that got any job with political connections, appears to bolster the impression the union is more interested in fairness in hiring than defending employees whose positions may be ill-gotten.

Contributions to Ferrera’s own campaign may cause him trouble, albeit more so politically than legally.  In comparison to the grassroots flavor of his 2005 campaign, recent reports read like a who’s who of political movers and shakers in the Pioneer Valley from former Springfield mayor Michael Albano to developer Frank Colacchino to more than $1300 from the Callahan family and their lawyer Frank Fitzgerald.  The Callahan family, owners of Palmer Renewable Energy, gave several contributions after Ferrera missed the hearing wherein the council revoked PRE’s biomass permit.  His absence was attributed to a family emergency at the time.

Ferrera’s tenure on the council may be described as hit or miss.  He often berates city officials for not purchasing services from city business, but his own campaign farmed out printing to an Agawam company.  Though charged by President Jose Tosado to write a bill to correct succession for vacant ward seats, Ferrera, chair of the General Government Committee only produced a bill that would codify the existing controversial defect.

While anecdotally, he has some support from members of the community in part due to constituent responsiveness he has never appeared to have much respect from his colleagues.  On more than one occasion Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards called out Ferrera for offering seemingly misleading or unsupported facts and proposals to the council.

Bud Williams (Facebook)
Nevertheless as elections have gone by since 2007, Ferrera has hung on, if at times only barely.  In the September primary, he was the fifth highest vote getter falling behind one-time councilor and close friend of Ferrera’s Bud Williams, himself a former Probation Officer and aligned with those from the city’s shadier past.

Over the years, Ferrera has subtly transformed from a seeming outsider to an example of Springfield political excesses even as he is often frozen out by colleagues and keeps up the outsider front.  Since Buoniconti left office, Ferrera and his campaign have contributed almost nothing to other political candidates in Massachusetts.  In the meantime, the Probation Department remains under a cloud.  With more indictments believed to be coming, especially in “King” Petrolati’s backyard, Ferrera and anybody who donated generously to select members of the legislature may find themselves in the hot seat as a witness or possibly worse.

**This post has been updated to reflect a clarification of Buoniconti's place among other politicians receiving money from probation employees.

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