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Editorial: A system that remains broken

Any way you cut it, what emerges from the din of a federal trial that unfolded this month in U.S. District Court in Worcester is a state probation department that is petty and mean-spirited at best, and highly dysfunctional at worst.

The lens through which the community sees this not-so-pretty picture is the federal trial of Christopher Hoffman, of Hatfield, who was formerly acting probation chief of the Hampshire Superior Court.

Hoffman, now on leave without pay, was removed from the post in October 2011 amid an FBI investigation into the conduct of William H. Burke III, also of Hatfield, former deputy probation commissioner.

Burke, 69, was indicted in a federal probe into alleged corruption within the probation department. He pleaded not guilty to charges that he conspired in a scheme involving bribery and fraud in which hirings and promotions in the probation department favored people with connections to elected politicians.

No lawmakers have been charged in connection with this probe, though in addition to Burke, two other officials in the probation department face criminal charges.

Hoffman’s trial before U.S. District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman ended in mistrial last Monday when the jury told Hillman it was hopelessly deadlocked after two days of deliberations.

A re-trial date has been set for July 15, when Hoffman will again face two federal counts of witness tampering connected to allegations he harassed and intimidated former probation officer Maureen Adams, who was supervised by Hoffman in the Northampton probation office.

Prosecutors say Hoffman believed his job security was threatened when Adams was being questioned by FBI investigators about Hoffman’s relationship with Burke.

The ins and outs of this particular trial seem almost irrelevant to the bigger problem at hand, which is a broken system that hires and promotes people based on who they know, not the skills they bring to bear, their experience, or how they do their jobs, as was established in a special report authored by Paul F. Ware in 2010.

Some of the testimony in the trial revealed workplace practices that while not illegal, certainly are questionable.

One person testified that twice he’d found out that he had been promoted when Burke came into the bar where he worked to let him know.

That witness also testified that he felt every job he held in the probation department was one for which he was fully qualified.

But that is one of the things that gets very muddy when hiring practices are not above reproach.

In the Ware report, Burke admitted giving special treatment to job applicants put forward by elected officials, including state Rep. Thomas Petrolati, D-Ludlow.

Last September, 10 probation jobs were ordered reposted after an arbitrator ruled that many former candidates for the jobs had been unfairly passed over for transfers or promotions in favor of other candidates who had political connections, but were less qualified.

Certainly, this type of ruling shakes the public’s faith in the system.

But another insidious side effect of hiring practices that fail to follow basic protocols that ensure fair and impartial hiring decisions is that even when people are qualified for the jobs they hold, they can never really escape the haunting questions about whether they got the job because they are good, or because of who they know.

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