By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- Gov. Charlie Baker welcomed new Public Safety Secretary Tom Turco to his cabinet on Thursday and bid farewell to outgoing secretary Dan Bennett in the first post-election shakeup of the administration's senior leadership team.
Turco, who until Wednesday ran the Department of Correction as commissioner, said he looks forward to building on the work of Bennett to improve outcomes for prisoners reintegrating to society, and pledged to continue moving forward with the investigation into overtime abuse at the State Police.
Bennett, meanwhile, said he was leaving to pursue unspecified opportunities in the private sector, and Baker dismissed the notion that the change may have had something to do with the overtime scandal that he admitted has left a "stain" in the police agency.
Bennett's departure was announced on Tuesday, and Turco was officially sworn in as secretary on Wednesday while Baker was in Washington, D.C. attending the state funeral for former President George H.W. Bush
Baker credited Bennett with helping his administration transform operations at Bridgewater State Hospital, fight the opioid epidemic and implement reforms at the State Police, including the use of GPS on cruisers.
"Working in this secretariat surrounded by emergency responders takes grit, which Secretary Bennett undoubtedly has," Baker said.
Asked whether the State Police overtime scandal had anything to do with the change in leadership at the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, Baker said, "No.
"I think it's really important for people to remember that it was under Secretary Bennett's leadership that the investigation that ultimately unraveled the incredible circumstances and allegations of fraud was led by him and by his office," Baker said.
Turco, who worked as undersecretary for criminal justice before taking over the Department of Correction, said that he hoped to sit down with Bennett to learn more about the status of the investigation, but had no opinion on State Police Col. Kerry Gilpin's ability to continue to lead the force.
"I have not met the colonel at all so I'm looking forward to sitting down with the colonel and having a conversation," Turco said.
Fresh off winning re-election in November, Baker would not say whether he expected any other members of his cabinet to leave at the start of his second term besides Bennett and Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash, who is pursuing the top job at the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership.
"We expect that between now and January the dust will settle on a lot of that stuff, but as of right now I'm not going to comment on anybody other than Secretary Bennett," Baker said.
Bennett would not say what his next move will be, indicating that he's exploring multiple options. "I've got a number of opportunities in the private sector that I'm looking at right now," Bennett said.
Bennett described Turco as a determined public servant who never seeks the limelight, and the governor mentioned his work to create an automotive skills training program for inmates in Milford that has served as vocational education for prisoners.
"He's the perfect person for this job," Bennett said.
A former prosecutor in Worcester County, Bennett has served as the top public safety official in Baker's cabinet since the Republican governor took office in 2015. Bennett joked Thursday about how he told Baker during his interview that he took the meeting because he had never met a governor before.
Baker described Bennett as a valuable member of his team, who often used humor to break the tension during difficult cabinet meetings and had "an uncanny ability to weave a football analogy into any discussion."
During the gubernatorial campaign, Baker's opponent, Democrat Jay Gonzalez, called on the governor to fire Bennett. Gonzalez said Baker had not done enough to address the ongoing overtime abuse scandal at the Massachusetts State Police, which falls under Bennett's jurisdiction.
"The buck stops with him as secretary of public safety, and he's responsible for making sure the State Police and every agency under his watch is serving the public, and he's fallen down on that job," Gonzalez said in September.
Turco started his career in 1988 as a probation officer in Florida. Over the course of his career, he has worked in multiple counties, including as chief probation officer of the Worcester Superior Court, overseeing operations for 12 years.
In 2015, Baker made Turco undersecretary of criminal justice, a role in which he provided direction to the Department of Correction, Parole Board and the Sex Offender Registry Board and served as a liaison to the County Sheriffs.
He was appointed as commissioner of the Department of Correction in 2016. Carol Mici, currently assistant deputy commissioner of the Department of Correction, will serve as acting commissioner during the transition.