Sept. 19, 2011

Ex-probation chief hit with bribery charges

Bribery charge tied to Cahill fund-raiser

Former probation commissioner John O'Brien at the front door of his Quincy home.
John Tlumacki / Globe Staff
Former probation commissioner John O'Brien at the front door of his Quincy home in 2010.

A Suffolk County grand jury handed up the first criminal indictments stemming from the Probation Department hiring scandal yesterday, charging that former commissioner John J. O’Brien raised campaign contributions from his employees to help his wife obtain a job with then-state treasurer Timothy P. Cahill.

O’Brien, 54, who resigned last year after an independent counsel concluded that he had committed “pervasive fraud’’ in hiring practices during his 10-year tenure, was charged with bribery in connection with a fund-raiser he hosted for Cahill’s campaign on June 23, 2005. The event raised $11,100 for Cahill at a time when O’Brien’s wife, Laurie, was applying for a position under Cahill’s supervision, a job she started in September of that year.

The panel yesterday also indicted Cahill’s chief of staff at the time, Scott Campbell, who handled personnel issues for the treasurer’s office. The grand jury charged Campbell with illegal conspiracy to hire Laurie O’Brien as well as other campaign finance violations.


The grand jury did not indict Cahill, who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year.

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Attorney General Martha Coakley said she could seek more criminal charges as her office continues its investigation into the Probation Department.

“This is the beginning of the investigation, not the end of it,’’ Coakley said at a press conference yesterday. She said the indictments came just as the six-year statute of limitations was about to expire on some of the charges.

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz is also investigating the Probation Department, raising the possibility of federal charges.

The five state charges against O’Brien carry penalties of between one and five years in prison. The allegations represent a striking fall for a bureaucrat who once had near-total control over the Probation Department, telling subordinates whom to hire or promote on yellow Post-it notes, according to investigators.


He and two top deputies resigned rather than face disciplinary proceedings, while a third deputy was fired, after a series of articles by the Globe Spotlight team exposed the rigged hiring process.

O’Brien, who is working at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, could not be reached for comment yesterday. His lawyer, Paul Flavin, did not return a phone call. Campbell’s attorney, Charles Rankin, declined to comment through an assistant.

But Paul F. Ware Jr., the independent counsel who last year found “systemic corruption’’ in hiring practices under O’Brien, said the indictments confirmed the “facts found during the course of my investigation.

“State jobs should not be a dividend for the connected nor for existing state employees in responsible positions,’’ Ware said. “This charge strikes another blow to corruption in state government.’’

According to investigators, a probation employee approached Campbell in spring 2005 about the possibility of a job for O’Brien’s wife at the Massachusetts State Lottery, which is under the treasurer’s supervision. Campbell allegedly responded that Cahill was interested in a campaign fund-raiser and “wondered’’ whether O’Brien was open to the idea, Coakley said.


O’Brien and Campbell allegedly agreed that if O’Brien sponsored the fund-raiser, his wife would get the job, Coakley said.

Several probation officials told Ware that a top O’Brien aide asked them to attend the June 2005 fund-raiser, and dozens paid $100 a ticket to support the treasurer’s reelection. Laurie O’Brien bought two tickets.

Within days of the fund-raiser, treasury officials had tentatively offered Laurie O’Brien a difficult-to-fill night-shift computer operator position, but two weeks later they offered her a more desirable customer-service job, to which Campbell replied, “Fantastic on Laurie O’Brien.’’

O’Brien’s wife still works as an administrative assistant at the lottery, making $51,549.

“We allege that these government officials violated the public trust, trading campaign contributions for a taxpayer-funded job,’’ said Coakley.

Later in 2005, Cahill also hired O’Brien’s daughter, Kelly Rose O’Brien, who is now an analyst in the department’s unclaimed-property division. The Suffolk County grand jury handed up no indictments related to her hiring, though independent counsel Ware suggested that O’Brien’s fund-raising may have boosted his daughter’s chances as well.

The grand jury returned some of the indictments earlier this year - in February and June - but they were sealed while investigators continued working on the case, said Coakley.

The grand jury also indicted O’Brien for allegedly rigging a promotion within the Probation Department in 2005.

According to Coakley, O’Brien broke the law when he filed a statement with the court swearing that Bernard Dow’s promotion to assistant chief promotion officer in Worcester District Court was based solely on merit.

She said Dow was promoted because of the intervention of then-House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi’s office. Dow, a longtime probation employee, had tried to get promotions without success until he started giving DiMasi $500 a year in donations and asked for the now-disgraced speaker’s help, Ware’s investigation found.

An aide to DiMasi told Dow that he would get the promotion the night before he was interviewed, proving, Coakley said, that the decision was predetermined.

Campbell, 40, a longtime Cahill loyalist, was also charged with campaign violations during Cahill’s gubernatorial campaign.

Campbell, who was Cahill’s campaign manager, allegedly gave $500 in cash to three friends or relatives and asked them to write checks in the same amount for Cahill’s campaign. The scheme, she said, allowed donors to exceed the state’s $500 limit.

“We allege Campbell disguised the source of this money and therefore engaged in essentially contribution laundering to do an end-run around the contribution limits Massachusetts places in order to preserve the integrity of elections,’’ Coakley said.

In his testimony to Ware, Campbell could recall virtually nothing about Laurie O’Brien’s hiring - except to say he “definitely’’ had not talked to Cahill about it.

Asked why he used the word fantastic in response to the news that she would receive an offer, Campbell said, “I’m a very enthusiastic guy.’’

According to sources involved in the inquiry, investigators had hoped Campbell would testify against Cahill, but he has not incriminated his former boss.

But Cahill’s lawyer, Joseph Demeo, said Cahill did not violate any laws.

“There is no credible evidence to support the allegations that a job for Laurie O’Brien was the result of, or was influenced by, a fund-raiser attended by members of the Probation Department,’’ said Demeo.

Because the alleged violations occurred in 2005, the laws on the books at the time dictate the potential punishment for O’Brien. In 2009, new rules passed by the Legislature after several corruption scandals dramatically increased the penalties for ethics crimes. The penalty for bribery was increased from up to 3 years in prison and a $5,000 fine to up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

State Republicans issued a statement yesterday calling the indictments “sobering reminders that the culture that produced Sal DiMasi and 20 years of corrupt House speakers is alive and well.’’

O’Brien’s hiring practices primarily benefited Democratic politicians, including several House speakers and others in leadership positions.

“It appears one-party control of government has bowed again toward serving an elite club of political contributors, insiders and backroom deal makers,’’ said the Massachusetts Republican Party’s executive director, Nate Little.

Andrea Estes can be reached at Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at