Federal prosecutors filed the first criminal charges from their investigation of the state Probation Department yesterday, arresting an acting chief probation officer in Western Massachusetts on charges that he intimidated and harassed a witness who was about to be interviewed by the FBI.
Christopher Hoffman, 39, who ran the probation office in Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton until he was suspended in October, allegedly called one of his probation officers a “rat’’ for agreeing to talk to an FBI agent.
“You will be in jail within a week,’’ Hoffman allegedly told probation officer Maureen Adams, according to the criminal complaint filed in US District Court in Worcester. If convicted, Hoffman faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
A federal grand jury has been hearing evidence for months on the allegedly rigged hiring system at the Probation Department under John J. O’Brien, the former commissioner. O’Brien resigned under pressure after a 2010 Globe Spotlight report that his department systematically funneled at least 250 jobs to politically and personally connected candidates, whether they were the most qualified or not.
Hoffman, who boasted to other probation employees of his close personal ties to O’Brien’s former top deputy, William H. Burke III, is the only person to face federal criminal charges, though more federal charges are widely expected.
A state grand jury indicted O’Brien in September, charging him with trading his employees’ campaign contributions to former state treasurer Timothy P. Cahill for a state lottery job for his wife, Laurie. O’Brien’s daughter also was hired by the treasury.
Hoffman was released yesterday and ordered to stay away from current or former probation employees, including retired deputy commissioner Burke or his family, and state Representative Thomas Petrolati or members of his family.
Petrolati, a former member of House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s leadership team, was nicknamed “the patronage king’’ by probation employees for his influence in getting friends and supporters jobs in the department. He stepped down as speaker pro tempore after his role in probation hiring became public.
Hoffman did not return a call requesting an interview, but his lawyer, Vincent A. Bongiorni, defended him, saying, “Mr. Hoffman maintains his innocence and we’re looking forward to the preliminary hearing Jan. 24.’’
Prosecutors have been focusing on the role of Burke, and his ally Petrolati, in hiring politically and personally connected candidates, such as Burke’s daughter, Mindy, who works in the Probation Department’s electronic monitoring program in Springfield, and Pertolati’s wife, Kathleen, who shares an office with her.
Investigators have been trying to determine whether Burke had authority to hire and promote, or whether his picks had to be approved first by Petrolati.
But Hoffman, who grew up in Hatfield with Burke’s children, took center stage after his encounters with probation officer Adams on Oct. 18 and 19, encounters that probation employees say left Adams traumatized.
“I will tell everyone that you are a rat,’’ Hoffman told Adams before her meeting with the FBI agent, according to a court affidavit from FBI agent Kevin D. Constantine.
Constantine said that on Oct. 18, FBI special agent Dominic Barbara called Adams to set up an interview at Friendly’s in Northampton for the next day.
Hoffman, who himself had been interviewed by the FBI, allegedly threatened Adams and instructed her “to come back and tell me everything that they ask you and everything that you said.’’
Hoffman also made comments to Adams that she believed were designed to downplay his relationship to Burke.
“I only got to know Bill Burke once I became a probation officer’’ in 2001, Constantine reported Hoffman as telling Adams.
Adams believed that Hoffman’s comments about Burke were both false and made in the hope that she would repeat them to the FBI, Constantine wrote.
In fact, Hoffman told at least one other probation officer that Burke had been “grooming’’ him to be chief probation officer. Hoffman also moonlighted as a bartender at a Northampton pizza parlor frequented by Burke and traveled with Burke to fund-raisers for Petrolati, who was perhaps the legislator with the most influence in the Probation Department.
The Probation Department placed Hoffman on paid administrative leave after Adams e-mailed probation Commissioner Ronald Corbett about Hoffman’s alleged threats against her, according to the criminal complaint. Hoffman was placed on unpaid leave yesterday, according to probation officials.
Paul F. Ware Jr., the independent counsel tapped by the Supreme Judicial Court to investigate probation hiring after a series of Spotlight stories, concluded in November 2010 that O’Brien and his top deputies may have violated federal law by running a sham hiring process. Under the system in place during O’Brien’s 12-year tenure, the top brass preselected finalists for jobs, often choosing politically connected candidates. The officials conducted hundreds of interviews to give the appearance of an open and fair process.
The union that represents probation officers, the National Association of Government Employees, filed suit in July, alleging that O’Brien and his aides broke the law by rigging hiring and promotions. The union has cited Hoffman’s promotion ahead of a more experienced probation officer with a military background as evidence of rigged hiring.
The union asked a federal judge to rescind more than 100 probation promotions awarded since 2003 and reopen the positions to any employee who wants to apply. The judge hasn’t yet ruled on their motion and prosecutors have asked that the case be delayed until their criminal investigations are complete.
The Probation Department was once recognized as a national model for its programs on how best to supervise criminals in the community, but, under O’Brien, the agency grew increasingly insular and isolated from other public safety agencies. O’Brien, a protege of Thomas Finneran, the disgraced former House speaker, began keeping lists of job candidates sent to him by legislators.
O’Brien abruptly resigned on New Year’s Eve last year just before a disciplinary hearing that almost certainly would have led to his firing. At that time, O’Brien’s lawyer said his client’s “due process rights have been violated, and it is inconceivable that, under these circumstances, he will receive a fair hearing.’’
Friends of O’Brien’s held a fund-raiser for him Dec. 9 at the Quincy Elks club.
Milton Valencia and Thomas Farragher of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.