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Probation Dept. charges could be imminent

Case may involve number of legislators, others, lawyers say

Federal prosecutors have essentially completed their investigation into alleged rigged hiring and promotion practices at the state Probation Department, according to two people briefed on the US attorney’s work, clearing the way for criminal charges against numerous probation employees, politicians, and potentially others in the scandal uncovered by the Globe’s Spotlight Team.

One probation employee - Christopher Hoffman, Northampton District Court acting probation chief - has already been charged with intimidating a witness in US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz’s investigation. But lawyers involved in the case expect that a federal grand jury may soon indict a dozen or more state employees and state legislators on charges related to favoritism in hiring and promotion.

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Federal prosecutors “are just checking details at this point’’ before making criminal charges public, said one person who was familiar with the US attorney’s investigation. However, several people say it is unclear exactly when Ortiz will make an announcement or exactly who will be targeted.

Word of the federal grand jury’s secret work has percolated through political and probation circles for months as witnesses were subpoenaed to testify, providing clues as to where the investigation was heading. In addition to questions about the conduct of the former probation commissioner, John J. O’Brien, and his deputies, prosecutors have focused on political figures such as Rep. Thomas Petrolati, the former third-ranking leader in the House of Representatives.

The Spotlight Team found in 2010 that O’Brien turned a once-respected agency into a patronage haven that readily provided jobs to friends, relatives, and supporters of politicians and court officials, whether they were the most qualified or not. The Globe identified 250 probation employees who had political or court connections or ties to O’Brien himself.

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O’Brien, who resigned along with two top deputies a year ago, has already been indicted on state criminal charges based on Attorney General Martha Coakley’s investigation. A Suffolk County grand jury charged that O’Brien illegally raised campaign funds from his employees to help his wife get a job with Timothy P. Cahill, then the state treasure.

US Attorney Ortiz launched the federal investigation in November 2010, directing probation officials to preserve all documents that could be used as evidence in the criminal investigation, including e-mails, computer files, paper records, and text messages.

Ortiz’s preservation order came on the same day that Paul F. Ware Jr., an independent counsel appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court, released an exhaustive report that vividly sketched a massive patronage scheme orchestrated by O’Brien and his top aides.

Ware was appointed in May 2010, the day after the Globe Spotlight Team detailed the 2,000-employee agency’s phony hiring practices. Ware’s investigation concluded that fake interviews and rigged promotions were practiced “on a grand scale.’’ His report cited potential crimes, including wire and mail fraud, bribery, perjury, conflict of interest, and illegal solicitation of campaign funds.

Ware focused primarily on the conduct of probation employees, but he found evidence that O’Brien worked closely with state legislators to help their friends and supporters win jobs and promotions. Ware also found that O’Brien kept detailed lists of the job candidates promoted by state legislators and routinely told probation hiring committees which candidates he expected to be finalists for jobs.

Ware identified several state lawmakers who benefited significantly from O’Brien’s patronage system, including House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and his former top lieutenant Petrolati, who was nicknamed “the king of patronage’’ by Western Massachusetts probation employees for his influence over probation hiring and promotion. Petrolati, a Ludlow Democrat, voluntarily stepped down from his leadership post after Ware issued his report.

In addition, Ware questioned the conduct of former speaker Thomas M. Finneran, an ally of O’Brien who helped centralize probation hiring power in O’Brien’s hands. Finneran declined to answer Ware’s questions under oath, citing his constitutional right to remain silent.

But 14 months after Ware’s report, prosecutors so far have charged only Hoffman in the case. Hoffman, who grew up with the children of one of O’Brien’s top aides and rose through the probation ranks ahead of employees with more experience, allegedly told a subordinate at Northampton District Court that she was a “rat’’ for talking to FBI officials investigating favoritism in probation hiring.

If convicted, Hoffman, who has been placed on administrative leave from his job, faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Scott Allen can be reached at allen@globe.com. Thomas Farragher can be reached at farragher@globe.com
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