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3 indicted in ongoing Probation Department probe

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz (center) announced indictments for three former top probation officials at the Moakley Federal Courthouse Friday. FBI ASPC James Burrell (left) and Chief of Public Corruption Brian Kelly (right) joined her.

David L. Ryan / Globe Staff

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz (center) announced indictments for three former top probation officials at the Moakley Federal Courthouse on Friday. FBI ASPC James Burrell (left) and Chief of Public Corruption Brian Kelly (right) joined her.

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz said today that the indictment of former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien and two of his top former assistants “is just one step’’ in the ongoing investigation into a criminal justice agency that allegedly was run like a criminal enterprise.

“This is a very serious matter,” Ortiz said. “We’ve just indicted three former state public officials who were supposed to be working on behalf of this Commonwealth and who were engaged in criminal activity.’’

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O’Brien and his former deputy commissioners Elizabeth V. Tavares and William H. Burke III allegedly gave jobs to friends and allies of legislators “to aggrandize power to themselves” and to increase the agency’s budget, among other things.

O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke have surrendered to federal authorities and are scheduled to make an initial appearance in US District Court in Worcester this afternoon.

The indictment describes 26 examples of politically influenced hiring decisions, including three involving Senate President Therese Murray. In one case, Murray allegedly sponsored the son of a court official for a probation job, helping him to beat out more qualified candidates.

In all three cases, federal prosecutors argue, Murray’s support helped less qualified candidates get jobs at the expense of the best candidates.

The indictment does not accuse the Senate president of a crime, but the incidents are cited as evidence of a “scheme to defraud” the public by O’Brien and his two deputies. Prosecutors say the trio were currying favor with Murray to increase their budget and their own status.

Murray issued a statement today, saying her office received many “requests for assistance each year, including requests for public, private and institutional referrals. But we have no control over any hiring process and the indictment does not suggest that I was aware of any fraudulent conduct within the probation department.”

Indeed, she said, when she learned about what was going on in the department, “we led a forceful and thorough overhaul of the department’s hiring practices last year to insure the highest degree of transparency possible.”

The indictment also references House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo for an incident that took place when the Winthrop Democrat was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 2005. At that time, DeLeo advocated on behalf of Brian Mirasolo, the son of his long-time aide, Leonard Mirasolo.

The Globe has reported that Mirasolo met with O’Brien several times a year to discuss the probation department budget and that he is named as Brian Mirasolo’s sponsor on a list kept by O’Brien.

DeLeo, who is Brian Mirasolo’s godfather, wrote a letter of recommendation for Brian Mirasolo, who eventually became one of the youngest chief probation officers in Massachusetts history, the Globe has reported.

“B.M. was not the most qualified candidate,’’ the indictment reads, “but was hired in or about December 2005. Rejection letters were mailed out to unsuccessful candidates in or about December 2005.’’

DeLeo, like Murray, has not been charged with any crime.

At a press conference at the Moakley courthouse today, Ortiz cautioned against concluding that a politician who participates in patronage hiring is also breaking the law.

“There was a lot of patronage that was clearly going on, but patronage in and of itself is not illegal,’’ Ortiz said. “It could be very unseemly. It could be unethical. It could be criminal under some circumstances. But in and of itself, it’s not, and we really have to be fair.‘’

She added, “Our responsibility is to determine whether or not federal criminal laws were violated, and so, at the end of the day, that’s what we are going to be guided by, and it has to play itself out.”

Ortiz also said a job applicant known as “P.L.” was the son of a “member of the state judiciary’’ and “was not the most qualified candidate’’ -- but landed the job anyway.

The federal indictment describes an elaborate phony hiring process at the probation department under which thousands of job candidates were interviewed even though they had virtually no chance of getting the job because O’Brien and his deputies had selected the winning candidates ahead of time.

“This sham system was used by the defendants and other members of the conspiracy to conceal the fact that the hiring decisions were predetermined and not based upon merit, but based upon the nature and extent of the sponsorship” by politicians, judges and other powerful people, according to the indictment.

Ortiz’s office has been investigating the Massachusetts agency in the wake of a devastating report by independent counsel Paul F. Ware Jr. that found hiring practices were rigged in favor of candidates with political connections.

Ware’s report, released in November 2010, was the response by the court system to a series by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team that detailed hundreds of politically connected hires and promotions made by O’Brien and his top aides.

Ware also found that state Representative Thomas Petrolati, a Ludlow Democrat, was influential in steering politically-connected candidates into the rigged hiring system.

Former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi was the single largest beneficiary among legislators, Ware found. At least two dozen candidates were hired by O’Brien due to their links to DiMasi.

DiMasi, now serving eight years for an unrelated federal corruption conviction, has told friends that he testified for five hours in front of the grand jury but gave prosecutors little of value.

Ortiz today ignored a question about DiMasi, but did say that the three people now facing federal charges did not act alone. When asked if more indictments are forthcoming, Ortiz said, “the investigation is ongoing.’’

Ortiz added: “I want to make clear that Beacon Hill is filled with a lot of hard-working, genuinely committed individuals, and where there has been conduct involving political corruption in the past, there continues to be an effort to ferret it out.”

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