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Probation Department is ordered to reopen 10 jobs

Earlier this year, John O’Brien and two aides were indicted by a federal grand jury, charged with racketeering and fraud.

Globe Photo/File

Earlier this year, John O’Brien and two aides were indicted by a federal grand jury, charged with racketeering and fraud.

An arbitrator ordered the state’s Probation Department Monday to reopen 10 jobs that were originally filled up to seven years ago, concluding that leaders of the scandal-plagued agency improperly promoted less qualified, politically connected candidates.

Arbitrator Tammy Brynie’s long-awaited decision means that hundreds of employees who originally applied for the positions when former commissioner John J. O’Brien was in charge will be offered an opportunity to apply again. It means that the successful candidates, who in most cases are still on the job, will have to reapply for their positions and could be removed.

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“We’re overjoyed, “ said David J. Holway, president of the National ­Association of Government Employees, which sued the trial court to refill the positions. “Now we can get this ­behind us so the whole Trial Court can move forward.”

The union had filed grievances when the promotions were originally handed out, saying the losing candidates were at least as qualified as, and had more seniority than, the successful candidates. At the time, arbitrators rejected the union’s claims amid assurances from the Probation Department that the hiring process was fair.

But the union sued to reverse the decisions after the Globe and the Trial Court’s independent counsel, Paul F. Ware Jr., found in 2010 that O’Brien oversaw a rigged hiring process. Ware said that hiring and promotion decisions were “orchestrated from beginning to end in favor of connected candidates.”

Earlier this year, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Thomas Connolly sided with the union, ruling that the decisions were tainted by corruption. He sent the case back to an arbitrator to decide what action to take.

“Everybody understands in these instances the fix was in,” said Holway. “The arbitrator had no choice but to overturn those 10 appointments.”

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The case represents the first ­successful effort to erase O’Brien’s legacy of political ­favoritism at the Probation Depart­ment, the agency that supervises criminals serving sentences in the community.

Earlier this year, O’Brien and two aides were indicted by a federal grand jury, charged with racketeering and fraud. O’Brien also faces state charges that he traded campaign donations to Timothy P. Cahill, former state treasurer, in exchange for a job at the state lottery for O’Brien’s wife, Laurie.

A spokeswoman for the Trial Court, which oversees probation, said the court will now “move forward with a reselection process and will ensure that it is totally based on merit.

“The Trial Court does not condone and will not defend any improprieties in hiring or promotion practices,” said the spokeswoman, Joan Kenney. “With this decision, we are still addressing well-documented ­issues of impropriety and injustice that occurred in the Probation Department, and we support the arbitrator’s decision.”

In her 79-page ruling, Brynie detailed the process by which top probation officials selected 11 employees for promotion.

She tried to determine whether they were the best choice, but was hampered by a lack of cooperation.

Not only did the Trial Court fail to participate in hearings, she wrote, but Francis Wall and Patricia Walsh, the two deputy commissioners who knew the most about O’Brien’s employment practices, refused to ­answer questions.

Even without all available information, Brynie found that in 10 of 11 cases, factors other than qualifications and experience played a role in the successful candidate’s selection.

Probation officer Jason Harder, who lost out on a job in 2005 to a less senior employee who was a family friend of a deputy commissioner, said the arbitrator’s decision was a step in the right direction.

Under the ruling, Harder and up to 70 other people who originally applied for the probation officer position at Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton will get a second chance at the post.

The candidate who originally won the Northampton job, Christopher Hoffman, was subsequently promoted and now faces charges that he threatened a witness in the FBI investigation of corruption within the Probation Department. Hoffman has been placed on administrative leave while his family friend and mentor, former deputy commissioner ­William Burke, was indicted on federal racketeering charges earlier this year.

The arbitrator’s decision “substantiates what we always knew, that it was a corrupt process,” said Harder, pointing out that many other job applicants were also unfairly passed over for promotions that went to ­politically connected candidates. “A lot of people knew the system was rigged and figured there was no sense in fighting it.”

In another case, Jeffrey Rideout, a candidate for a probation officer job in Cambridge District Court in 2005, was the first choice of two of the three members of a local screening panel who, Brynie wrote, did not know who O’Brien’s aides had preselected for the job.

But when Walsh and Wall rated Rideout, they came to a markedly different conclusion: They ranked him eighth out of 15 candidates, and Rideout lost out.

Rideout, now a probation ­officer at Brighton District Court, could not be reached for comment.

In another case, the candidate who won the promotion was initially ranked last by the local screening committee among more than two dozen candidates.

But after Joseph Abber met with Walsh and Wall, his rating jumped to the top of the list, and he was given one of the jobs at Plymouth Juvenile Court in 2005.

“The record contains no ­rationale or basis for Abber’s climb from the bottom . . . to being awarded a promotion position based on scores from Wall and Walsh,” the arbitrator wrote.

The record, however, contained evidence that Abber was friendly with former state senator Marian Walsh and had worked on her campaign, the arbitrator wrote.

Abber’s lawyer did not ­return a call seeking comment.

In only one case did Brynie rule against the union.

Brynie found no evidence that Michelle Williams was wrongly promoted to assistant chief probation officer in Roxbury District Court in 2005. Her qualifications were so strong, the arbitrator found, that Williams continued to be promoted after O’Brien ­resigned in 2010.

Andrea Estes can be reached
at estes@globe.com. Scott
Allen can be reached at ­allen@globe.com.

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