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Final

Ex-worker testifies against former probation chief John O’Brien

Edward Ryan was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony.

Ted Fitzgerald/Boston Herald

Edward Ryan was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony.

The first of two state Probation Department employees slated to testify against their former boss took the stand Friday and said he set up a political fund-raiser in 2005 with the understanding that it would secure a new job for his boss’s wife.

Edward Ryan, who was granted immunity by prosecutors, said he organized a well-attended political fund-raiser for then-state treasurer Timothy P. Cahill in order to help get a job for the wife of John. J. O’Brien, who was then the head of the department.

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He recanted sworn testimony he gave in 2010 that the fund-raiser and Laurie O’Brien’s attempts to secure a job with the state lottery, which was overseen by Cahill, were not related.

“I said there was no connection before,” Ryan said, referring to his 2010 testimony to Paul Ware, an independent counsel probing the department. “There was a connection.”

The testimony came on the second day of the corruption trial of O’Brien, who faces five charges of bribery and corruption stemming from his 12 years as head of the department. O’Brien remained impassive as Ryan testified against him.

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The two days of testimony have proceeded like a chess match, with both legal teams walking witnesses through complicated series of detailed questions about conversations almost a decade in the past while frequently objecting to those posed by the other side.

By midafternoon Friday, Judge Judith Fabricant began rolling her eyes at each objection and request for side bench conversation. The attorneys asked for nearly a dozen conferences during less than five hours of testimony.

Ryan testified that he was never told to set up the fund-raiser in exchange for a job for Laurie O’Brien, but that he understood it was a tit-for-tat situation.

“I never had that conversation with anyone,” Ryan said. “It was an understanding.”

The June 23, 2005 fund-raiser at Pat Flanagan’s Pub in Quincy netted more than $11,000 for Cahill’s campaign fund and was attended by 50 Probation Department employees, according to prosecutors.

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.

Each of the five charges against O’Brien could bring one to five years in prison and represent a fall from grace for a once-powerful bureaucrat who held near-total control over the Probation Department and who, according to state investigators, would direct subordinates whom to hire or promote on yellow Post-it notes.

Attorneys for both the attorney general’s office, which is prosecuting the case, and O’Brien’s defense team spent most of Friday morning questioning Ryan about his involvement in both the fund-raiser and Laurie O’Brien’s job hunt.

A second former probation department employee, Francis Wall, is also expected to testify against O’Brien in exchange for immunity. Defense lawyers have accused both men of testifying against O’Brien only to avoid charges themselves.

After Ryan concluded his testimony, prosecutors questioned the Massachusetts State Lottery Commission’s former director of human resources, Michael Coughlin, about the hiring process of Laurie O’Brien for the lottery commission position, which she still holds.

Coughlin, who conducted her initial interview, insisted that he was never told to give O’Brien’s wife any preferential treatment and that the political fund-raiser for Cahill was never mentioned.

“I was not pressured to hire her,” Coughlin said. “I am saying, unequivocally, that I was not pressured to hire her.”

Laurie O’Brien sat quietly with other relatives through the proceedings as attorneys ran through each detail of her 2005 hiring.

Lead defense attorney Paul Flavin has said that much of his case will center on the testimony of Coughlin and the other lottery employee who interviewed Laurie O’Brien.

Both of them, he said in his opening argument Thursday, will testify that she was hired on merit alone.

Wesley Lowery can be reached at wesley.lowery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.
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