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Former Mass. probation chief acquitted of conspiracy

John J. O’Brien, former Massachusetts Department of Probation commissioner, now faces a federal case, but the date has not been set. He had resigned in 2010.

TED FITZGERALD/POOL

John J. O’Brien, former Massachusetts Department of Probation commissioner, now faces a federal case, but the date has not been set. He had resigned in 2010.

John J. O’Brien, former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Probation, was found not guilty Tuesday in Suffolk Superior Court of multiple counts of conspiracy to commit bribery, a victory that his lawyers hope to replicate in his upcoming federal trial on racketeering charges.

O’Brien spent 12 years at the helm of the state Probation Department before resigning in 2010, amid accusations of unfair hiring practices and corruption brought to light by a Globe Spotlight Team investigation.

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Prior to his resignation, O’Brien was considered a powerful state official, holding near-complete control of the state Probation Department and its hiring and firing.

But jurors ruled Tuesday that O’Brien did not misuse that power to secure his wife, Laurie, a new job at the state Lottery Commission, where she was hired in 2005 and continues to work.

A date has not been set for O’Brien’s federal trial, in which he faces charges of racketeering and mail fraud that carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison.

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But his lawyers said this victory could be a good sign for the upcoming trial.

“It has to be encouraging for Jack,” said Brad Bailey, one of the lawyers representing O’Brien in the federal case. “We’ve got to be cautious, but it’s something I’m sure is going to give us something else for us to point to as the impetus of our defense.”

While optimistic, lawyers involved in the upcoming racketeering trial stressed that the details and charges faced by O’Brien and his codefendants in the federal case differ from those the former commissioner defeated Tuesday.

“I congratulate Jack O’Brien and his lawyer on obtaining what I believe is a just result in that case on the evidence as I know it to be,” said John ­Amabile, who represents one of O’Brien’s codefendants in the federal case, William Burke, O’Brien’s former top deputy,

In federal indictments, Burke is accused of scheming with O’Brien to hire and promote politically connected employ­ees in order to win friends in the Legislature. Both have pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.

“It is my understanding that they are planning to use some of the same witnesses in the federal case against Bill Burke, some of the witnesses whose testimony was rejected in this trial,” Amabile said. “In the federal case, there isn’t even the suggestion that anyone had any personal financial gain. I would reiterate what Bill Burke has said all along, that he committed no crime whatsoever.”

In the state trial, O’Brien faced five charges of conspiracy to commit bribery stemming from a 2005 fund-raiser for Timothy P. Cahill, then state treasurer, that was attended by dozens of Probation Department employees. Prosecutors alleged O’Brien used his influence to turn out attendees for the fund-raiser in exchange for a job for his wife at the lottery.

Two of the men accused of being coconspirators with O’Brien testified against him in exchange for immunity. One of them, Edward Ryan, 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 during his testimony last week, referring to his 2010 testimony to Paul Ware, an independent counsel investigating the ­department. “There was a connection.”

Ultimately, however, that testimony was not enough to sway jurors.

“We are disappointed in this verdict and believe the evidence showed that Commissioner O’Brien traded campaign contributions for a taxpayer-­funded job for his wife,” Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a statement. “While some may believe that this type of behavior is ‘business as usual,’ we did not and do not believe that should be the case.”

The trial, which stretched over three weeks, centered around the details of that 2005 fund-raiser for Cahill that was well-attended by Probation Depart­ment employees.

The days of testimony were closely calculated and strategically deliberate, 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.

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.

But defense lawyer Paul ­Flavin maintained his client’s innocence throughout the trial, arguing that there was no conspiracy. Those who hired ­Laurie O’Brien did not even know about the fund-raiser, he stressed.

As for those former employees testifying against O’Brien, Flavin said in court, they were simply making up the tale of a conspiracy in order to save themselves from prosecution.

Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. ­Wesley Lowery can be reached at wesley.lowery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter ­@WesleyLowery.
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