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O’Brien pleads not guilty to US bribery charges

Former Massachusetts Probation Department head John J. O’Brien.

Ted Fitzgerald/The Boston Herald - POOL

Former Massachusetts Probation Department head John J. O’Brien.

John J. O’Brien, the beleaguered former head of the state’s Probation Department, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to 17 counts of bribing top state legislators by procuring jobs for their friends and relatives.

The federal indictment handed down last Wednesday alleges that O’Brien and two deputies, Elizabeth V. Tavarez and William H. Burke III, conspired to give probation jobs to associates of legislators in exchange for influence. None of the legislators mentioned in the indictment have been charged, although the bribery accusations state that the offices of Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, both referred to only by their titles, communicated with the Probation Department about hiring supporters.

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A spokesman for US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz’s office would not comment on whether the lawmakers in question will be called to testify.

O’Brien’s attorney, Stylianus Sinnis, said the defense will “very carefully” consider calling them as witnesses when the case proceeds to trial.

“It is important to point out that the government bears the burden of proof in this case and it is for them to present witnesses that support the allegations,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Following a previous Globe report on the indictment, a spokesman for Murray said allegations that the Plymouth Democrat was involved in the scandal are misleading. DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, released a statement after the indictment came down stating that he only recommended job candidates who were qualified.

O’Brien, who resigned in 2010 after a Globe Spotlight Team series exposed preferential hiring practices within the Probation Department, was acquitted of multiple bribery charges April 16 by a Suffolk Superior Court jury.

Those charges accused him of ferrying Probation Department employees to a political fund-raiser for former treasurer Timothy Cahill in exchange for a Massachusetts Lottery Commission job for his wife.

O’Brien, Tavarez, and Burke also face federal racketeering and mail fraud charges relating to the patronage scheme that carry maximum penalties of 20 years in prison. Each of the bribery charges to which O’Brien pleaded not guilty in US District Court in Boston Tuesday carries a maximum of 10 years in prison.

Todd Feathers can be reached at todd.feathers@globe.com.
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