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O’Brien seeks delay for trial

Former Massachusetts Probation Department head John J. O’Brien, looking at the jury, continues at Suffolk Superior Court in April 2013.

Ted Fitzgerald/The Boston Herald, POOL

Former Massachusetts Probation Department head John J. O’Brien, looking at the jury, continues at Suffolk Superior Court in April 2013.

Lawyers for John J. O’Brien, the former head of the state’s Probation Department who resigned in 2010 amid an investigation into rigged hiring practices, told a federal judge Monday that they will argue at his high-profile trial that he did nothing illegal, but only engaged in patronage.

The lawyers made the claim in federal court in Boston Monday in the latest of several last-minute hearings to determine whether the long-awaited trial, scheduled for Feb. 25, should be postponed.

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Lawyers for O’Brien and two codefendants argue they have only begun to delve into recently obtained state documents that show extensive patronage within the Massachusetts trial court system, which they said support their argument O’Brien was doing things that are widely accepted.

“There is this type of top-down hiring process, starting with the appointment of judges and going down to the janitors in the courtroom,” said John Amabile, an attorney for one of O’Brien’s codefendants, William Burke.

O’Brien and his top deputies, Burke and Elizabeth Tavares, face charges including racketeering for allegedly running a rigged process that hired and promoted candidates who were sponsored by state legislators, while bypassing more qualified ones.

In exchange, prosecutors said, the legislators rewarded O’Brien with yearly budget increases for his department, helping to build his political power.

Prosecutors argued that O’Brien and the deputies engaged in more than just patronage: They allegedly took part in a scheme to make it appear as if O’Brien was following department protocol, so that his hiring decisions would be approved by the head of the courts system. All along, prosecutors said, he had predetermined whom he was going to hire.

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The prosecutors called the defense lawyers’ claim that they need more time to delve into the state documents a strategy to allow them more preparation for the trial.

US District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV has already rejected other requests to dismiss the case and for separate trials for the three defendants.

“They made speeches today, but they didn’t make a legal argument,” Assistant US Attorney Fred M. Wyshak Jr. said.

The defense lawyers argued that the prosecutors failed to turn over, in a timely manner, significant evidence, including documents that show that superiors in the trial court system had set up “sponsor lists” for recommended candidates for other jobs, such as courtroom security officers.

The lawyers maintained that the practice was widespread and accepted by the top officials at the trial court system, so nothing O’Brien did was illegal.

“It goes directly to the whole claim against these people,” said Brad Bailey, an attorney for Tavares.

Saylor said he will consider the request to postpone the trial, and said he could decide by the end of this week.

The judge is also considering a request to recuse himself, because he once worked with one of the original state investigators in the case. A hearing is slated for Friday.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.

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