The new judge overseeing the high-profile, long-awaited federal trial involving the Probation Department scandal split the case in half Friday, saying he wanted to streamline the case for jurors.
US District Court Judge William G. Young told prosecutors that they can bring a second case to trial in the fall if they choose, regardless of the outcome of the first case, but he said it was his duty to bring clarity to what he called the most complex case he’s seen in his 30-plus years as a judge.
“I do this in the interest of justice, to make it comprehensible to jurors who are responsible for fairly adjudicating the case,” the judge said from the bench Friday, less than a month since he first took over the case. “I am confident this makes this a more comprehensible, less confusing, more direct case.”
In his decision Friday, Judge Young separated bribery charges from an original indictment that prosecutors filed in 2012, saying the newer charges constituted a separate scheme and warranted a separate trial.
Federal prosecutors opposed the judge’s move Friday, saying they brought 30 counts alleging a racketeering scheme, and so the scheme cannot be split into two. Defense attorneys supported the judge’s decision, saying he was appropriately splitting two separate schemes, though they said the judge did not go far enough in severing charges.
Assistant US Attorney Fred M. Wyshak Jr. said his office will review the judge’s ruling, but he did not say whether he would appeal.
The case accuses John J. O’Brien, the former probation commissioner, and his top deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke of racketeering, for running a rigged hiring scheme that favored candidates that were sponsored by state legislators over more qualified candidates. In exchange, prosecutors say, the legislators routinely boosted the Probation department budget, helping O’Brien build his political power as head of an agency where jobs were for sale.
Defense lawyers argued that their clients may have engaged in political patronage, but that nothing they did was illegal, only typical of state politics.
The first indictment, in March 2012, charged the three defendants with racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, and mail fraud, for creating a fraudulent system that helped cover up their rogue hiring practice and defraud judges, who helped oversee the trial court system. They were also later accused of bribery for hiring the sponsored candidates on behalf of legislators.
Prosecutors later indicted O’Brien for a separate scheme alleging he reached out to legislators for a list of “political supporters, friends and constituents” he could hire to temporarily work for an electronic monitoring bracelet program, in exchange for the legislators’ support in enhancing the Probation department budget.
Though the second scheme was alleged more than a year after the initial indictment, prosecutors argued that all of the allegations constituted one conspiracy in one racketeering enterprise, which O’Brien headed.
Young, who took over the trial after US District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV agreed to recuse himself, under pressure from defense lawyers who cited his ties to potential witnesses, raised concerns with the complexity of the case at the first hearing he held last month. The judge was specifically alarmed with prosecutors’ claims that it could take eight weeks to prove their case, not accounting for the time it will take for defense attorneys to cross examine witnesses.
The judge warned Friday that, “I’m not going to allow cumulative evidence,” noting that prosecutors must only prove two illegal acts under the racketeering charge, and yet they have alleged 62.
“What I’m trying to do is aid the jury here, we need comprehensible trials,” the judge said.
Defense attorneys, based on Young’s direction at the initial hearing last month to consider ways to trim the case, had recommended splitting the case into two, so that one trial would focus on the fraudulent hiring system, and the other would allege the temporary jobs in the electronic monitoring program.
“It’s overly prejudicial,” said Stellio Sinnis, one of O’Brien’s attorneys, of coupling the two schemes together. ‘I do think there’s a way to pull this apart.”
Assistant US Attorney Karin Bell had argued that all of the charges constitute one conspiracy, and said prosecutors would rely on the same witnesses for evidence in both schemes. She said it would be pointless to have a second trial, specifically because prosecutors must still present evidence to support the racketeering acts. .
But Young disagreed, surprising the lawyers from both sides with an immediate decision: He kept the racketeering, conspiracy, and mail fraud charges related to the fraudulent hiring scheme, similar to the original indictment, but severed the bribery charges and the charges related to the electronic monitoring program. The racketeering charge still alleges 62 predicate acts.
“The overall interest of the court is in the clarity of these trials,” the judge said. “What’s wrong with that as a matter of justice?”Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.