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Judge questions probation case

A federal judge questioned Tuesday whether prosecutors will be able to prove bribery accusations against John J. O’Brien, the former probation commissioner, and two of his top deputies in their long-awaited trial next month.

US District Court Judge William G. Young asked prosecutors to lay out a theory of their case during a final status conference Tuesday, and he told prosecutors to research other cases that substantiated the kind of bribery allegations that O’Brien and his deputies face.

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Prosecutors have alleged that O’Brien and two deputies violated state bribery laws, but Young said, “I’m not sure Massachusetts recognizes that.”

“I’d like to see your best cases on that,” the judge said.

O’Brien and his deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke face charges including racketeering and mail fraud for allegedly setting up a rigged hiring system that favored candidates who were sponsored by state legislators over more qualified candidates. In exchange, the legislators allegedly inflated O’Brien’s budget, helping him build his political power. The racketeering charge includes allegations of bribery, and prosecutors argue that O’Brien bribed state legislators by letting them dictate who would get jobs.

The accusation “is he handed out these jobs, like lollipops, to legislators who were able to pick their friends, and neighbors,” Assistant US Attorney Fred M. Wyshak Jr. said.

Defense lawyers have argued that nothing the defendants did was illegal, even if they were involved in political patronage.

Young asked prosecutors to lay out their theory of the case, so that he can properly prepare instructions for jurors. A trial is slated for May 5.

Tuesday’s final status conference allowed the judge, who took over the case in March, to address last-minute housekeeping items. He scheduled a follow-up hearing for May 1 to review proposed exhibits.

William Fick, a lawyer for O’Brien, asked Young to further question the government’s theory about the case, arguing that the allegations against O’Brien would not constitute bribery “under federal, or state law.”

“Unless there is a clear kickback to an individual . . . that is not what we have here,” Fick said. “We need something more definitive.”

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