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Probation trial expected to include list of legislators, judges

The initial survey questions for prospective jurors called to service this Monday in US District Court in Boston are typical: Do you consider your service to be a hardship? Do you suffer from any medical problems that would prevent you from serving as a juror?

But follow-up questions in the lengthy survey say something about the high-profile political nature of this trial: Jurors will be asked whether they know state Senate President Therese Murray or state House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo. “Do you remember reading or hearing anything about this case?” the survey asks.

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Lawyers and prosecutors preparing for the long-awaited trial involving the Probation Department and its former commissioner, John J. O’Brien, have submitted a who’s who list of potential witnesses and people who could be named in the case, turning it into what promises to be perhaps the most closely watched political corruption trial in recent years.

The trial, slated to begin Monday and to last two months, could create awkward moments for current and former state legislators and for state judges — including retiring Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland — whose names might be connected to the scandal, even if indirectly.

“Everyone’s holding their breath,” said John C. Berg, chairman of the Government Studies Department at Suffolk University.

Even if the legislators are not accused of any criminal wrongdoing, “it’s embarrassing to have to explain yourself and to defend this kind of thing,” he said.

“You’d rather not be on the list,” Berg added.

‘In the context of a federal trial, it has a bad odor, puts people in a bad light.’

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Dennis Hale, a political science professor at Boston College, said Beacon Hill is bound to be scarred by the time the trial ends.

“In the context of a federal trial, it has a bad odor, puts people in a bad light, and I’m assuming they’re hoping that this trial is over quickly and that there isn’t any bad information about legislators,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s going to be avoidable.”

“If [defendants start] naming people,” he said, “that’s when it gets really embarrassing.”

The case involves allegations that O’Brien and his top deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III ran their department like a criminal enterprise, trading jobs with state legislators in exchange for budget increases, helping them build political power. Prosecutors allege the three committed fraud by creating a rigged hiring scheme to cover up a bogus hiring and promotion system.

They face up to 20 years in prison, if convicted on charges including racketeering and mail fraud.

Lawyers for the three defendants say they did nothing illegal, even if they engaged in political patronage. The lawyers plan to call top legislators and judges to the stand, in an attempt to show that political patronage is typical business on Beacon Hill, not a crime.

The case is based in large part on a Globe Spotlight series in 2010, which exposed in detail a pattern of patronage within the Probation Department.

US District Court Judge William G. Young could list more than 100 former and current state legislators and judges in a survey Monday intended to determine whether prospective jurors have any associations with the officials that would exclude them from serving in the trial. The survey also asks jurors questions that would screen their attitudes toward politics in general, which legal analysts say could help weed out unsuitable candidates.

“While people may find patronage to be distasteful, they’ve got to follow the law as the judge gives it to them, so you’ve got to find people who are willing and able to do that,” said Thomas Drechsler, a Boston lawyer who represented a lobbyist in the political corruption trial against former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi.

The judge in that case used a similar survey, Drechsler said, and it helped lawyers learn a great deal quickly about prospective jurors.

“It’s a trial lawyers’ dream, in that you’re receiving a ton of information about jurors, and you get a much better insight into jurors’ attitudes toward particular issues, their knowledge of parties and players,” he said.

Young, who took over the case in March after another judge stepped down because of a potential conflict of interest, spent Friday settling last-
minute arguments by defense lawyers and prosecutors as they prepare for trial. The defendants were indicted in 2012.

The judge said lawyers can begin reviewing the survey questions once they are completed Monday, and the prospective jurors who passed the first screening process could be questioned in person as soon as Tuesday.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.
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