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155 prospective jurors in probation trial are sworn in

Questionaire will aid in selection

The case involves allegations that John J. O’Brien (pictured), the former Probation commissioner, and his top deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III ran their department like a criminal enterprise.

AP/File

The case involves allegations that John J. O’Brien (pictured), the former Probation commissioner, and his top deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III ran their department like a criminal enterprise.

The judge and lawyers in the long-awaited federal trial involving three former Probation Department officials began the tedious task Monday of screening jurors for the high-profile case.

US District Court Judge William G. Young, who is overseeing the trial, swore in the 155 prospective jurors and instructed them on the law, telling them to refrain from speaking to anyone about the case and not to research it.

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“Don’t start Googling about it,” the judge said.

The case involves allegations that John J. O’Brien, the former probation commissioner, and his top deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, ran their department like a criminal enterprise, offering jobs to the friends of state legislators in exchange for budget increases, helping them build their political power.

Prosecutors allege that 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 that include racketeering and mail fraud. The judge said the trial could last up to two months.

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.

In a victory for the defense team Monday, Young told lawyers separate from the jury pool that he will instruct the jury that political patronage alone is not a crime, nor is violating department protocol.

“It can lead to one being fired, or disciplined, but it’s not a crime,” the judge said, adding that “I’m going to emphasize . . . that political patronage is not a crime.”

“The crime, or the ones being alleged, is fraud,” the judge said.

The case is bound to cast a shadow on Beacon Hill. Defense lawyers plan to call judges and legislators and their aides as witnesses in an attempt to show that patronage is widespread on Beacon Hill.

Earlier, Young instructed prospective jurors that the case has attracted much attention in the news, but that jurors should not have any prejudgments.

He had each of them fill out a survey that will help determine what the jurors know about the case, whether they know any potential witnesses, and whether they have biases.

The lawyers will review the survey answers and meet Tuesday to determine which jurors to exclude. They will return Wednesday to meet in person with jurors who were not eliminated by the survey results.

“What’s most important for you to know is that the three people the government has charged, they are innocent, they are truly innocent,” the judge said, before telling the jurors that only a final panel can choose whether the defendants are guilty.

“We’ll see what the evidence shows, if it shows anything,” the judge said. “Now, prepare to do justice.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at MValencia@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.

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