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65 cut from jury pool in case against Probation Dept.

John O’Brien, former Massachusetts probation department commissioner.

Stephan Savoia/Associated Press/file

John O’Brien, former Massachusetts probation department commissioner.

Prosecutors, lawyers, and the judge in the federal trial involving the state Probation Department scandal excused 65 prospective jurors Tuesday from a pool of 155, based on their answers to a survey they took the day before.

US District Court Judge William G. Young said he would call the remaining 90 jurors for additional, in-person questioning on Wednesday, to narrow the list to a final panel of 12 and four alternates.

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Prosecutors and defense attorneys had agreed, with little input from the judge, that most of the 65 jurors should be excluded immediately based on their answers to the survey, which was meant to weed out anyone who would have a hardship or bias in serving. The lawyers reviewed the answers Monday night.

Young excused several others, bringing the total to 65, but indicated that he would not dismiss others simply because they had heard about the case, noting that there has been extensive media coverage of the trial.

He also said he would not dismiss someone simply because they abhor political patronage, which is likely to be a key issue in the case. The defense said the scandal was just a case of patronage, while prosecutors have gone further and alleged a fraudulent scheme.

The judge said he would inquire further with the jurors on Wednesday to determine whether they can serve.

“This case charges a violation of federal, criminal statutes,” the judge said. “The question I’m going to try and pose to the jury is, was it [a crime]?”

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.

If convicted, they each face up to 20 years in prison on charges that include racketeering and mail fraud. The judge said the trial could last up to two months.

The lawyers plan to call top legislators and judges to the stand in an attempt to show that political patronage — the practice of awarding government jobs or other favors to political supporters — is business as usual on Beacon Hill.

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