To prosecutors, he was a power-hungry bureaucrat who bribed legislators with jobs for their friends and family members so that he could build his own political empire as head of the Probation Department.
John J. O’Brien’s lawyer called him a hard worker, a public servant who simply played the game of patronage that typifies politics on Beacon Hill.
For 90 minutes Thursday, prosecutors and lawyers for O’Brien, the former probation commissioner, and his two top deputies laid out for a newly sworn-in jury of 16 of their peers widely contrasting views of a case that has gripped the political establishment in Massachusetts.
“This case is about jobs,” said assistant US Attorney Fred M. Wyshak Jr., the head of his office’s public corruption unit. “Everyone needs jobs. . . . It’s a very powerful thing, that ability to give someone a job. Jack O’Brien handed out those jobs like lollipops to members of the state Legislature.”
Stellio Sinnis, O’Brien’s lawyer, told jurors to ignore Wyshaks’s use of the words rigged and scheme and to see the case for what he says it is: political patronage, not a crime, and nothing more.
“Jack ran a law enforcement agency, and he ran it well, and they don’t allege that he didn’t,” Sinnis said.
US District Court Judge William G. Young told jurors to suspend any judgment until the case ends, predicting that it could last two months.
O’Brien, who ran the Probation Department from 1998 until he resigned in 2010, and his deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III face up to 20 years in prison on some charges, including racketeering and mail fraud.
Prosecutors say the three turned the Probation Department into their own criminal enterprise by trading jobs to the family members and friends of legislators in exchange for regular budget increases, helping to build their political power.
Wyshak argued that they went further than political patronage and created a fraudulent scheme to cover up their bogus hiring system, falsifying documents to make it appear to the judges who oversaw their hiring that they had chosen the best candidates.
The case was based in large part on a Globe Spotlight series in 2010 that found widespread political patronage within the Probation Department.
Young, after swearing in the jury for the first time Thursday, told the panel members about the law and the charges in the case.
In instructions that lasted more than an hour, he said that jurors should not see patronage as a crime and that it is not illegal to violate a department manual, even if it is a punishable offense.
Instead, he said, the jury must find that the defendants knowingly engaged in a scheme to defraud and that there was an agreement to commit a crime.
Wyshak insisted that the case was not about political patronage. “This is about their abdication to hire people based on merit,” he said.
He said prosecutors will show that O’Brien and his deputies falsified the job screening process to bypass more qualified candidates.
Some of the people they hired included the 21-year-old girlfriend of a state senator and the son of a former judge who had a heroin addiction and hadbeen fired from a previous government job.
He said witnesses who served on hiring panels will testify that they were disgusted that they had to follow orders on whom to hire, but that Tavares told them, “They needed to do what they had to do.”
“The paperwork was making it look like everything was done right, but when you look beyond the paperwork, you realize it was all a big lie,” Wyshak said.
“This case is about high-ranking government officials who broke the rules and covered up the fact that they were running this scheme.”
The trial has already cast a shadow over Beacon Hill. Defense lawyers say they plan to call a who’s who oflegislators and judges to describe the political environment on Beacon Hill. Early in his openings, Wyshak said Senate President Therese Murray was the legislator who helped heroin addict Patrick Lawton obtain a state job.
In a preview of the back and forth that will occur in the trial, the defense lawyers argued that Lawton has a law degree and was qualified for the job and that O’Brien ultimately fired him.
Jeffrey Denner, a lawyer for Tavares, whom he described as a hard-working mother from Newton, questioned how prosecutors could charge the defendants with racketeering when no one else, no legislators, were ever charged.
“The reason they’re not here is because it was not a crime, and if it was not a crime for them, it was not a crime for these three people,” he said.
John Amabile, a lawyer for Burke, whom he called a dedicated father and a lifelong public servant, argued that one of the government’s own witnesses, Robert Mulligan, the former chief justice for administration and management of the state trial courts, himself engaged in political patronage.
“Democracy is like sausage making,” Amabile said. “It’s not pretty. But it works out pretty good at the end.”Milton J. Valencia can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.