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Ex-Probation supervisor testifies that O’Brien controlled hiring

A longtime supervisor in the state Probation Department told a federal jury Friday that she was stripped of her role in the department’s hiring process when she refused to advance a candidate recommended by her commissioner, John J. O’Brien.

“His physical appearance told me he was upset with me. . . . He asked me why a particular name was not on the list,” Ellen Slaney, who retired from the department in 2013, after 39 years on the job, said of a 2001 meeting with O’Brien.

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Slaney said that she explained that she opposed picking political insiders for jobs and that O’Brien told her, “Oh, come on Ellen, everyone has a sponsor.”

“I indicated I did not,” said Slaney, a former acting commissioner who started as a probation officer four decades ago and climbed the proverbial ladder.

She was the first witness called in O’Brien’s long-awaited public corruption trial in US District Court in Boston. Prosecutors sought to use her testimony to describe the hiring process within the Probation Department and how O’Brien manipulated it to favor the friends and family members of state legislators.

Under cross-examination, a lawyer for O’Brien sought to elicit testimony showing that Slaney herself had at times favored candidates at the onset of the hiring process, just as O’Brien did. Slaney’s niece was also hired at the department, even though she scored poorly in the screening process, after Slaney contacted a supervisor on her niece’s behalf, asking why she could not get a job.

O’Brien, who served as commissioner from 1998 to 2010, and his top deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, face charges of racketeering and mail fraud in allegedly turning their department into a criminal enterprise by selling jobs to the friends and family members of state legislators, in exchange for regular budget increases, an exchange that prosecutors have called “political currency.”

The prosecutors say the three defendants went beyond political patronage and committed fraud by creating a scheme that hid their bogus hiring system from the judges who had to endorse the final hires. The trio face up to 20 years in prison on some charges.

Lawyers for O’Brien and his deputies argue that they did nothing illegal, even if it was patronage, and they plan to call a who’s who of legislators and judges to describe how politics works on Beacon Hill.

Brad Bailey, an attorney for Tavares, argued that his client was simply doing her job in passing along the names of recommended candidates, just as Slaney had passed along the names of candidates to other committee members.

“You went along with it?” Bailey asked.

“Yes, I did,” Slaney said.

Slaney began testifying Thursday after opening statements, and she described the hiring process after 2001, when O’Brien was given hiring authority for the Probation Department: A small panel would screen applications to make sure candidates met minimum requirements; a committee of a judge, a chief probation officer, and a regional supervisor would then recommend up to eight candidates; and a final committee of two of O’Brien’s deputies would advance a selection.

As a regional supervisor, Slaney said she served on several panels that forwarded candidates for the final round. But, she said, she was ultimately told which candidates to put on that list, mostly by Tavares.

“These were individuals the commissioner had an interest in being advanced to a second interview,” she said. “She told me that Jack O’Brien had given her the names.”

Slaney said she forwarded the names to the other people on the screening panel, but “I was uncomfortable doing it.

“I thought it was inappropriate, giving names of people before the interview occurred,” she said. “I used to tell them, they had to decide for themselves how to handle this, just as I did.”

Slaney said she complained to Tavares, but that “she told me sometimes the political thing had to be done.”

After the 2001 encounter with O’Brien, Slaney said, she was no longer involved in the hiring process. The candidate she had opposed was hired anyway.

But in 2005, when she was overseeing the Bristol County region, she was again asked to serve on a hiring panel and failed to advance one of O’Brien’s candidates. When there was a separate vacancy in Bristol Superior Court, Slaney said, Tavares attempted to have her removed from the process, because “they wanted to make sure it got done right this time.”

“I already made my position clear back in 2000, that I didn’t want to be part of these hirings,” Slaney said.

Slaney said her niece had applied for a job within the Probation Department but was not hired after 40 attempts, which Slaney saw as retribution for her refusal to advance the questionable hirings. It was only after she spoke with her supervisor that her niece was hired, Slaney said. She later sent O’Brien an e-mail thanking him.

She was never involved in the hiring process again.

In a late-hour court filing Friday, lawyers for O’Brien alleged that Slaney herself violated the Probation Department’s standards by falsely certifying that people she hired and promoted during her brief tenure as acting commissioner in 2013 had taken a written examination.

The examination had been added as a screening mechanism under a 2011 law that was passed in response to the Probation Department scandal.

O’Brien’s lawyers submitted the court filing Friday, saying they plan to use the information to further cross-examine Slaney Monday.

“That she has engaged with impunity in misrepresentations more culpable than those allegedly committed by Mr. O’Brien is relevant to impeach her credibility and to establish bias,” the lawyers alleged. “The fact that she has not been prosecuted is an enormous reward and inducement from the government.”

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