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Top judge questioned hiring, ex-Probation official says

John O'Brien.

Stephan Savoia/Associated press/ File

John O'Brien.

The former number two official in the state Probation Department told a federal jury Wednesday that the chief justice overseeing the state’s trial court functions, including probation hiring, asked him sometime around 2005 why top-quality candidates for promotions were being passed over for lesser qualified candidates.

“He felt this person was more qualified than the one who got the job,” John Cremens, who retired in 2008, said of a meeting with Robert Mulligan, then the chief justice of administration and management for trial courts.

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Cremens testified in US District Court that he told Mulligan at the time that he did not know anything about hiring, that he was not involved.

But Cremens acknowledged Wednesday, that he had known all along that his boss, John J. O’Brien, was picking politically connected candidates. He said O’Brien said he was in charge of hiring and that he had to take care of their legislator friends.

Cremens also acknowledged that he had withheld information about the probation scandal before, because “a lot of stuff transpired in Probation; I didn’t know what I would be involved in.”

Cremens, 71, was the third witness in the fourth full day of testimony in the federal trial alleging corruption within the Probation Department.

O’Brien, the commissioner from 1998 to 2010, and top aides Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III are charged with racketeering and mail fraud in allegedly selling jobs to the friends and family members of state legislators.

In exchange, prosecutors alleged, the legislators boosted the department’s budget, helping O’Brien build his political clout. Prosecutors called the jobs “political currency.”

The charges are based in large part on a Globe Spotlight series in 2010 on patronage within the department.

Defense lawyers have argued their clients did nothing illegal, even if it was patronage. But prosecutors have alleged the defendants went further and committed a crime by creating a rigged hiring process to hide their scheme from the judges who oversaw hiring. The defendants face up to 20 years in prison on some charges.

During intense cross-examination Wednesday, Cremens acknowledged that a 2001 change in state law gave O’Brien more authority in probation hiring, taking it away from judges and that Mulligan may have held a grudge against O’Brien.

“Things were becoming intense in their relationship,” he said, adding that O’Brien ultimately directed him to attend the regular meetings with Mulligan.

It was at one of those meetings that Mulligan questioned the hirings.

Cremens admitted that he himself had listed influential legislators as job references when he was hired in the 1970s, which the defense lawyers called business as usual on Beacon Hill.

“It’s true that [there is] political influence on hiring and promotion. . . there’s nothing new about that, right?” John Amabile, a lawyer for Burke, said.

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