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Judge testifies about patronage in Probation trial

A second state judge testified Thursday in the state Probation Department trial that she watched in disappointment as probation officials favored a politically connected job applicant, the young girlfriend of a state senator, even though she was underqualified.

“She had no experience in the work we did on the Probate and Family Court,” retired Judge Elizabeth O’Neill LaStaiti said of her 2008 interview with Kelly Manchester, then the 20-something girlfriend of state Senator Mark Montigny, an influential Democrat from New Bedford.

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LaStaiti said that she found Manchester to be pleasant and that Manchester later turned out to be an excellent probation officer.

But the judge said that she had such low regard for Manchester’s qualifications at the time that she did not list her as one of her top 10 candidates.

Still, the two other members of a three-member panel, both Probation Department supervisors, advanced Manchester to the final round. She was ultimately one of three people hired.

“I felt my involvement in the process was a sham,” LaStaiti said, adding that she signed a letter agreeing that Manchester was ranked as the panel’s eighth-best candidate, but was unclear how the final tally was calculated. She said she later complained to the chief judge who oversaw the state Probate and Family Court system.

“I told him it was unfair, and I thought there were better qualified people,” LaStaiti said, adding that Manchester’s connections to Montigny “appeared to be her only qualification for the job.”

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Under cross-examination by defense attorneys, LaStaiti acknowledged that Manchester could have made the list of finalists even if LaStaiti had ranked her the worst among the candidates, because the other members of the panel ranked her fifth. LaStaiti also agreed that people can rank applicants differently after defense attorneys pointed out that she gave another candidate a different score than others gave the same candidate in another situation.

The defense attorneys also used LaStaiti’s testimony to argue that the mother of LaStaiti’s preferred candidate had lobbied the judge for a job for her daughter. LaStaiti said that had no influence on her hiring choice.

Manchester’s hiring was one of dozens of hires that prosecutors have alleged were bogus in a sweeping federal indictment charging John O’Brien, the former probation commissioner, and his top deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, with racketeering and fraud.

Prosecutors say the three ran their department like a criminal enterprise by giving jobs to the friends and family members of state legislators over more qualified candidates. In exchange, according to the prosecutors, the legislators regularly boosted the Probation Department’s budget, helping O’Brien build his political clout.

Defense attorneys argue their clients did nothing illegal, even if it was political patronage, saying patronage was widespread on Beacon Hill.

But prosecutors allege the defendants committed fraud by creating a scheme to cover up the bogus hiring from the judges who oversaw appointments.

Earlier Thursday, former state senator Jack Hart, who spent 17 years in the Legislature representing South Boston, acknowledged during questioning by prosecutors that he had sponsored legislation that would have bettered pension benefits for probation officers.

Hart also acknowledged that he sponsored candidates for Probation Department hiring, including a judge’s son who later resigned after he was arrested for possessing heroin.

Hart said later under cross-examination, however, that he routinely submitted legislation for a variety of departments and wrote recommendations for countless people, unrelated to the Probation Department.

Separately Thursday, James Casey, the retired chief probation officer of the Bristol County Probate and Family Court, said that he had served on a hiring panel with LaStaiti and that he had heard from his supervisor that superiors in Boston had an interest in Manchester’s hiring.

“I understood I was supposed to give [her] extra consideration, I suppose,” Casey said.

He also said Montigny, whom he had known for years, “called to let me know she was a candidate and spoke highly of her.”

He ranked her fifth, saying that is “where I felt she belonged on that particular list.”

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

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