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Probation officer cites link to politics

At O’Brien trial, says state senator urged her to apply

Former state probation commissioner John J. O’Brien left US District Court Friday, where he is on trial.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Former state probation commissioner John J. O’Brien left US District Court Friday, where he is on trial.

A state probation officer told a jury in the federal Probation Department corruption trial that her former boyfriend, state Senator Mark Montigny, had encouraged her to apply for the job in late 2007.

Months later she was hired, even though prosecutors and other witness have said she had few qualifications for the position.

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“He could open the door for me, and I had to go through the application process, the interview process,” Kelly Manchester said Montigny, an influential Democrat from New Bedford, had told her.

But then, she said, “it was up to me.” Manchester, who was 24 when she was hired, said Montigny never told her she would be guaranteed a job.

In what escalated into a fiery exchange with prosecutors, she recanted testimony she had earlier provided to a grand jury, when she said that Montigny told her he would contact John J. O’Brien, the state Probation Department commissioner, on her behalf.

“I made an assumption [to] the grand jury; I don’t know if I answered what you want to hear from me,” Manchester told Assistant US Attorney Fred M. Wyshak in US District Court Friday, repeating that she did not recall the conversation.

Wyshak described her as a hostile witness who had been shaping testimony for the defense team.

“Every question [defense lawyer Christine DeMaso] asked you, you had an answer for,” he said.

“If she had asked me the same question [you had], I wouldn’t have remembered,” Manchester responded.

Manchester, who had worked as a substitute teacher previously and had just started as an administrative assistant in a probation program for juveniles, told DeMaso that she felt she was qualified for the job.

She had also applied for a Housing Court job earlier at Montigny’s direction, but was not hired.

“He never told me I was guaranteed to get the job,” she said.

The hiring of Manchester, in early 2004, is one of the corrupt hires prosecutors say O’Brien carried out when he served as commissioner, from 1998 to 2010.

Prosecutors say O’Brien and his top deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III ran their department like a criminal enterprise, by hiring the family members and friends of state legislators over more qualified candidates.

In exchange, prosecutors contend, the state legislators routinely boosted O’Brien’s budget, helping him to build political clout as head of an agency where legislators could have their friends hired.

Defense lawyers argue their clients did nothing illegal, even if they did make political patronage hires. But prosecutors allege they committed fraud by violating the department’s policies and then creating a scheme to cover up nepotism from the judges who oversaw appointments.

Earlier, the state judge who had presided over the Bristol Probate and Family Court, where Manchester was hired told jurors she opposed her appointment, saying she was unqualified.

Judge Elizabeth O’Neill LaStaiti said Manchester turned out to be an excellent probation officer, however.

James Casey, who had been the chief probation officer in the Bristol Probate and Family Court, said a superior, Frank Campbell, had hinted that top superiors in Boston wanted Manchester hired. Casey ranked her fifth, saying it was the score she deserved.

Theresa Nowell, who runs Montigny’s district office in New Bedford, testified Friday that the senator had asked her to contact Probation Department officials to recommend Manchester for a job. She said she did so, but reluctantly.

“I knew she was extremely young, and I just had a gut feeling that this wasn’t the right thing to do, that there were other candidates,” Nowell said.

Under cross-examination by O’Brien lawyer William Fick, Nowell acknowledged that she had disapproved of Manchester’s relationship with Montigny, who at the time was about 46 and twice her age.

But, Nowell added, “that wasn’t for me to judge.”

The case began with opening statements on May 8, and it was estimated it could last two months.

Retired Judge Thomas Brownell is slated to testify Monday.

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