State Representative Michael Costello told a federal jury Monday that he sought the help of House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi’s office to lobby the Probation Department for a job for a family friend.
Costello said he had met John J. O’Brien, the probation commissioner, but did not know him well enough at the time, around 2006, and when it came to recommending the friend for a job, “I would try to go up the ladder.”
Former state representative Steven Walsh agreed that “there was more influence in the speaker’s office,” and he told jurors he also sought DiMasi’s help in getting a job for two family friends.
Federal prosecutors sought to use the testimony of Walsh, a Democrat from Lynn who stepped down earlier this year to run the Massachusetts Council of Community Hospitals, and Costello, a Democrat from Newburyport, to show the influence a powerful state politician like the House speaker could have on Probation Department hiring and how officials in the agency were willing to accommodate them.
But lawyers for O’Brien and two codefendants sought to use the same testimony to show that legislators routinely recommended constituents for state jobs, not only in the Probation Department, and that there was nothing wrong with it.
“Is it fair to say you made recommendations because you wanted to help the candidate get hired?” attorney William Fick asked Walsh, who said he did.
O’Brien, who was commissioner from 1998 to 2010, and his top deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, face charges including racketeering and mail fraud, for allegedly running their department like a criminal enterprise.
Prosecutors say they favored job candidates who were sponsored by state legislators over more qualified candidates. In exchange, the prosecutors say, the legislators routinely boosted the Probation Department’s budget, helping O’Brien build his political clout.
Prosecutors called the jobs “political currency” and say O’Brien and his deputies committed fraud by creating a scheme to shield the bogus hiring from the judges who oversaw appointments.
Defense attorneys argue that their clients did nothing illegal, even if it was patronage, and they argue that patronage was simply Beacon Hill politics.
Costello agreed under defense questioning that the governor’s office, for instance, has staff members who take constituent calls and help people get jobs.
“It used to be called the Office of Patronage,” Costello said.
He had recommended Mari-Elena Sanchez, the daughter of a judge, and said he thought she was qualified. She had worked for the state Department of Correction, and had interned in the Probation Department.
Walsh said he lobbied for jobs for family friends like Michael White, a high school football coach, and Kevin O’Brien, a part-time police officer in Nahant.
All of them obtained jobs, and they are among the dozens of allegedly bogus hires listed in the federal indictment.
Gail Garinger, the state’s child advocate and a former juvenile court judge, had earlier told jurors that she participated in the hiring panel that screened applicants, and she thought it was a sham.
She acknowledged under cross-examination Monday, though, that all but one of her 16 finalists had actually advanced to the final hiring round, and two of her top choices obtained jobs.
The only person whom Garinger had opposed but who still advanced to the final round was Antonio Mataragas. A probation supervisor testified earlier in the trial that he was told by Tavares to advance Mataragas to the final round interview.
Mataragas, 39, of Salem, told jurors Monday that he had a long interest in the Probation Department.
He worked for a private contractor as a social worker, and was hired around 2000 to help run the Probation Department’s electronic monitoring-bracelet program.
He applied for a position as a Middlesex Juvenile Court probation officer in late 2006, and sought the help of state Senator Fred Berry, of Peabody, whom he had known since he was a teenager.
According to earlier testimony in the trial, Berry then solicited the help of state Senate President Therese Murray.Milton J. Valencia can be reached at MValencia@
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