A former top deputy in the state Probation Department told a federal jury Tuesday that then-commissioner John J. O’Brien worked with influential legislators to wrest control over hiring from state judges because judges were refusing to appoint the legislators’ preferred job candidates.
Francis Wall, who retired as deputy commissioner in 2011, told jurors in O’Brien’s public corruption trial of a conversation O’Brien had more than a decade ago with then-House speaker Thomas M. Finneran at the State House. They had a plan to lobby the Legislature to give O’Brien authority over hiring, and the plan was ultimately included in a 2001 change to the state Trial Court system’s hiring policies.
According to Wall, Finneran had told O’Brien that “It would be incumbent upon [O’Brien] to ensure the House he was a proponent of patronage.”
Wall said he himself talked to an influential former state senator, Marian Walsh. “I asked for her support to give [appointment authority] to the commissioner,” he said.
Wall was testifying for prosecutors under an immunity agreement that protected him from prosecution if he cooperated with authorities, and he was warned by Assistant US Attorney Fred M. Wyshak Jr. that he could be charged with perjury if he gave false statements. He then went on to testify of the alleged scheme O’Brien brokered with the legislators.
Wall said he learned of legislators’ concerns that they were not involved in hiring decisions in the Probation Department during a trip to a court in New Bedford some time before 2001 to resolve court administrative matters. The judge there at the time told him that he would not bend to the requests of Senator Mark Montigny, a powerful Democrat from New Bedford, to hire his recommended candidates for nine vacancies in the Probation Department.
“He alone would make the appointment, as the judge,” Wall told federal jurors.
He said that he told O’Brien, who responded that he had been aware of “discontent” in the Legislature over hiring.
The 2001 change in law transferred control over hiring from the judges to O’Brien, though the commissioner was required to certify to the chief justice of administration and finance that his hires complied with the Trial Court hiring manual.
Prosecutors say O’Brien and his deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III ran their department like a criminal enterprise by favoring candidates who were sponsored by state legislators over more qualified candidates. In exchange, the prosecutors say, the legislators routinely boosted the Probation budget, helping O’Brien build his political clout. The jobs were called “political currency.”
Defense lawyers argue that O’Brien and his deputies did nothing illegal, even if it was patronage, but prosecutors said they went further and committed fraud by creating a scheme to cover up the bogus hiring from the judges.
Wall testified that he accompanied O’Brien on a trip to the State House, after the commissioner told him he had been asked by the judges who oversaw the Trial Court to not support the 2001 change in state law. He said O’Brien asked him to serve as a “lookout” at the State House during his meeting with Finneran in case the chief justice arrived there at the same time.
“He was [told] not to support any legislation,” Wall said.
Earlier Tuesday, O’Brien’s former aide and manager of intergovernmental relations — who worked for Finneran when he was a legislator — told jurors that she had kept “sponsor lists” of job applicants who had been recommended by legislators, and she passed them along to O’Brien at his request whenever the department was hiring.
At O’Brien’s request, Maria Walsh testified, she had also created specific lists for candidates recommended by powerful legislators including Senate President Therese Murray and then-House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi – who had sponsored the 2001 change in the hiring law.
“When there was a position posted, we’d get a flood of calls,” Walsh said.
She said O’Brien told her for the first time around spring 2010 that she could delete the lists: It was around the time the Globe Spotlight team published a series on patronage hiring in the Probation Department.
Under questioning by defense lawyers, Walsh acknowledged that she was never ordered to delete the lists, and that O’Brien simply said they were no longer needed because the hiring process was over.
She also acknowledged that she routinely received job recommendations from a variety of public officials including Attorney General Martha Coakley, not just from legislators.
Attorney William Fick pointed out that Walsh also had an immunity agreement with prosecutors, but he questioned whether she believed she needed one.
“You don’t think that you did anything wrong in the course of your work for the Probation Department, do you?” he asked.
She agreed.Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@g
lobe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.