A retired Probation Department supervisor on Wednesday became the first witness in the trial of former commissioner John J. O’Brien to describe in full detail the alleged scheme to manipulate the department’s hiring process, saying that the supervisor and others regularly embellished scores to appoint the friends and family members of state legislators.
Francis Wall, a retired deputy commissioner, described for more than four hours how O’Brien and state legislators wrested control of Probation Department hiring from judges and then covered up the hiring of politically connected job candidates.
“We would change scores, we would embellish, to make sure we did everything we can to make sure they were the number one candidate,” Wall testified Wednesday.
Some of the legislators who recommended job candidates were House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and his predecessors Salvatore F. DiMasi and Thomas M. Finneran, as well as Senate President Therese Murray, and jobs were prioritized for the hierarchy of the Legislature, Wall said.
“The commissioner needed to have a good rapport with the legislators,” Wall told jurors. “In order to do that, we needed to secure their recommendations for particular jobs. . . . We were the beneficiary of better budgets because of that.”
The candidates approved for jobs included Douglas MacLean, son of former state senator William “Biff” MacLean, who raised concerns among probation officials when he disclosed to members of an interview panel that he was a drug addict and had a history of crime. He was hired nonetheless. Wall described nine other politically influenced hires Wednesday.
Wall said that he was at the center of the scheme and lied to keep the scheme secret, out of loyalty to O’Brien.
Wall’s description came on the 17th full day of testimony in the public corruption trial, which has seen current and former state legislators, probation officers, and judges offer bits and pieces of what prosecutors say was a rigged hiring process run by O’Brien and his allies. Jurors have been engaged throughout the trial, frequently sending the judge their own questions for witnesses.
Lawyers for O’Brien, during brief questioning at the close of testimony Wednesday, sought to portray Wall as a serial liar who has shaped his testimony for prosecutors to avoid being charged in the case. They questioned his repeated use of the word embellish, suggesting his testimony was influenced by prosecutors.
Wall has an immunity agreement that protects him from prosecution in exchange for his testimony, though prosecutors warned that he can be charged with perjury if he is not truthful. O’Brien’s defense lawyers say Wall has given conflicting accounts in past testimony to FBI agents and a grand jury.
Prosecutors allege that O’Brien, the commissioner from 1998 to 2010, and top deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III ran the department like a criminal enterprise, by hiring the friends and family members of state legislators over more qualified candidates. In exchange, prosecutors contend, the legislators routinely boosted O’Brien’s budget, helping to build his political power. The jobs were considered political currency.
Defense attorneys have argued that their clients did nothing illegal, even if the hirings could be considered patronage, saying the practice was typical of Beacon Hill politics. But prosecutors say O’Brien and his deputies committed fraud by falsely claiming to judges who had to approve the appointments that the department had followed all hiring protocols.
On Tuesday, Wall told jurors of O’Brien’s work with Finneran, the former House speaker, to wrest control of hiring from local judges, after legislators complained that judges would not hire their favored candidates. A change to state law in 2001 gave O’Brien hiring authority, though he was required to certify that the appointments complied with a hiring manual.
After the law was changed, Wall said Wednesday, O’Brien carried out the alleged scheme. He or Tavares or legislative liaison Ed Ryan would give Wall and other deputies the names of preferred candidates, and the deputies would in turn pass those names to an initial hiring panel, with the direction that the candidates be advanced to a final round.
On most occasions, Wall and at least one other probation supervisor would sit in on that final round and would score the candidates in the order that O’Brien wanted, Wall testified. O’Brien would ultimately hire his preferred candidate and certify for judges that he chose the candidate after an extensive hiring process.
Wall said that a candidate’s qualifications played “very little role in the final selection process.” Most often, he did not even know a candidate’s qualifications, Wall said.
Wall also testified that the process of establishing hiring panels helped make the hires “grievance proof,” protecting the hires from union grievances protesting a hiring. On several occasions, Wall said, he was subpoenaed to testify in arbitration proceedings under oath, yet he falsely claimed that the hiring process had been proper.
“My concern was we were about to embark on taking an oath, and in that final hearing basically be telling lies on how we conducted the interview process,” Wall said. “We did lie about the process being a fair process and how we judged the people.”
Wall said that O’Brien told him that “it was important that the process remain in effect, to have a good relationship with the Legislature.”
Wall is slated to resume testifying Thursday.
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