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Defense lawyers ridicule key witness in Probation trial

A key prosecution witness in the federal corruption trial of former state probation chief John J. O’Brien was ridiculed by defense lawyers Thursday as a “serial embellisher” with an academic degree in “BS” who took advantage of the same type of patronage hiring he now says was illegal.

Francis Wall, who retired as a deputy commissioner in the Probation Department in 2011, testified for prosecutors this week that he was part of a leadership team that ran a rigged hiring process and embellished job candidates’ scores to benefit the friends and family members of state legislators. Wall testified that he participated in the patronage hiring process out of loyalty to O’Brien.

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Defense lawyers — playing on Wall’s repeated use of the word embellish, a word used by prosecutors throughout the trial — argued that Wall himself was the “embellisher” and has admitted to lying under oath before.

“You raised your hands and swore to tell the truth,” attorney Brad Bailey told Wall, who faced cross-examination Thursday, on the 18th day of testimony in the trial.

Lawyers for O’Brien and two codefendants pointed out that Wall had listed former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi as a reference when Wall sought past job promotions. In earlier testimony, Wall said that job candidates for the Probation Department who were recommended by legislators were inappropriately prioritized.

Wall also knew the judge who presided over District Court in Dorchester where he was hired in 1974, just after getting out of college. Wall played hockey with the judge, and his father was first assistant clerk of the same court.

“Do you understand the concept of nepotism?” Bailey asked. “You were just a kid coming right out of college.”

Bailey added, “You know from your own personal experience that patronage has been a factor in hiring, going back to 1974.”

Wall, 63, agreed.

Prosecutors have charged O’Brien, the commissioner from 1998 to 2010, and top deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III with racketeering and mail fraud, for allegedly running the Probation Department like a criminal enterprise.

Prosecutors say the defendants favored the family members and friends of state legislators over more qualified candidates. In exchange, prosecutors say, the legislators routinely boosted the Probation Department’s budget, helping O’Brien build his political power. The jobs were considered “political currency.”

Defense lawyers have argued that O’Brien and his deputies did nothing illegal, saying such patronage hiring was typical of Beacon Hill politics. But prosecutors say they committed fraud by rigging the hiring process and creating a sophisticated scheme to conceal it from the judges who monitored appointments.

Wall, who began testifying Tuesday as a key prosecution witness, laid out the alleged scheme: He said O’Brien preselected job candidates, those sponsored by state legislators, and passed those names to other supervisors, who made sure to embellish the candidates’ scores so that they ranked highest.

O’Brien would then certify for judges that he had followed the department’s hiring policies and standards. The process was also carried out so that the hires would survive any union grievances by employees who were not selected for promotions, Wall testified.

Wall acknowledged that he was at the center of the scheme, but was not charged in the case. His lawyer negotiated an immunity agreement that protects Wall from prosecution if he cooperated and testified. Prosecutors have warned he can be charged with perjury if he does not tell the truth.

Defense lawyers have accused Wall of shaping his testimony to please prosecutors. If charged in the case, Wall could face jail time, and lose his $77,000 annual pension.

“Pretty loyal to your pension, aren’t you,” lawyer William Fick said. “You decided it would be better to be a witness than a defendant, right?”

During questioning, Wall also acknowledged there was a history of patronage in the Probation Department, even before O’Brien had control over hiring, when judges had authority to make appointments.

“It’s no secret that patronage has always been widespread in the Probation Department, even when judges were in charge, correct?” Fick asked, saying that a letter of recommendation from a state legislator could count toward a candidate’s merit.

“Nothing in the [hiring] manual says you can’t give weight to references, right?” Fick argued. “There is no definition of merit in the manual, is there?” Wall agreed.

The defense lawyers also sought to use Wall’s testimony to show that some of the allegedly politically motivated hires cited by prosecutors were actually appropriate. They noted that Wall does not have a master’s degree, only a “BS,” while one job candidate cited in the indictment — the son of a judge, who had a heroin addiction — has a law degree.

“I found it very easy to score him number one,” Wall acknowledged.

More coverage:

Witness at trial tells of charade in state hiring

Lawmaker says he sought help to get job for friend

Ex-judge says Probation hiring panel was a ‘sham’

Witness recalls favoritism in Probation hiring

Two detail how they got Probation jobs

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at MValencia @globe.com.
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