A retired deputy commissioner in the state Probation Department testified before a federal jury Friday that he was told by a fellow deputy just before they conducted a job interview in Springfield that they had to advance the wife of an influential state legislator.
Kathleen Petrolati, the wife of state Representative Thomas M. Petrolati, who prosecutors say held sway over Probation hiring, was ultimately awarded the job.
“Was Kathleen Petrolati the most qualified?” Assistant US Attorney Fred M. Wyshak Jr. asked.
“No,” said Paul Lucci, the retired deputy commissioner.
Lucci told jurors that he was given the names of candidates to advance when he served on other panels as well, and he was a willing participant, but grew concerned when it “continued to happen.”
“It was difficult,” he said.
Lucci was testifying in the federal trial of John J. O’Brien, the former Probation commissioner accused of running a rigged hiring process. But defense lawyers forced Lucci to acknowledge that the type of patronage hiring that O’Brien is accused of had been a longstanding practice in the Probation Department, even before O’Brien was named commissioner. Lucci acknowledged that he cited political connections himself when he applied to the department in the early 1980s, naming a state representative who ultimately became House speaker as a reference.
“You would agree that political patronage has been a factor in Probation hiring for decades, right,” defense lawyer William Fick asked.
Lucci agreed. Fick also contended that Lucci’s testimony has evolved in recent years, since he first began cooperating with prosecutors.
Prosecutors allege that O’Brien, the commissioner from 1998 to 2010, and top deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III ran their department like a criminal enterprise by favoring candidates sponsored by state legislators over more qualified candidates. The legislators in turn boosted O’Brien’s budget, helping him build political power, prosecutors allege.
Defense lawyers say their clients did nothing illegal, saying it was patronage typical of Beacon Hill politics. But prosecutors say they committed fraud, by creating an organized scheme and making applicants go through a bogus hiring process. O’Brien then falsely certified to judges that he followed policies and procedures in making appointments, prosecutors allege.
Lucci, the 42d witness to testify in the case, told jurors that O’Brien promoted him and then tapped him in 2001 to implement an electronic monitoring program in the Probation Department. He was allowed to hire 14 people, including two program managers for two facilities, in Boston and in Springfield. He said he was on the way to conduct an interview in Springfield when another deputy, Francis Wall, told him that they had to advance Kathleen Petrolati for the position of program manager. Lucci thought she was the least qualified.
“Make sure she makes the final list,” Wall had told him, according to Lucci.
He did not know at the time that Kathleen Petrolati was the representative’s wife, but he told jurors that he often attended fund-raisers for Petrolati, a Democrat from Ludlow, and gave him $100 each time.
“There were a lot of people from Probation there,” Lucci said.
Lucci acknowledged that he does not live in Petrolati’s district, and never gave donations to any other legislator.
The Probation Department only staffed one other worker in the Springfield office, and that was Burke’s daughter, Mindy. Prosecutors sought to show through Lucci’s testimony that the positions in Springfield were created specifically for Kathleen Petrolati and Mindy Burke.
Years later, when the department expanded the electronic monitoring program, the functions were centralized in an office in Clinton. Lucci said he was not allowed to participate in the hiring process. O’Brien handled those functions, he said.
Lucci acknowledged, however, that he had recommended the son of a friend to O’Brien. That person was hired.Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.