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Ex-judge admits to patronage hiring

The former head of the state Trial Court system who accused Probation Department supervisors of running a fraudulent hiring scheme to benefit state legislators, was forced to acknowledge under withering questioning Wednesday that he took part in the same type of patronage hiring.

Robert A. Mulligan, 70, the retired chief justice for administration and finance for the Trial Court, was testifying in the federal corruption trial of former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien and two deputies. On the stand, Mulligan acknowledged that he at times skipped the paperwork process when hiring politically connected job candidates as court officers. He instead had a subordinate sign his name, he said.

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“I never envisioned there would be questions over it,” Mulligan said.

Mulligan was later asked why he would hire a 62-year-old short-order cook, the father of Senate President Therese Murray’s chief of staff, for a job as a court officer. And defense attorney Stellio Sinnis asked why Mulligan would have received job applications that were faxed from the office of the Senate president, who was then Robert Travaglini.

“Why are senators calling the Senate president’s office for the assistance in the hiring . . . of court officers?” Sinnis asked.

Throughout the afternoon, Mulligan, who was head of the Trial Court for most of O’Brien’s tenure as administrator, was questioned about his relationship with the Legislature and his own hiring process, as Sinnis sought to characterize him as a hypocrite.

Sinnis pointed out that Mulligan was critical in earlier testimony of a question O’Brien used in a screening process, when Mulligan had been asking the same question in his own hiring.

45th witness

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“So now, when you’re doing the hiring, this question has a lot of color and meaning to it, but when he wants to do it, it’s silly,” Sinnis argued.

Prosecutors have accused O’Brien and deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III of running the Probation Department like a criminal enterprise by directing jobs to friends and family members of legislators in exchange for regular budget increases for the department. The prosecutors characterize the jobs as “political currency” that helped O’Brien build his political empire. Prosecutors also say the defendants committed fraud by creating an organized scheme and making applicants go through a bogus hiring process.

Defense lawyers say that their clients did nothing illegal, saying the hiring arrangements were patronage typical of Beacon Hill politics. On Wednesday, they sought to show that patronage was common in the Trial Court system as well and that Mulligan knew about it.

If convicted, the defendants face up to 20 years in prison on some charges, including mail fraud and racketeering.

Mulligan was the 45th witness to take the stand, and he has emerged as a pivotal player in the trial, as prosecutors hope to use his testimony to show that he was duped by O’Brien’s false certifications that his hiring was proper and met the department’s guidelines.

Mulligan had testified for prosecutors that he began to question O’Brien’s hires in 2003 and that O’Brien began to grow “oppositional.”

But Sinnis sought to show that Mulligan was the one who grew combative with O’Brien and that he wanted to regain control over the probation budget and hiring authority.

Sinnis also sought to show that Mulligan had hired his own friends in the courts, and at one point thanked O’Brien for hiring his brother’s friend.

Mulligan also hired his former law clerk on the same day she filed an application with the Trial Court. The clerk, Elizabeth Cerda, was the wife of former state Representative Peter Koutoujian, who is now Middlesex County sheriff. She was hired as legislative liaison.

A month later, Sinnis pointed out, the Legislature provided the Trial Court system $3.6 million for new hiring.

The discord between O’Brien and Mulligan became clear Wednesday when Mulligan began to argue that a friend of his family, the one he had initially thanked O’Brien for hiring, had left the department because she was never promoted. Mulligan said O’Brien had retaliated against her because of their fraying relationship.

The accusation drew laughter from O’Brien supporters in the courtroom.

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