Federal prosecutors put House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo at the center of the Probation Department corruption trial Wednesday, seeking to show that DeLeo and other legislators provided favors for department officials in exchange for probation jobs for legislators’ friends.
Two state representatives told jurors that in 2008, DeLeo’s office offered to arrange probation jobs for their friends after they had agreed to support DeLeo in his competitive race for House speaker. The testimony was designed to show that DeLeo’s connection to the department included having probation jobs at his disposal.
And a former state representative who chaired the House committee that oversaw spending testified that DeLeo told him in 2009 to spare the Probation Department any budget cuts, even as the state’s economy “had pretty much fallen off the cliff at that point.”
“I pushed back, and he told me not to cut probation,” said Charles Murphy, who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee from 2009 to 2011. “He reiterated his guidance, if you will, that the budget would not be cut.”
DeLeo and other Democratic leaders have been mentioned repeatedly during the corruption trial, but the focus on him intensified this week, and DeLeo sought Wednesday to distance himself from the testimony.
The speaker’s office released a statement at about the same time Murphy was testifying Wednesday, denying that the speaker took part in any hiring scheme with Probation Department officials. He later told reporters that he had “no memory” of telling Murphy not to cut the Probation Department budget.
“I ask that the repetition of inaccurate and scurrilous statements cease immediately,” DeLeo, a Democrat from Winthrop, said in his statement. “I never swapped jobs for votes, and there is no one who can truthfully say otherwise. No state representative has testified that they cast a vote for me because of an opportunity to fill a job in the Probation Department, and none can do so truthfully.”
Lawyers for the probation officials on trial — including John J. O’Brien, the former commissioner — sought to discredit the testimony of Murphy and the other witnesses Wednesday. William Fick, a lawyer for O’Brien, pointed out that the final budget that the House recommended in spring 2009 included a 12 percent cut in Probation Department funding.
Murphy said he could not recall exact budget figures, only that DeLeo had told him to spare the Probation Department after Murphy proposed a 10 percent cut.
The emphasis on DeLeo’s role in probation hiring comes as the trial is coming to a close — the prosecution could rest by Friday — and prosecutors have come under increasing pressure from US District Court Judge William G. Young to outline the remainder of their case, their theory of the alleged crime, and how that theory should be presented to jurors.
Prosecutors responded in court filings earlier this week that they will show that O’Brien had a quid pro quo agreement with DeLeo to provide jobs in exchange for legislative favors, the most direct suggestion to date that DeLeo was a knowing and willing participant in the scheme.
Defense lawyers for O’Brien and his two deputies insist that there was no such agreement. They say their clients took part in nothing but routine political patronage, which they say is not illegal.
DeLeo forcefully denied to reporters that he engaged in a quid pro quo and said, “Quite frankly, I’m calling upon the federal prosecutors or anyone else who would make such a statement to cease to make those types of statements, because they’re untrue.”
US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz’s office would not comment on DeLeo’s statement Wednesday and would not say why the speaker has not been charged with a crime if prosecutors believe he took part in a bribery arrangement.
O’Brien, the commissioner from 1998 to 2010, and top deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III were first charged in 2012 on charges that they ran their department like a criminal enterprise, by directing jobs to the friends and family members of state legislators over more qualified candidates and accepting legislative favors in return.
Prosecutors say that O’Brien committed fraud by creating an organized scheme that included having applicants go through a bogus hiring process.
O’Brien then falsely certified to judges that he followed proper policies and procedures in making appointments, prosecutors allege.
If convicted, the defendants face up to 20 years in prison on some charges, including mail fraud and racketeering.
Wednesday was the 32d full day of testimony, and 51 witnesses have taken the stand. The case began with opening statements May 8.
Prosecutors have alleged throughout the trial that legislators, at O’Brien’s request, passed a law in 2001 giving him control over hiring and that he in turn appointed their friends. Legislators also supported O’Brien around 2005, when the state judge who oversaw the Trial Court budget used some of the Probation Department’s funding to balance the Trial Court’s spending, effectively cutting the department’s budget.
Legislators passed budget amendments in response, protecting the Probation Department budget from the rest of the Trial Court system.
On Wednesday, Representative Garrett Bradley, a Democrat from Hingham, told jurors that he attempted to restore Chief Justice Robert A. Mulligan’s authority to dip into Probation Department funding, at Mulligan’s request, but that the legislation failed.
He said Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, a member of the House leadership, told him it would be “a tough road.”
Defense lawyers argued that Bradley was seeking to curry favor with Mulligan, who was contemplating closing a courthouse in Bradley’s district.
The lawyers also argued that the Legislature was trying to better control what was being spent within the Trial Court, without giving Mulligan a blank check to transfer money at will.
The two state representatives who took the stand Wednesday also told jurors that a top aide to DeLeo asked if they knew anyone interested in probation jobs in early 2008. The offer came about four months after the representatives promised DeLeo their support in the race for House speaker, which had started to become competitive.
The legislators said DeLeo’s office had never made such an offer before. The legislators’ friends were offered jobs without being interviewed.
At least four other current or former state representatives have testified earlier in the trial about similar offers from DeLeo’s office, at around the same time, while the representatives were contemplating endorsing DeLeo or had already endorsed his candidacy.
The legislators told jurors, however, that the jobs for their friends never influenced their votes.
“I was committed to Bob DeLeo in December 2007, so I was already with him,” said Representative Kevin Honan of Brighton.
Representative Michael Moran of Brighton said he always helped constituents and called himself the “Suffolk employment agency.”
“People are always looking for work,” he said.