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Yvonne Abraham

Grimy politics on display at probation trial

Blech. A couple of days in Courtroom 18 at the Moakley Courthouse leaves one with an overwhelming urge to shower. That’s where the trial of former probation commissioner John O’Brien and two underlings is playing out. They’re accused of using the Probation Department to win favors from Beacon Hill types by hiring legislators’ favored candidates over other, more qualified applicants.

The most strenuous denial of those charges came from outside the courtroom Wednesday, from House Speaker Robert DeLeo. Prosecutors have accused him of handing out probation jobs to legislators so they would support his quest for the top job back in 2008. He called those assertions “inaccurate and scurrilous.”

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The mud from the courtroom splatters DeLeo just as he’s coming into his own as speaker. He led on domestic violence legislation. His gun control package passed the House Wednesday, just as Charles Murphy, his former Ways and Means Committee chairman, testified that as the recession hit, DeLeo was oddly insistent that probation’s budget be held harmless, even as every other vital state service was slashed. Hmm.

To be fair, little of Wednesday’s testimony supported prosecutors’ claims of a quid pro quo where DeLeo was concerned. Yes, they were offered probation jobs for supporters by a DeLeo aide, a couple of legislators testified, but not in return for their votes. Even Murphy, banished by DeLeo in 2011, went out of his way to say he saw none of that.

However, there was plenty of evidence to show how immense and nefarious the machine O’Brien presided over was. It seems everyone was in on the racket or powerless to stop it.

Take Taunton District Court Judge Kevan Cunningham. In 2006, he testified, O’Brien told him he wanted to make one Joe Dooley the courthouse’s new chief probation officer. A surprised Cunningham said that Dooley was “not known for his work ethic,” that his appointment would bring discord in the courthouse.

O’Brien told the judge that Senator Marc Pacheco of Taunton wanted Dooley in the job — ’nuff said. Rather than push back, Cunningham rolled over. When it came time to score the finalists, Cunningham gave Dooley an 88, the same score a highly qualified candidate, Carol Silvia, received. Cunningham said he did it because the fix was in, and he didn’t want to ruffle feathers. In the hands of pit bull defense attorney Stellio Sinnis, Cunningham’s testimony reflected poorly, but only on him.

“You signed a lie,” Sinnis said. “A district court judge. . . . Did you get indicted for falsifying your score sheet?”

See what he did there? If a judge can behave so cravenly, why single out O’Brien for charges?

Maybe it’ll work, and they’ll convince jurors O’Brien shouldn’t be in prison. But he should never have been in government, either.

The agency he presided over and abused wasn’t some obscure office of uncertain importance. The Probation Department is on the front lines of the justice system. Officers supervise men and women serving their sentences in the community. Good ones can keep those people out of prison and protect the public. Bad ones put you and your tax dollars at risk.

For years, O’Brien made a mockery of that vital work. Maybe, in the end, he walks. Maybe the jury, like so many observers, will decide that this is just the grubby way that politics works.

But try telling that to the victims who wouldn’t be victims if every probation job were filled by the person most qualified to do it. Tell it to those who landed back in jail because the person who could have kept them from the edge got passed over for some hack.

If John O’Brien isn’t a crook, there is something terribly wrong with the law.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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