A federal judge’s ruling on Monday makes House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo a key figure in jury deliberations on whether former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien’s alleged trading of jobs for legislative favors was a crime.
US District Court Judge William G. Young said he would allow prosecutors to argue that DeLeo and a top aide joined O’Brien’s conspiracy when they allegedly bribed legislators with Probation Department jobs, in exchange for the legislators’ support in DeLeo’s competitive race for speaker. DeLeo, who denies any wrongdoing, is not charged in the case.
“The larger, overall theme is racketeering conspiracy,” the judge said, rejecting defense lawyers’ request to dismiss charges against O’Brien and two codefendants. Young said he will explain to jurors that prosecutors allege “there was a concerted effort of O’Brien and DeLeo to bribe the reps.”
In response, DeLeo issued a two-page statement blasting prosecutors and reiterating his innocence.
“The United States attorney has chosen to try me in the press because they lack the evidence to do so in a court of law,” DeLeo said. “That is simply unconscionable and unfair.”
He added, “I believe my indignation has been well-placed and to remain silent, in the face of false accusations, would damage the office of the speaker and the entire Legislature.”
Defense lawyer William Fick also questioned whether the judge was letting prosecutors go too far in alleging “that everyday political horse-trading is a bribe.”
At the heart of the case is whether what transpired between the speaker’s office and the Probation Department was illegal, or simply part of Beacon Hill’s political culture.
Prosecutors have alleged that O’Brien, the commissioner from 1998 to 2010, and deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III ran the Probation Department like a criminal enterprise by directing jobs to the friends of state legislators in exchange for legislative favors.
Defense lawyers say there was nothing illegal with what they called political patronage typical of Beacon Hill, but prosecutors allege they committed fraud by creating a bogus hiring system to make it look like they were following a proper process regulated by department policies. Prosecutors allege that O’Brien benefited from the political power and called the jobs “political currency.”
The trial began with opening statements May 8, and jurors are slated to hear closing arguments Tuesday before they begin deliberations.
The allegations involving DeLeo center in large part on the testimony of a government witness, Ed Ryan, a probation employee and former legislative liaison. He testified that O’Brien told him around 2008 to run all hires for a new probation program through Lenny Mirasolo, a top DeLeo aide. DeLeo was then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and was building support in the competitive race for speaker.
O’Brien, according to Ryan’s testimony, told him that they wanted to help DeLeo.
Ryan also testified that Mirasolo told him that they were seeking the support of specific legislators, including state Representative Anne Gobi, a Democrat from Spencer, and Robert Rice, a former Democratic state representative from Gardner. Several other representatives testified that they also received unsolicited offers of probation jobs for friends.
The representatives testified that they accepted the offer but said it did not influence their vote for DeLeo.
Young noted Monday, however, that the representatives also testified they had not received an offer like that from DeLeo before or since, a fact the judge said goes to the point to the government’s case.
“They don’t have to affirm they’re being bribed,” the judge said of the legislators’ testimony.
Prosecutors have also alleged that O’Brien sought legislative favors from DeLeo and other lawmakers in the leadership. For instance, they alleged, legislators routinely passed budget amendments protecting the probation budget from the head of the state Trial Court system, who otherwise would have had the authority to dip into probation spending.
The Legislature approved funding for an expanded electronic monitoring program around 2006, creating the jobs that were handed out to the friends of legislators.
O’Brien sought sweeping reforms that would have expanded his hiring authority, and would have given him life tenure, though those reforms were never passed.
And Charles Murphy, a former state representative who oversaw the House Ways and Means Committee, testified that DeLeo told him in 2009 at the onset of a state fiscal crisis to spare the probation budget from any cuts. The budget was ultimately cut 14 percent anyway.
Prosecutors allege that the legislative favors were part of an ongoing conspiracy. When the Legislature expanded probation’s electronic monitoring program, the wife of powerful Representative Thomas Petrolati, a Democrat from Ludlow, was hired as a program coordinator for the western part of the state, one of only two positions created in that region. Burke’s daughter was given the other job.
Mirasolo’s son Brian, who is DeLeo’s godson, was also given a probation job and eventually became one of the youngest chief probation officers in Massachusetts’ history, allegedly over more qualified candidates. That job is one of the hires that prosecutors have alleged resulted from a bogus hiring process.
“We have always believed there is a direct quid pro quo for these hires,” Assistant US Attorney Fred M. Wyshak Jr. told Young during arguments Monday.
Monday’s hearing was meant to allow lawyers and prosecutors to argue about the charges and how jurors should be instructed on the law. Defense lawyers, for instance, had argued that Ryan’s testimony about Mirasolo’s statements to him should be excluded as hearsay. But Young agreed to allow the testimony, based on prosecutors’ contention that Mirasolo and DeLeo were unindicted coconspirators.
The judge agreed to let jurors decide on the bribery allegations, against defense objections. But he said he will stress to jurors that patronage alone is not a crime, and that “participation in the political process is encouraged.”
“The government is going to have to prove . . . there was a scheme to defraud,” the judge said. He added that he will not allow prosecutors to argue, “they’re all bad, patronage is bad, let’s send a message that patronage is bad.”
Related coverage:MValencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.