No, the manipulations that went on behind the scenes at the state Probation Department were not merely business as usual for state government. On Thursday, a jury found former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien guilty of mail fraud, racketeering, and racketeering conspiracy. In light of the evidence presented, his conviction appears just, and it should serve as a warning to a Beacon Hill culture that takes a blasé attitude toward political favoritism in state hiring — even in its most extreme form.
The verdict came after weeks of testimony about how O’Brien and his aides pretended to fill probation jobs in an above-the-board way while secretly rigging the process to steer jobs to friends and relatives of key legislators. Patronage hiring is not itself a crime, as the presiding judge emphasized more than once. But jurors saw evidence of a scheme that went well beyond that. O’Brien and his aides conducted sham interviews and rigged the scoring system, thereby phonying up an ostensibly rigorous hiring system designed specifically to thwart political interference. (Aide Elizabeth Tavares was also convicted of mail fraud, racketeering, and racketeering conspiracy; aide William Burke III was convicted on a racketeering conspiracy count.) O’Brien’s scheme did for Massachusetts what fraudulent elections do for authoritarian regimes: It preserved certain trappings of transparency and public accountability, while letting political insiders dictate outcomes.
Still, as the trial wore on, various politicos and members of the pundit class alike expressed the view that the activities on trial at the Moakley Courthouse were nothing unusual; political cronies, the jaded argument went, get public jobs all the time, and O’Brien wasn’t the first or the last state official to look for ways to expand his power by playing along. At times, prosecutors appeared to have trouble articulating their theory of why they believed O’Brien and his aides had violated federal law.
Nevertheless, in days of deliberation, jurors clearly analyzed the evidence and the charges with a level of discernment — and acquitted O’Brien on several counts. Jurors concluded that, in one instance, probation hires constituted an illegal gratuity but did not rise to the level of bribery. The jury’s willingness to look at the whole picture only makes O’Brien’s convictions on the other counts more credible.
The overall verdict should prompt deeper introspection on Beacon Hill — precisely because so many politicians and political observers honestly couldn’t understand how anything O’Brien did was criminal. It was shocking — and, for the Commonwealth, embarrassing — to see lawmakers rise up, even during the trial, in defense of elected officials’ right to make “recommendations” for public jobs. In an indignant statement, House Speaker Robert DeLeo compared state legislators offering up job seekers to O’Brien with US senators promoting candidates for ambassador or US attorney. But senators have a constitutional role in confirming ambassadors and US attorneys. And probation officers, unlike ambassadors and US attorneys, aren’t political appointees: They’re criminal-justice professionals with a vital role in preventing crime. The cynicism shown by DeLeo and other defenders of the pipeline between Beacon Hill and the probation department destroys public confidence in government. And it’s self-fulfilling; lawmakers who believe patronage is a way of life are more likely to seek public jobs for their friends.
The O’Brien verdict clarifies at least this much: Accepting a wad of cash while under video surveillance isn’t the only form of public corruption. And even in a system where high officials will cop to pushing friends and relatives into government jobs, there are limits to what’s legal.