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Judge rejects delay of ex-probation chief’s trial

Lawyers for John O’Brien said they have only begun to review 7,000 pages of documents, which, they argued, should have been turned over by the prosecution months ago. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File

After a spirited hearing, a federal judge refused Tuesday to postpone the long-awaited trial of John J. O’Brien, the disgraced former probation commissioner, saying that too many schedules are at stake in the case.

The ruling came despite pleas by lawyers for O’Brien and his top deputies, who said that they were still sifting through thousands of documents federal prosecutors had only recently turned over and that they were still awaiting more documents.

“This case needs to be brought to trial,” US District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV said. “Scheduling a lengthy trial is not an easy thing; it’s quite complex,” he said, but added, “There is always a scramble at the end, even in a simple trial.”


Saylor, however, said that he could reconsider his decision over the next couple of weeks as the Feb. 25 trial nears.

Defense lawyers and prosecutors have been battling over evidence and legal rulings as the trial approaches.

O’Brien and his top deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke, face charges including racketeering, in allegedly running a rigged system that hired and promoted people recommended by state legislators over more-qualified, nonconnected candidates, in violation of department policy.

In exchange, prosecutors contend, O’Brien and his aides received significant budget increases for their agency and were able to build their political power as heads of a Probation Department where jobs could be bought. They face sentences of up to 20 years on some of the charges. Lawyers for O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke have argued that nothing they did constituted a crime, even if it was political patronage.

The lawyers also have said that more than 7,000 pages of evidence that prosecutors turned over in December, as required by court rules, contradict the prosecutors’ own theory. The documents, for instance, allegedly show that people who sat on hiring panels, including judges, approved of hires without any input from superiors at the Probation Department, negating the theory that O’Brien was involved in the hiring.


John Amabile, an attorney for Burke, argued that other documents contradict the government’s allegations that O’Brien and his team coordinated an effort to help elect House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo to that top legislative post in 2009. He said statements by a Worcester County legislator deny the effort.

Lawyers for O’Brien said they have only begun to review 7,000 pages of documents, which, they argued, should have been turned over by the prosecution months ago. They asked Saylor to order prosecutors to turn over all information that could help them in their defense, and they asked for the delay in the trial to go over the documents.

Stellio Sinnis, an attorney for O’Brien, said he could not believe defense lawyers were “still fighting” for information on the eve of trial.

Assistant US Attorney Fred M. Wyshak Jr., head of his office’s public corruption and special investigations unit, argued that prosecutors have already turned over all evidence they are required to.

Saylor, attempting to settle the lawyers, said he would consider two specific requests, which would force prosecutors to turn over more information about people who were sponsored by legislators but did not receive jobs and about people who received jobs but were not sponsored by legislators. The defense lawyers argued it would help build their case.

The judge had earlier announced that he would grant neither the defense’s request to dismiss the case, nor motions by the defendants to have separate trials.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@
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