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Lawyers in probation case ask judge to step aside

Lawyers for former Probation Department officials charged with racketeering grew testy Monday in federal court in Boston as they argued that the judge overseeing the upcoming trial has too many personal relationships with witnesses in the case and should step aside.

“Your Honor is so entwined in this, you’ve lost your ability to conduct the proceedings in a fair manner,” lawyer John Amabile told US District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV.

At another point, Saylor himself huffed at another defense lawyer, explaining later, “I am upset with you for interrupting me and being disrespectful to the court.”

After a nearly two-hour hearing Monday, Saylor said he will consider the request that he step aside. He ordered defense lawyers and prosecutors to submit a preliminary witness list by the end of the business day Tuesday to determine whether he has any ties to other witnesses, specifically any judges, lawyers or public officials.

The judge had already disclosed that he was a former law partner of one of the original investigators in the case and was friends with the investigators’ assistant, but said the relationships were not enough to force him to step aside.


“I have relationships with all kinds of people all over the state,” the judge said.

Tensions and emotions in the high-profile, long-awaited case continue to climb as the March 24 trial date approaches. John O’Brien, the former probation commissioner, and two deputies are accused of racketeering in allegedly running a rigged hiring system that favored candidates who were sponsored by state legislators over more qualified candidates.

In exchange, the prosecutors allege, legislators provided O’Brien with yearly budget increases, helping him to build his political power as head of an agency where jobs were for sale.

The defense lawyers say that nothing their clients did was illegal, that it was nothing more than political patronage. They say, for instance, that they plan to call US District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman as a witness to show that he recommended candidates when he was a state judge and that there was nothing wrong with doing so.


Defense lawyers contend that Saylor should step aside because he is close friends with Hillman.

But Assistant US Attorney Robert Fisher argued Monday that the case is about more than sponsoring a candidate or writing a letter of recommendation for someone.

He said O’Brien and his deputies created a fraudulent scheme to avoid scrutiny, and someone who was simply listed as a reference may not have even known about the scheme. He argued that O’Brien gave weight to specific candidates who were recommended by specific state legislators.

“The [other] references here really don’t mean anything,” Fisher said.

The defense lawyers questioned whether prosecutors were defining all patronage as a crime, however, noting that several people, including state legislators, who sponsored job candidates received immunity from prosecution for cooperating with prosecutors.

Attorney Stellio Sinnis questioned the need for immunity if job sponsors never committed a crime.

The Globe has reported that former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran was granted immunity.

Sinnis argued that Hillman will be a critical witness to show that there was a culture of patronage in the state and that lawyers, judges, and other public officials often recommended candidates and that it was not a crime.

“If the culture says this is the way things were done, how is that criminal intent?” lawyer William Fick said.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@
. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.