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New judge tapped in Probation corruption trial

A new judge has been assigned to preside over the federal corruption trial of former Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien and his co-defendants, one day after the previous judge agreed to recuse himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict.

United States District Court Judge William G. Young is replacing Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV in the trial in federal court in Boston, according to the official case record.

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Saylor on Thursday agreed to step aside, writing that his close relationship with a possible defense witness, fellow District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman, could “open me up to the criticism that I was excluding evidence.”

O’Brien and two former top deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, are charged in a racketeering indictment with running a rigged hiring and promotion system that favored candidates sponsored by legislators. In exchange, prosecutors say, the lawmakers routinely boosted O’Brien’s budget, helping him build his political power as head of an agency where jobs were for sale.

Defense lawyers contend that O’Brien did nothing illegal and was only engaging in political patronage. They have listed a slew of current and former elected officials and judges, including Hillman, as potential witnesses to show that what happened in the Probation Department was typical of state politics.

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Young was appointed to the federal bench in 1985. Among his notable decisions was a 2010 ruing, in which he upbraided the US Justice Department in a civil lawsuit brought by relatives of James “Whitey” Bulger’s victims. He found that the government mounted a defense with “the sole purpose of embarrassing’’ the two families.

A status hearing in the O’Brien case is scheduled for Thursday morning.

Milton J. Valencia of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.
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