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Jury hears of power play in probation case

John J. O’Brien.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

A lawyer for the Massachusetts House of Representatives told a federal jury Thursday that former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien met with him and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo in 2007 and proposed sweeping changes to state law that would have given O’Brien broad authority over hiring and over his department and would have effectively given him a job for life.

“It was surgical in scope,” said James Kennedy, who at the time was legal counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee. DeLeo, a Democrat from Winthrop, was then the committee chairman.

Kennedy said he found the proposal unconstitutional, and he recommended that DeLeo deny the request. The changes were never made.


Under cross-examination, Kennedy acknowledged that he and DeLeo routinely received proposals from department heads, but prosecutors sought to use Kennedy’s testimony to show that O’Brien believed that his relationship with DeLeo was so close that he thought he could make such an ambitious proposal.

During testimony Thursday and in the last several days, prosecutors have focused on O’Brien’s relationship with DeLeo, in an attempt to show they had a quid pro quo agreement to exchange jobs in the Probation Department for legislative favors. DeLeo has not been charged and lashed out at prosecutors Wednesday for making the accusations.

Prosecutors say that O’Brien, the commissioner from 1998 to 2010, and top deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III ran the Probation Department like a criminal enterprise, by offering jobs to the friends and family members of state legislators over more qualified candidates in exchange for legislative favors.

Defense attorneys say their clients did nothing illegal, even if they participated in patronage hiring. But prosecutors say the three officials committed fraud by creating a bogus hiring system to make it look as if they were following a proper process.


The emphasis on DeLeo’s role in probation hiring comes as the trial is coming to a close — the prosecution could rest Friday — and after prosecutors were pressed by US District Court Judge William G. Young to outline the remainder of their case, their theory of the alleged crime, and how that theory should be presented to jurors.

On Thursday, Representative David Linsky, a Democrat from Natick, told jurors that one of DeLeo’s top aides, Lenny Mirasolo, called him in 2008 asking if he knew anyone who would be interested in a probation job. Linsky recommended a former campaign manager, who was hired.

DeLeo had been in a competitive race for House speaker at the time. Six other representatives who had either endorsed DeLeo or were contemplating doing so have testified that they received similar offers from Mirasolo for jobs, which they accepted.

Linsky testified that he would have voted for DeLeo anyway.

Toby Morelli, DeLeo’s deputy chief of staff, told jurors that he received a budget request from O’Brien’s office in 2005 to prevent the head of the Trial Court system from dipping into the Probation Department’s funding.

Morelli referred the matter to Mirasolo, who he knew to be close with O’Brien.

William Marchant, chief financial officer for the state Trial Court system, also told jurors that he saw funding for the Probation Department jump to $142.3 million for the fiscal 2009 budget, even though the state was entering a fiscal crisis and the Trial Court had only requested $134.7 million in funding for probation.


Meanwhile, other departments in the Trial Court system were cut by close to 1 percent from the previous year.

“The economy overall took a nose dive, and the projection of revenues were drastically reduced,” Marchant said.

He acknowledged under defense questioning that the House cut the Probation Department’s budget the following year, to $122 million.

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