fb-pixel Skip to main content

Probation trial displays favoritism to the extreme

We've all done it.

You get a phone call. Your friend's kid needs a job.

"Hey, Billy is looking for an opening,'' your old friend tells you. "Any chance you could put in a good word?''

That's how the world works, right? It's not what you know, it's who you know.

That you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours dictum is, in effect, the overarching defense strategy of the trio of former top officials from the state Probation Department, in a corruption trial that is now headed to the jury.

Politicians wanted favors. Jack O'Brien, the now ex-probation commissioner, wanted to make friends in the Legislature. So he fixed the game. Favors got doled out.


Tell me something I don't know. What's the big deal?

But as a parade of 60 witnesses in this dismal trial — and the Globe's 2010 Spotlight Team investigation into the fraudulent agency — made plain, here's the big deal: This wasn't plain vanilla patronage. This wasn't helping young Billy get his foot in the door.

RELATED: Colleagues defend speaker amid hiring trial accusations

This was the crack cocaine of patronage. This was a pure and corrupt crystallization of patronage. This was the wholesale hijacking of a state agency that too often placed important public safety jobs beyond the reach of hopeful criminal justice majors and denied promotions to talented probation officers most qualified to supervise criminals in our community.

It's important work where merit and sterling credentials can mean the difference between giving someone a second chance or a return ticket to prison.

But that's not how Jack O'Brien led the Probation Department. Jack's phone would ring. State House leaders and legislators would forward their favorite candidates. Jack would make a list. And, without checking it twice — without checking it at all — his apparatchik underlings made sure the favored few got the jobs.


No experience? No aptitude? No problem.

In the spring of 2010, when my Spotlight Team colleagues and I were investigating O'Brien's department, we saw up close the corrosive, demoralizing effects of O'Brien's scheme.

I sat at Karen Jackson's kitchen table in Milford, after the Globe had obtained the scoring sheets for her 2005 interview for an assistant chief probation officer job at Milford District Court.

Karen believed she had earned the promotion. And all three members of a hiring committee at Milford District Court, including a local judge and Karen's boss, thought so, too.

She was their unanimous first choice. In other words, Karen was clearly the best person for the promotion. But she didn't have O'Brien's most critical qualification. The job went, instead, to a person with ties to the local state representative.

"The fix was in,'' Karen told me. "If you don't know anyone, you're not going anywhere.''

I sat with Bernie Dow at a tavern in West Boylston a few weeks later. Bernie told me how he had tried for 31 years to get a probation promotion at Worcester District Court. Nothing worked. Not his Holy Cross degree. Not his experience as a social worker. Not his master's degree.

"To insure I got a job, I had to go to a high-ranking politician,'' Dow told me.

Turns out that political big shot was then-House Speaker Sal DiMasi. And then, after ponying up $1,000 to DiMasi in late 2004 and early 2005 — presto! — his promotion magically came through.


The federal jury heard merit was sometimes measured under O'Brien by the amount of cash probation higher-ups collected for State Representative Thomas Petrolati, the former House speaker pro tempore who lost his leadership post in the scandal but since has been reelected without opposition. Hang down your head, Ludlow.

Stellio Sinnis, a defense lawyer for O'Brien, told the federal jury during closing arguments Tuesday that Jack O'Brien was a good commissioner, who insisted on hiring qualified people.

RELATED: Bribery, patronage debated at probation trial's end

"Patronage is not illegal,'' Sinnis said. "He never intended to defraud anybody.''

Sinnis sought to downplay court testimony that one of O'Brien's codefendants, William Burke III, conferred a probation badge to one politically connected candidate in a Northampton barroom and then told him to thank Petrolati for the promotion.

"Billy Burke wants to go out and have a few beers. Don't you do that?'' Sinnis asked the jury.

Smart people became blind to a corrupt — and nakedly fraudulent — system that became as much a part of their Probation Department work place as the drab drapes at their office suite atop Beacon Hill.

O'Brien and his lieutenants say this is all small potatoes. Patronage is everywhere, from the judges to the janitors.

It's how politics work, lawyers for the defendants told the jury Tuesday.

Isn't that cynical? Isn't that craven?

Assistant US Attorney Karin Bell said O'Brien constructed a sham hiring process and then lied repeatedly to cover it up.


"That's not patronage,'' Bell said, "that's fraud.''

It's also a disgraceful indictment of state government.

The jury now decides whether it's a federal offense.

Related coverage:

Spotlight Report: Patronage in the Probation Department

House colleagues say speaker system branded unfairly

Bribery, patronage debated at trial's end

Jury hears of power play in probation case

Robert DeLeo in glare at Probation hiring trial

Yvonne Abraham: Grimy politics on display at probation trial

Probation officials practiced simple patronage, lawyer says

Probation case focus on lawmakers may backfire

O'Brien declines to testify as prosecution rests

DeLeo denies trading favors for probation jobs

Ex-judge grilled on probation hiring

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.