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Everything you need to know about the probation corruption trial

Former probation commissioner John O'Brien left federal court in Boston. Elise Amendola/AP

What’s the Probation Department trial about?

Federal prosecutors allege that John J. O’Brien, the probation commissioner from 1998 to 2010, and top deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III ran the Probation Department like a criminal enterprise, favoring job candidates who were sponsored by state legislators over more qualified applicants

In exchange, the prosecutors say, the legislators routinely boosted the Probation Department budget, turning it into a sprawling agency where more jobs would be available. The legislators also allegedly gave O’Brien legislative favors that helped preserve his control over hiring.

What would have been in it for O’Brien?

Besides regular raises, prosecutors say that O’Brien built political clout as head of an agency where the legislators could find jobs for friends. The jobs were called “political currency.”


How is that different than patronage, or politics in general?

US District Court Judge William G. Young has repeatedly told jurors that patronage by itself is not a crime, and neither is donating to political campaigns. Prosecutors allege that O’Brien went beyond patronage hiring and used the department for political gain. They say he committed fraud by creating a bogus hiring system to make it look like he was following policies and procedures, which required that all hiring be based on merit. Rejection letters were sent to people who went through the hiring process but were not hired.

How did the alleged scheme work?

According to the testimony of several witnesses, O’Brien would receive the names of preferred candidates from legislators, and he would prioritize those candidates based on the hierarchy of the legislators. When a position was open, O’Brien and Tavares would pass those names to the Probation Department representatives who served on preliminary hiring panels, to make sure the preferred candidates advanced to final rounds in the hiring process. Then, probation representatives who served on final round interview panels would rank candidates in the order that O’Brien directed, and O’Brien would then hire the top-ranked candidate. That way, O’Brien could counter any union grievances that might be filed, prosecutors said.


Were any legislators charged?

No legislators were charged. However, prosecutors alleged in court filings and in court statements that House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo joined O’Brien’s conspiracy in 2007 and 2008 to direct probation jobs to state legislators whose vote he was seeking in the competitive race for speaker. Prosecutors say that O’Brien and DeLeo bribed the legislators with the probation jobs. DeLeo has forcefully denied the accusations, and called on prosecutors to apologize and retract the statements. Legal analysts said it was unfair for prosecutors to make the allegations without charging DeLeo, depriving him of his right to publicly defend himself. US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz has refused to comment or explain why DeLeo was not charged.

How long was the trial?

The case began with opening statements on May 8, and 60 witnesses took the stand over 35 days of testimony. Some of the witness appeared to support O’Brien, and others clearly agreed with the prosecution.

How much time do the defendants face?

Each charge of mail fraud, racketeering, and racketeering conspiracy carries a punishment of a maximum of 20 years in prison. Sentences are mostly based on calculations that incorporate a defendant’s criminal history and service to the public, and are often only a fraction of the maximum sentence allowed.


Related coverage:

Spotlight Report: Patronage in the Probation Department

Farragher: Favoritism hurtled to a corrupt extreme

House colleagues say speaker system branded unfairly

Jury hears of power play in probation case

Robert DeLeo in glare at Probation hiring 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

Yvonne Abraham: Grimy politics on display at probation trial

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at