Federal jury finds excommissioner O’Brien led corrupt hiring operation
Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff
John J. O’Brien, the disgraced former probation commissioner accused of corruption, was convicted Thursday in a sweeping verdict that found he ran the department like a criminal enterprise, handing out jobs to the politically powerful for his own personal benefit.
O’Brien’s top aide, Elizabeth Tavares, 57, was also convicted of aiding and abetting the scheme, and a deputy, William Burke III, 71, was found guilty of participating in a racketeering conspiracy.
The jury of seven men and five women deliberated for 51 hours over seven days before reaching the verdict, which one of the jurors said should serve as a “wake-up” to Beacon Hill.
“After weeks of testimony, it became clear there was serious corruption in the practices of the Probation Department,” US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz told reporters outside the courthouse.
“Bottom line, the evidence showed, and clearly the jury agreed, that this case was about fraud perpetrated by Mr. O’Brien and his deputies on the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
Vincent Lisi, special agent in charge of the Boston FBI office, added, “This should send a message to corrupt public officials out there that there is nothing that is going to get in our way from identifying them and bringing them to justice, like we did in this case.”
O’Brien, 57, appeared to be trembling as the verdict was read, and he hung his head low. Burke and Tavares were also clearly distraught, and their family members cried out against the verdict. US District Court Judge William G. Young ordered them to quiet down. O’Brien’s wife grew ill and was taken to a hospital.
Lawyers for the three defendants said they were disappointed and disagreed with the verdict, which they plan to appeal. The defendants are slated to be sentenced Nov. 18.
The charges each carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison, though the defendants would probably face only a fraction of that punishment under sentencing guidelines.
“Obviously we’re going to continue fighting,” said Stellio Sinnis, one of O’Brien’s lawyers, “and we’re confident that at the end of this process we’re going to come out on top.”
One of the jurors, who asked for anonymity because of the publicity attached to the case, said the 12-member panel had been thorough in its deliberations.
The juror said the panel found that political patronage was widespread in government, and that it occurred even before O’Brien’s tenure. He said O’Brien committed a crime, however, by violating the department’s hiring procedures.
“There were steps in place that made it [a crime],” he said. “These things have been going on a long time. Hopefully there’s going to be some major changes. I think it’s a wake-up to our government in general.”
Saying he felt “a lot of emotions right now,’’ the juror added: “We looked at every bit of evidence, and we were strong.”
O’Brien and Tavares were convicted of four counts of mail fraud, racketeering, and racketeering conspiracy. They were acquitted of four counts of mail fraud.
Burke was convicted of racketeering conspiracy.
The federal prosecution was based in large part on a 2010 Boston Globe Spotlight series that exposed widespread patronage hiring in the Probation Department, which oversees defendants facing charges in a criminal court and mediates disputes in family courts.
Prosecutors say O’Brien and his deputies doled out jobs to the friends of state legislators over more qualified candidates. In return, prosecutors alleged, the legislators routinely boosted the Probation Department budget, turning it into a sprawling agency where more patronage jobs would be available. The legislators also allegedly passed measures that helped preserve O’Brien’s control over hiring.
Prosecutors said the jobs were “political currency,” enabling O’Brien to build his political clout as head of an agency where the legislators could find employment for friends, relatives, and supporters.
Over 35 days of testimony, defense attorneys argued that there was nothing illegal with what they described as political patronage typical of Beacon Hill. They pointed out that the judges who were critical of O’Brien had themselves been sponsored by politicians and in turn handed out jobs to the politically connected.
But prosecutors say that O’Brien went further, by creating a rigged system to make it look as if he was following the protocol that required all hiring to be based on merit.
“I know many wanted to say this case was just patronage or politics as usual, but when you make false representations and you tamper with documents, that’s not just mere patronage, and that’s where we draw the line,” Ortiz said outside the courthouse Thursday.
She would not say why no legislators were charged or whether her office would pursue charges against anyone else.
During the trial, jurors heard from current and former probation officials who described O’Brien’s hiring system. Legislators would pass names of preferred candidates to O’Brien, who created a “sponsor list.” When the department was hiring, he consulted the list and gave the names to his representatives who served on hiring panels, to make sure the preferred candidates advanced to a final round.
Multiple witnesses told jurors that O’Brien gave greater weight to the recommendations of more powerful legislators, such as House Speaker Robert DeLeo, former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, and Senate President Therese Murray. State Representative Thomas Petrolati of Ludlow, a former member of DeLeo’s leadership team, controlled hiring in the western part of the state, according to witnesses.
According to the witnesses, O’Brien would tell his allies on the hiring panels how to score candidates so that he could hire them and make it appear as though he followed a proper process. He then certified documents attesting to that.
“That was a lie; it was always a lie,” Assistant US Attorney Karin Bell told jurors in her closing arguments. “They are knowing and intentional lies by Jack O’Brien.”
Among the charges, the jury found that several hires that were recommended by Murray were politically motivated. They included the 2008 hiring of Patrick Lawton, the son of a judge and state representative who was later fired for possessing heroin, as well as the hiring of Murray campaign supporter Patricia Mosca.
The jury also found wrongdoing in the hiring of Melissa Melia, a State Police detective’s daughter who had been sponsored by Murray and Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe.
And they found a crime in the hiring of Kelly Manchester, the former girlfriend of Senator Mark Montigny of New Bedford.
“I’m getting tremendous pressure from [Montigny],” O’Brien had complained, one government witness said.
Moreover, the jury found fraud in the hiring of Brian Mirasolo, the son of DeLeo’s top aide, as well as DeLeo’s godson.
DeLeo was put at the center of the trial when prosecutors alleged that he took part in a scheme to use probation jobs to bribe legislators whose vote he was seeking in the competitive race for speaker in 2009. The jury did not find that O’Brien bribed the legislators by requesting an official act, but instead that he paid them a gratuity, or a reward.
DeLeo, who was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee at the time, issued a statement Thursday saying the verdict showed that there was no agreement for a bribe between O’Brien and any legislator. However, the statement did not address testimony alleging that DeLeo offered eight jobs to legislators while he headed a committee that oversaw state spending.
In a statement, Governor Deval Patrick said, “The practices at issue were wrong and undermine public confidence in government.”
He said that he and the Legislature reformed the hiring process in the Probation Department since the scandal was first reported in the Globe.
The case hinged in large part on the testimony of Robert A. Mulligan, the former chief justice of the Trial Court system who had to sign off on O’Brien’s hires. Prosecutors alleged that he was duped by O’Brien’s coverup.
Defense lawyers argued that he was well aware of patronage hiring, that he had hired politically connected candidates himself. Mulligan told jurors that he began to question O’Brien’s hires, but had no knowledge of the sophistication of the rigged hiring system.
The federal trial was the second prosecution O’Brien had faced. He had been charged in state court with conspiracy to commit bribery, for allegedly directing Probation Department employees to a campaign fund-raiser for former state treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, in exchange for a job for his wife in the Lottery Commission.
A Suffolk Superior Court found him not guilty of that charge in August 2013.
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