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Judge said former Probation head John O’Brien abused public trust

A federal judge ruled Thursday that former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien abused his position of power, a decision that could make a significant difference in how the judge sentences O’Brien next week for political corruption.

“Mr. O’Brien was the organizer and leader of criminal activity and abused a position of public trust,” US District Court Judge William G. Young said at the close of a hearing Thursday, adding that O’Brien had been convicted of “massive corruption.”

Young’s ruling that O’Brien was the organizer of a criminal enterprise could mean an additional two years in prison for O’Brien, a father of three from Quincy. Under general sentencing guidelines, O’Brien faced 30 to 37 months in prison on his racketeering conviction. With the judge’s decision, he now faces 51 to 63 months for that count. O’Brien was also convicted of multiple counts of mail fraud.


A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, and prosecutors and defense lawyers are expected to argue for their determinations of an appropriate sentence.

Prosecutors recommended late Thursday night that O’Brien be sentenced to 70 months, saying he has not shown any remorse.

O’Brien’s lawyers had argued against the judge’s decision that O’Brien was the leader of an enterprise and had abused his power as head of the Probation Department. They argued that his crimes were not related to his tasks as probation commissioner.

“The position of trust Mr. O’Brien had was to run a state law enforcement agency in an effective manner, and he did that,” argued his lawyer, Stellio Sinnis. “I don’t see how what Mr. O’Brien did can constitute an abuse of a position of trust.”

O’Brien, who was commissioner from 1998 to 2010, and top deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III were convicted in July of political corruption charges that they ran the department like a criminal enterprise.


A jury found that they created a fraudulent hiring scheme and traded Probation Department jobs to friends and relatives of state legislators — passing over more qualified candidates — for legislative favors and political power.

Their defense lawyers maintained that nothing they did was a crime, even if it was political patronage. The lawyers said it was politics typical of Beacon Hill.

Prosecutors recommended Thursday night that Burke and Tavares be sentenced to 60 months in prison.

Tavares’s lawyers submitted a court filing Thursday asking that she be sentenced to probation, without jail time. The request included 70 pages of letters written in her support.

Lawyers for Burke and O’Brien have not made sentence recommendations.

At Thursday’s hearing, Young also rejected requests by the three defendants for a new trial. They had argued that the judge erred in how he instructed the jury on conspiracy and bribery laws.

O’Brien’s lawyers had also requested a new trial based on recently obtained evidence they said shows that a key witness lied during the trial. The witness was Robert Mulligan, the former chief justice of administration for the Trial Court system, who said he was duped by O’Brien’s bogus hiring scheme.

Mulligan testified during the trial that his hires for court officer positions were based on merit, though he acknowledged that some of them had been recommended by state legislators.

O’Brien’s lawyers said a witness they recently interviewed would testify that Mulligan kept a list of job applicants who were sponsored by former House speaker Salvatore DiMasi and former Senate president Robert Travaglini, the most powerful legislators at the time. The witness would also testify that Mulligan created the list and that the applicants were ultimately hired. The testimony would contradict Mulligan’s statements during the trial.


Assistant US Attorney Karin Bell argued that similar information had already been presented to the jury and that the defense’s witness would not provide any new information.

“From the government’s point of view, it’s a big ‘So what,” Bell said.

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