Metro

Ex-probation chief sentenced as system decried

A federal judge sentenced former probation commissioner John “Jack” O’Brien to 18 months in prison for political corruption Thursday, saying his rigging of a state hiring system to favor the politically connected was a disgrace to the Massachusetts judicial system.

O’Brien’s sentence, along with a $25,000 fine, is significantly less than the nearly six-year maximum prison term he had faced, but US District Court William G. Young said he could not single out O’Brien and his deputies as “rogue” perpetrators of crimes that had historically infested the state’s courts.

“What we have here, in this court’s considered judgment, is fundamentally decent people utterly without a moral compass, at sea, in a field awash in political patronage,” Young said before a quiet, packed courtroom of roughly 100 people.

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Prosecutors had earlier identified more than 30 co-conspirators who were never indicted and named state legislators, including House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who sponsored job applicants that O'Brien’s department hired to curry favor on Beacon Hill. No lawmakers have been charged.

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“John O’Brien did not invent patronage hiring in the Department of Probation,” the judge said. “Today, every judge in the state of Massachusetts must stand ashamed and appalled at the level of patronage and corruption” in the judiciary, which includes the Probation Department.

Elizabeth Tavares, O’Brien’s top deputy, was sentenced to three months in prison, and deputy William Burke III, the department’s deputy for Western Massachusetts, was sentenced to a year of probation. Burke and Tavares had faced nearly four years under sentencing guidelines.

O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke seemed to welcome the sentences, smiling as they wiped away tears and hugging their lawyers and family members outside the courtroom after the hearing.

Lawyers for the three said they plan to appeal the convictions, saying the case straddled a thin line of criminality under federal law. O’Brien and Tavares are slated to report to prison on Jan. 12.

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O’Brien and Burke did not address Young before being sentenced; a right but not a requirement. Tavares tearfully told the judge that she has been disgraced, her career ruined. She pleaded for mercy, saying a prison sentence would keep her from her two elderly, sick parents, her spouse, and her 14-year-old daughter.

“I gave my entire life to the office of commissioner of probation,” Tavares pleaded, apologizing for participating in the scheme. “I stand before you today to say I wish I had the power to stop it.”

O’Brien, who had shown little emotion during the trial, wept into his hands as Tavares spoke.

One of O’Brien’s lawyers, Stellio Sinnis, said outside the courthouse that while he was disappointed with the prison sentence, he appreciated Young’s recognition that patronage hiring was essentially a part of Beacon Hill politics.

“I think it was recognition of the fact that Mr. O’Brien did not invent this, Mr. O’Brien did not start this,” Sinnis said.

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Young repeatedly referred to the judiciary in his remarks.

Paula M. Carey, chief justice of the state Trial Court, said in a statement Thursday that the courts have adopted an outside review’s recommendations and legislation reforming hiring policies since the probation scandal unfolded.

“We continue to improve upon those critical steps, so that hiring practices in the judiciary are constantly examined and improved,” she said.

Several witnesses testified that there had been rampant patronage hiring of court security officers. On Thursday, Young referred to the testimony of one judge that former Superior Court Chief Justice Susan DelVecchio had also recommended politically connected job candidates, though they were not hired.

O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke were convicted of racketeering conspiracy. O’Brien and Tavares were also convicted of mail fraud and racketeering. The jury found that they went beyond patronage hiring and created a fraudulent system to make it look as though they were following proper hiring protocol.

The three-month-long trial, which ended with a jury’s unanimous verdict in July, had cast a dark cloud over Beacon Hill politics, with allegations of state legislators’ influence over Probation Department hiring winding through the State House and to DeLeo’s office.

The case against O’Brien and his deputies was based in large part on a 2010 Globe Spotlight Team series on patronage hiring in the Probation Department.

Throughout the trial, the federal jury heard from government witnesses – including state judges, probation officers and job applicants – who described a predetermined hiring process.

Under O’Brien’s system, according to the witnesses, 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 those names to his representatives who served on hiring panels, to make sure the preferred candidates advanced in the hiring process.

Several of the representatives testified that they fudged the scores of preferred applicants, to make sure they advanced over more qualified candidates. O’Brien then certified documents attesting that his candidates were the best suited for the job.

Among the charges he faced, O’Brien was convicted of gratuity allegations for handing out probation jobs to the friends of state legislators. The jobs were considered gifts for the legislators’ support for DeLeo’s quest for House speaker around 2007 and 2008, according to testimony.

DeLeo has not been charged, and he denied taking part in any agreement to buy votes. Other legislators testified that DeLeo or a representative called them to offer Probation Department jobs for their friends.

Other legislators testified that they routinely recommended candidates for probation jobs and that they would seek the support of powerful legislators such as former House speaker Salvatore DiMasi, and Senate President Therese Murray, knowing their endorsement would give greater weight to the recommendation.

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, whose office prosecuted the case, has not explained the decision to not charge state legislators.

“The trial of this case exposed more than a decade of corrupt hiring practices in the state’s Probation Department,” Ortiz said. “It exposed a pervasively dysfunctional system in which probation officers were hired for their connections to politicians rather than their qualifications for the job.”

Young said he hoped that the 12-week trial that exposed corruption in the Probation Department would send a message to the rest of state government, adding that the trial had triggered legislation and better oversight of the courts.

“It is this court’s belief that, today, the patronage hiring of staff in the Massachusetts judiciary is over, it’s done,” the judge said.

Previous coverage:

Spotlight report: Patronage in the Probation Department

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia