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Former probation chief said to face ongoing inquiry

Focus is said to be links of lawmakers, O’Brien

John J. O’Brien was sentenced for racketeering in 2014.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

Nearly a year after John J. O'Brien was sentenced for racketeering, federal prosecutors are still pursuing the former probation commissioner, pressuring him to inform on lawmakers who benefited from the agency's rigged hiring scheme, according to two people briefed on the ongoing investigation.

O'Brien, who is appealing his 18-month prison sentence for his role in the state patronage scandal, had refused to voluntarily appear before the Worcester grand jury, but officials have been able to force him to testify several times since May because a federal judge agreed to grant him immunity. With that in place, he must appear before the panel but can be prosecuted further only if he lies to the grand jury or refuses to answer questions.


According to the people briefed on the grand jury testimony, prosecutors have grilled O'Brien about his interactions with legislators and whether they had agreements to trade jobs for budget increases in his department. The prosecutors have gone over the allegations related to Beacon Hill lawmakers that surfaced during the investigation and trial of O'Brien and others, according to two people familiar with the proceedings who declined to be identified. Grand jury proceedings are secret.

Paul Flavin, O'Brien's close friend and former lawyer, said prosecutors have repeatedly tried to get O'Brien to say he had explicit arrangements with legislative leaders, even though, Flavin said, there weren't any.

Flavin said he does not know which politicians prosecutors are targeting, but they are "not lower-level reps."

"The prosecutors can't seem to accept the truth," he said. "They have a preconceived notion of what went on. They ask the same questions. They can't accept that it doesn't occur that way. It's a systemic culture. They can't accept that people who came up in the culture are actually educated on how to do it," he said, explaining that job candidates knew that to succeed they needed a legislative sponsor.


He also criticized prosecutors for continuing to question O'Brien.

"Someone should do a story about how much money, man-hours, time, and expense has gone into protecting the public from Jack O'Brien," Flavin said. "He's not the head of a Colombian drug cartel."

Prosecutors had no comment on the investigation.

When the US attorney's office indicted O'Brien and two top aides in March 2012, it did not seek indictments against legislators. It eventually named numerous politicians, including House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, as "unindicted coconspirators" in the scandal. They alleged that O'Brien used the lure of probation jobs to help DeLeo win election as speaker of the House in 2009.

DeLeo has denied any wrongdoing.

O'Brien and two top aides, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, were convicted of racketeering in July 2014 after prosecutors convinced a jury that O'Brien ran the probation department from 1998 to 2010 like a criminal enterprise, steering jobs to candidates endorsed by legislators in exchange for funding favors.

They have appealed the convictions.

William Burke III (left) and Elizabeth Tavares were convicted of racketeering in July 2014.Globe photos/File

O'Brien's lawyers argued he did nothing criminal but was part of a system of political horse-trading that was ingrained in Beacon Hill culture and predated O'Brien.

According to people briefed on the probe, the statute of limitations on any crimes that might have taken place during O'Brien's 12-year tenure expired in May — five years after he was suspended on May 24, 2010.

As a result, any new charges would probably stem only from false statements that were made after that, during the investigation or trial.


Several lawmakers testified during the trial, including Representatives Harold Naughton, Ann Gobi, and Robert Rice, as well as former state senator Jack Hart. Each lawmaker recounted his or her sponsorship of particular candidates for jobs at the Probation Department.

DeLeo never testified before the grand jury or at the trial, nor was he questioned by FBI agents, according to his spokesman, Seth Gitell. But he did testify under oath before an independent counsel, Paul F. Ware Jr., on Nov. 1, 2010.

The Globe has reported that DeLeo acknowledged recommending hundreds of applicants for jobs each year, some of them for probation positions, and did not believe there was anything wrong with it.

Though DeLeo spent $500,000 in campaign funds on legal fees in 2013 and 2014, his spokesman said the probation investigation is not focused on DeLeo.

"It's unfortunate that the matter continues, but it has nothing to do with Speaker DeLeo," Gitell wrote in an e-mailed statement.

O'Brien, who was sentenced to 18 months, and Tavares, who was sentenced to 90 days, were allowed to remain free pending their appeals. Burke was given one year's probation.

Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.