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State strips ex-probation commissioner, deputy of pensions

John J. O’Brien was ordered Thursday to pay back $56,000 he has collected since 2014.
John J. O’Brien was ordered Thursday to pay back $56,000 he has collected since 2014.Ted Fitzgerald/Pool/File 2013/The Boston herald

The state retirement board Thursday stripped former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien of his pension and ordered him to pay back $56,000 he has collected since his federal conviction on mail fraud and racketeering in 2014.

The board also barred his former deputy commissioner, Elizabeth Tavares, who was convicted in the same case, from her pension and is demanding she return $55,000 that she has received.

O’Brien and Tavares are appealing their convictions.

A federal judge ordered O’Brien to serve 18 months in prison after a jury found him guilty of charges of rigging a state hiring system to favor the politically connected. Tavares was sentenced to three months in prison.

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“We are going to appeal [the retirement board] decision,” said Nick Poser, a Boston lawyer who represented both O’Brien and Tavares before the board. He also said he expects both clients will win their appeals of their criminal cases.

But Poser said that even if O’Brien and Tavares don’t have their convictions overturned, they stand a good chance of keeping the pension payments they have already received. He cited former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi’s pension case that is now before the Supreme Judicial Court.

At issue in the DiMasi case is the meaning of the phrase “final conviction” in the state’s pension law. The phrase refers to the time the retirement board can legally take away a public employee’s pension benefits.

The question before the SJC is whether “final conviction” comes at the time of the jury verdict or whether it applies only after the exhaustion of all appeals.

The retirement board put off to a later date deliberation of the pension rights of another defendant in the probation case, William Burke III, at his request.


Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.