Walsh’s weaselly defense of O’Brien

Mayor Marty Walsh
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Mayor Marty Walsh

How would Marty Walsh feel if he spent many months campaigning hard for Boston mayor, but didn’t get the job because the city’s voting machines were rigged for his opponent?

Would he declare the person who did the rigging innocent? Or would he stand up in front of City Hall and demand a federal investigation into election fraud?

A federal jury basically found John O’Brien, the former probation chief, guilty of rigging the Probation Department’s hiring system in favor of job applicants recommended by a slew of Beacon Hill politicians, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray.


Yet asked during a recent WGBH radio appearance if O’Brien is guilty of a crime, Walsh said, “I don’t think so.” With that pronouncement, the mayor — a former state representative who chaired the House Ethics Committee — made it very clear where his allegiance lies.

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It’s with his former colleagues on Beacon Hill — not with fellow citizens, especially those defrauded of jobs they never had a chance to land because of O’Brien’s responsiveness to Beacon Hill’s desires.

In a statement clarifying his radio remarks, Walsh said he respected the jury’s judgment, but still called the results of the O’Brien case “distressing,” because he feels elected officials “have an obligation to be helpful to their constituents.”

What’s distressing is Walsh’s deference to politicians who recommend not just constituents, but less-than-qualified friends, godsons, and lovers for employment not available to others.

What’s even more distressing is Walsh’s response to this statement from radio host Margery Eagan, concerning O’Brien’s actions: “What you’re saying is that you don’t think rigging the system, which is what he was found guilty of, rose to the level of being criminal.”


Walsh said he didn’t “get all the facts” or “read all the testimony ... But I just think he went to work every day to do his job and somehow the system got the better of him.”

How could the system get the better of O’Brien? He invented it.

All the post-trial handwringing over prosecutorial over-reach has the feel of a campaign aimed at getting the lightest sentence for O’Brien — or maybe even getting the judge to set aside the verdict.

Sentencing is scheduled for November, so there’s time to send a pointed message to US District Court Judge William Young: The political establishment is outraged over the prosecution and verdict in this case — not outraged over what it shamelessly embraces as business as usual.

As Young said repeatedly during the trial, recommending friends is not a federal crime; instead, the jury considered whether rigging a hiring system amounts to one. After seven days of deliberations, the jury convicted O’Brien of mail fraud, conspiracy, and racketeering, despite efforts by defense lawyers to get the case thrown out.


O’Brien could try to get the verdict tossed, and probably will try, said well-known defense lawyer Harvey Silverglate. Prosecutors could appeal if the verdict is set aside, which is unlikely.

In a piece written for Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly after the verdict, Silverglate argues that federal prosecutors found a way to turn “regular political horsetrading” and “unsavory local political culture” into felonies. But as Silverglate also points out, this federal case was triggered by an investigation by independent counsel Paul Ware, which concluded O’Brien’s actions perpetuated “pervasive fraud against the Commonwealth.”

A fraudulent hiring system takes a job from someone who deserves it and gives it to some who does not — just like a fraudulent election system steals from a candidate who deserves the victory and gives it to someone who does not. That’s a crime jurors understood and one that Walsh and others still do not. As David Bernstein points out in his Boston Magazine blog, Walsh’s reaction sends “a huge signal to current and potential employees of the city of Boston that the mayor considers the type of clearly fraudulent behavior laid out in court to be ‘above board.’ ’’

Walsh is still looking at this from the perspective of a politician eager to please the happily recommended job applicant. He doesn’t see it as a theft from others more qualified and less connected, who actually believed the system was fair until they learned it was not.

To the victims, it’s a crime. To the perpetrators, it’s just another day in Massachusetts politics.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.