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John J. O’Brien’s sentence should send a warning on patronage

Former state probation commissioner John O’Brien walks out of federal court in Boston, where closing arguments were completed in his trial, in July.
Former state probation commissioner John O’Brien walks out of federal court in Boston, where closing arguments were completed in his trial, in July.Associated Press

The sentence due to be handed down to John J. O’Brien later today should be stiff enough to send an unmistakeable message: whatever short-term gains might come from cooperating with Beacon Hill’s patronage culture, the long-term personal consequences might be much worse. O’Brien was convicted in July of running a rigged hiring scheme at the Probation Department, pretending to select probation officers on merit while actually filling the agency with patronage hires recommended by state lawmakers. O’Brien’s motive was clear: hiring friends ingratiated him to lawmakers, who in turn provided bigger budgets for the department.

Patronage hiring isn’t illegal, but the steps O’Brien took to accommodate lawmakers’ requests were. He and two deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, were convicted of running an elaborate racket, producing a false scoring system to make favored candidates appear that they had been hired on merit. The system resulted in the hiring of the godson of House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and the then-girlfriend of state Senator Mark Montigny, among other politically connected applicants. The scheme hurt not just taxpayers, who didn’t get the top-notch Probation Department they deserve, but also qualified applicants who were passed over for promotions, fired, or simply never hired in the first place, and the criminal defendants who benefit from good probation work.

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It’s irksome to some that none of the lawmakers who supplied “recommendations” to O’Brien, and then fattened his budget after he acted on them, have suffered any consequences, while O’Brien faces years in prison. Nonetheless, that doesn’t exculpate O’Brien, and his conviction should be a warning to officials that if they claim to hire on merit, circumventing those rules will carry great risk. Lawmakers can ask officials for favors, but if O’Brien’s sentence scares them into ignoring them, that would be a fine outcome.

The fact that O’Brien has expressed no remorse almost dares Judge William G. Young to deliver a harsh sentence; prosecutors have asked for about 6 years. But in itself, whether or not O’Brien apologizes doesn’t change very much. Cleaning up state government will require the political system as a whole to finally reject patronage hiring, and the system of winks and nods that supports it. A tough sentence might help send that message.