BOSTON (CBS/AP) — Three former state probation department officials were named in a federal grand jury indictment charging them with setting up a “rigged hiring system” that favored job applicants sponsored by powerful state lawmakers over more qualified candidates.
Former commissioner John O’Brien, former deputy commissioner William Burke and Elizabeth Tavares, a former first deputy commissioner, were charged with racketeering conspiracy and mail fraud, according to the 12-count indictment unsealed on Friday.
O’Brien and Tavares also face a racketeering charge.
WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Kim Tunnicliffe reports
Prosecutors said the defendants engaged in a criminal enterprise by seeking to curry favor with members of the Massachusetts Legislature, which controlled the department’s budget, “by instituting a rigged hiring system that catered to requests from state legislators and other to employ and promote candidates for employment with the enterprise.”
The defendants, according to the indictment, obtained from lawmakers, staff members of lawmakers and other influential people the names of favored candidates, and maintained “sponsor lists” to ensure that the sponsored candidates were hired.
The indictment lists several people, identified only by their initials, who were hired for positions between 2001 and 2008 within the probation department after being sponsored by lawmakers, including former House Speakers Salvatore DiMasi and Thomas Finneran, and current Senate President Therese Murray.
No lawmakers were named in the indictment, the first stemming from a federal probe of the hiring and promotion practices in the department.
At a news conference, U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz declined to comment on whether charges could be filed against some of the key legislative and judicial figures who sponsored job candidates and whom she named by position.
“I don’t want to lend more to greater speculation … our job, you must understand, as federal prosecutors, is to carefully and thoroughly review the evidence, follow the leads and make the cases where they are, and that’s what our intent is,” she said.
The probation scandal had cast a dark cloud over Beacon Hill in recent months, as lawmakers waited for the federal probe to run its course.
An earlier investigation ordered by the state Supreme Judicial Court and conducted by independent counsel Paul Ware found what appeared to be “an understanding” between O’Brien and certain lawmakers linking generous state funding for the department to O’Brien’s willingness to give jobs to applicants recommended by the lawmakers.
Independent Counsel Paul Ware calls this a minimalist indictment. He issued his extensive report 18 months ago, and tells WBZ-TV:
“What the United States Attorney has done in bringing this indictment is really the bare minimum based on the probation report that was issued to the SJC in November 2010. There is nothing unexpected with the indictment except that it confines itself to three of the most obvious targets. My guess is that the United States Attorney has not finished the job. ”
O’Brien pleaded not guilty to indictments returned by a state grand jury earlier this year. One of the charges involved a promotion given in 2005 to an assistant probation officer following a request from DiMasi’s office.
DiMasi is serving an eight-year federal prison sentence after being convicted in an unrelated corruption case last year involving a scheme to steer two state contracts to a software firm in exchange for payments.
The federal indictment charges that O’Brien, Burke and Tavares maintained a “sham hiring system” that made it appear they were following regulations issued by the state trial court for hiring, but was instead used to “conceal the fact that the hiring decisions were pre-determined and not based upon merit, but based upon the nature and extent of the sponsorship.”
The mail fraud charges stem largely from the mailing of rejection letters to applicants who prosecutors said were passed over in favor of politically-connected candidates.
Attorneys for the three defendants did not immediately comment.
Burke, who was deputy commissioner from 1999 to 2009, allegedly sponsored his own daughter for a job in the department’s Electronic Monitoring Program in 2001, and she was hired though she was not the most qualified candidate, the indictment also alleges.
The probe of the department’s hiring practices prompted passage of a state law last year overhauling the hiring process for all court and probation officers.
WBZ-TV’s Karen Anderson contributed to this report
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