BOSTON (AP) — Patronage and politics often go hand in hand, but prosecutors concede the chummy arrangement isn’t necessarily illegal.
So as the U.S. attorney’s office prepares to bring three Massachusetts probation officials to trial on charges they rigged the department’s hiring process to favor politically connected candidates over more qualified ones, the challenge may well be to convince a jury the scheme went beyond routine political patronage and broke the law.
Former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke have pleaded not guilty to federal racketeering, mail fraud and bribery charges.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday. U.S. District Court Judge William Young has divided the case into two parts and says the first trial could last eight weeks.
Prosecutors allege the former officials schemed to get jobs and promotions for people favored by high-ranking public officials, including Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray. They argue the scheme was an attempt to influence votes on the Probation Department budget and other issues.
No lawmakers have been charged, but investigations into the state Probation Department’s hiring practices have rattled the political establishment.
A revised list of potential defense witnesses submitted Friday included 47 past or present judges, 38 current or former legislators, and 18 past or present law enforcement officials.
“The witness list is a who’s who of Boston politics,” said Christopher Dearborn, a Suffolk University Law School professor and former defense attorney. “There are a lot of people who are going to be dragged through the mud.”
Dearborn said the government will need to demonstrate that the defendants personally benefited from their actions.
“Giving people jobs because you know somebody is one thing and very frowned upon, but getting something in return is what makes it criminal,” Dearborn said.
In an unsuccessful motion to dismiss the case, defense attorneys argued there was no such arrangement.
“Notably, the indictment does not allege, and the prosecution has never claimed, that the defendants — career public servants who dedicated their lives to running a critical public safety agency — put a penny into their pockets or, indeed, did anything illegal for personal gain,” the filing said.
Federal prosecutors say probation officials maintained so-called sponsor lists of individuals recommended for jobs, often maneuvering to assure they were hired even when it meant bypassing a more qualified candidate who lacked political sponsorship.
O’Brien also orchestrated a plan to place politically connected people into “temporary” jobs at a new state facility that electronically monitors people on probation, and many hired were still employed years later, the government alleges.
Legislative leaders have staunchly denied pressuring probation officials to hire their chosen candidates, which in DeLeo’s case, included his godson.
“When we make recommendations for people for jobs, it’s just that — a recommendation,” DeLeo said following a scathing report on Probation Department hiring in 2010 by independent counsel Paul Ware.
The report noted that at the same time job requests were being fulfilled, lawmakers were voting to increase the Probation Department budget, even when the recession caused other state spending to be slashed.
The judge has sought to simplify the case, most noticeably in his decision — made over the objections of prosecutors — to separate bribery charges that were added last year following an initial indictment in 2012. A second trial on those charges could be held in the fall.
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