BOSTON (AP) — Lawyers delivered closing arguments Tuesday in the federal trial of former state probation commissioner John O’Brien and two deputies who prosecutors say rigged the agency’s hiring process to favor applicants backed by powerful state lawmakers.
O’Brien, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke “cheated people out of jobs,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Karin Bell told the jury, and cheated the state’s court system and Massachusetts residents out of having the best employees.
“Instead of appointing the most qualified probation officers, they appointed the most politically connected,” Bell said.
O’Brien’s lawyer, Stellio Sinnis, said prosecutors failed to offer proof that his client broke the law.
Burke’s lawyer called the prosecution a “political witch hunt.”
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Prosecutors allege that the defendants created a “sham” hiring procedure to assure that candidates with political sponsors were hired.
Jury deliberations will begin Wednesday.
The charges against O’Brien include conspiracy and racketeering by means of mail fraud, bribery or illegal gratuities.
U.S. District Court Judge William Young reminded jurors prior to closing arguments that patronage — which he defined as getting a job because of who you know, rather than what you know — was not illegal.
“Patronage, standing alone, is not a crime. Whatever you may think of it, it is not a crime,” Young said.
The judge also told jurors that it was not a crime to recommend people for employment or for an agency to keep records of who was recommended for a job.
“You just can’t go about it by illegal means,” Young said, telling jurors that to find the defendants guilty they must find that O’Brien knowingly and willfully participated in a fraudulent scheme, and that Tavares and Burke aided and abetted in the scheme.
Prosecutors describe O’Brien, who resigned in 2010, as the architect of a scheme that involved compiling so-called “sponsor lists” of candidates recommended for jobs in probation by state legislators, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray.
The defendants would then conduct a “sham” hiring process to assure that applicants pre-selected by O’Brien would get picked for jobs, even if they scored significantly lower in initial interviews than other candidates, the government says.
Prosecutors say O’Brien was seeking favorable treatment on the probation department’s annual budget and other legislative issues.
The government also alleges a separate scheme in which O’Brien provided DeLeo, then chairman of the state House Ways and Means Committee, jobs to fill at a new electronic monitoring facility in Clinton. Bell said DeLeo, in turn, offered several lawmakers the chance to recommend candidates for those jobs, some of whom were “hired sight unseen.”
DeLeo hoped to influence lawmakers to support his bid to become speaker, Bell said, while O’Brien was seeking a powerful political ally in the next speaker.
DeLeo, who was not called to testify, has vigorously denied the assertions made by prosecutors in a series of recent statements, including one issued Monday on the eve of closing arguments.
“If the United States Attorney had any evidence of wrongdoing on my behalf, I would have been a defendant. There is no such evidence,” DeLeo said in the statement.
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