BOSTON Three top state probation officials oversaw a rigged hiring process and handed out jobs like “lollipops” to applicants sponsored by powerful legislators and other public officials, a federal prosecutor told a jury on Thursday.
But a defense attorney said in opening statements that the government was “overreaching,” attempting to criminalize what they called normal and routine personnel decisions.
Former commissioner John O’Brien and deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke face charges including racketeering, mail fraud and bribery in an investigation that has rattled the state’s political establishment.
No legislators, past or present, have been charged but dozens appear on a list of potential witnesses in the case, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray, along with judges and other state officials.
“Hiring in the probation department was not based on what you knew … but who you knew,” said lead prosecutor Fred Wyshak.
According to Wyshak, lawmakers changed state law in 2001 to transfer power for appointing probation officers to O’Brien because they were unhappy with how judges were responding to patronage requests.
In the decade that followed, Wyshak said, O’Brien became the “architect” of rigged hiring scheme to assure jobs for candidates who came recommended by legislators, often at the expense of more qualified applicants.
The goal, the prosecutor said, was to curry favor with lawmakers who set the department’s annual budget by treating jobs as “political currency.”
“They used that currency to attempt to influence members of the Legislature,” he said.
When an opportunity came to staff a new facility for electronically monitoring sex offenders, O’Brien “handed out those jobs like lollipops,” Wyshak said.
The son of former state Representative and retired judge Mark Lawton, the wife of Rep. Thomas Petrolati, D-Ludlow, and Burke’s daughter were among those who landed jobs in the probation department, the prosecution says.
Defense attorneys told the jury their clients were respected, career law enforcement officials who never broke the law or benefited personally from hiring decisions.
“They didn’t get a single penny, not one dime for anything the government said they did,” said Stellio Sinnis, one of O’Brien’s attorneys.
No one who was hired for a probation job was unqualified, Sinnis said, adding that there was nothing illegal or even unethical about a legislator recommending someone for a job.
“But somehow (John) O’Brien acts on the recommendation and he’s a criminal? Seriously?” said Sinnis.
U.S. District Court Judge William Young, prior to opening statements, reminded the jury that political patronage traces its roots to the Roman Empire and has been common practice in American government for centuries.
“Political patronage, standing alone, is not a crime,” the judge said, adding that prosecutors would have to show that federal laws were actually broken.
Prosecutors said the case went far beyond simple patronage, overriding the agency’s merit-based hiring system and using the U.S. Mail to send out false certifications that the most qualified candidates were being hired.
Burke’s attorney, John Amabile, noted that two revered Massachusetts congressmen, the late House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill and Joe Moakley – for whom the courthouse where the trial is being held was named – were both known as practitioners of political patronage.