BOSTON — A lawyer for Elizabeth Tavares, one of three former high-ranking Probation Department officials on trial for covering up a rigged hiring scheme, suggested in court Friday that Tavares was just following her boss’s orders.
The argument provided the first inkling of what could be a less-than-unified defense in the case.
The federal government claims Tavares, William Burke and their old boss, former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien, doled out dozens of jobs to state legislators’ friends and constituents in exchange for influence on Beacon Hill.
Prosecutors say the patronage hires themselves are not illegal. But they allege the defendants engaged in fraud when they covered up the patronage with an elaborate system of sham job interviews for hundreds of applicants who never had a real chance at employment.
Brad Bailey, a lawyer for Tavares, sought to deflect responsibility for the hiring scheme Friday.
He emphasized that O’Brien held sole hiring authority. And he suggested Tavares merely passed along names of O’Brien’s favored job candidates — obtained from state legislators — to lower-ranking Probation Department officials who served on interview committees.
Martin Weinberg, a prominent Boston-based defense attorney not involved in the trial, said “each defendant in a conspiracy case has a difficult choice.”
“Do you try to win the case as a group,” he asked, “or do you distinguish your client from [her] co-defendants and take a chance that the jury will separate out one or two of the defendants who are less involved and convict the greater defendant and release the lesser ones?”
Separating yourself, Weinberg said, can be a “perilous” strategy, because it leaves co-defendants implicitly accusing each other of crimes the government is already aggressively prosecuting.
Weinberg said Bailey may try to split the difference between the two strategies. He could maintain that the government’s charges against all three co-defendants are improper, while suggesting that, if the jury buys into the charges, his client in particular is not guilty of them.
Bailey’s opening gambit came during cross-examination of the first witness in the case, former Probation Department official Ellen Slaney.
Slaney, who retired last year after a six-month stint as acting probation commissioner, worked her way up through the ranks over the course of 39 years.
In 2000, when serving as a regional supervisor, she testified she was on interview panels for a handful of jobs.
She said that Tavares passed her lists of preferred job candidates — indicating that O’Brien wanted those candidates moved along to another, final round of interviews.
Slaney said she was uncomfortable with the system. And when one qualified candidate was passed over for a politically connected job seeker, Slaney said, she complained to Tavares.
Tavares, she said, replied that “sometimes the political thing had to be done.”
Bailey, in his cross-examination, suggested that Tavares was not referring to politically connected job applicants, but merely to office politics — backing a job candidate preferred by the boss, O’Brien, might make for better relations in the office.
Slaney said O’Brien called her to his office once, upset that she had not pushed a favored job applicant — Doug MacLean — through to another round of interviews. She said she told him the applicant had a felony on his record and an admitted drug problem.
She said his reply was: “Oh come on, Ellen, everyone has a sponsor,” meaning a state legislator backing the applicant.
When Slaney said she did not want to participate in the hiring process, she was removed. She testified she was assigned hiring duties again in 2005, but was removed after a few months.
Stellio Sinnis, O’Brien’s federal defender, took an aggressive posture with Slaney. At one point, he made reference to Slaney’s niece, who is employed by the Probation Department, and suggested Slaney had lobbied for her to be hired.
Slaney said she did not improperly intervene on her niece’s behalf. She said she only told a superior she was concerned that her poor relationship with O’Brien was unfairly impacting her niece’s job prospects.
Court adjourned Friday with Slaney still on the stand. Cross-examination will continue Monday. The US Attorney’s office has indicated it will call two other former high-ranking probation officials to the stand after Slaney.
The case has transfixed the state’s political class.
Prosecutors allege that prominent politicians, including Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray sponsored applicants for probation jobs.
Defense lawyers have indicated they may call several high-profile figures to testify.