BOSTON — Once high-ranking Probation Department official Edward McDermott said in court Monday that he learned to “liberally” score job applicants favored by former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien.
McDermott began his testimony just before court adjourned for the day in the federal trial of O’Brien and two former deputies accused of covering up a rigged hiring scheme.
McDermott’s testimony, which is set to continue Tuesday, provided the trial’s closest look yet at what prosecutors say was a sprawling political patronage operation.
McDermott said former Deputy Probation Commissioner Francis Wall approached him in 2007 and asked him to participate in final-round interviews of job applicants.
McDermott, who received immunity from federal prosecutors in exchange for his testimony, said Wall told him “about 10 minutes prior to the first interview I ever conducted” that the commissioner’s choice was to receive the top score.
“I was somewhat taken aback, quite frankly, and not too happy,” said McDermott, adding that he wished the conversation had happened a couple of days before so he’d had time to “process” the conversation and perhaps “take action.”
But he testified that he soon learned to engage in “stretch scoring” for O’Brien’s preferred candidates.
McDermott said Wall would wait to see his scoring and adjust his own to ensure that the two evaluations, combined, delivered the top score to O’Brien’s choice.
Federal prosecutors say O’Brien and two deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke, doled out jobs to the friends and constituents of state legislators in exchange for influence on Beacon Hill.
The government says the patronage, itself, was not illegal. But prosecutors say an elaborate cover-up of the patronage — designed to make it appear that the most qualified candidates got the jobs — amounts to fraud.
McDermott took the stand after the first witness in the trial, former Probation Department official Ellen Slaney, stepped down.
Slaney began her testimony Friday, recalling that she had served on job interview panels in 2000 and 2005.
She said Tavares, one of three co-defendants at the trial, gave her names of O’Brien’s preferred job applicants on several occasions. She testified that she was uncomfortable with the patronage system and was twice removed from the interview panels.
Cross-examination began Friday and continued into Monday. Much of the back-and-forth focused on the hiring of a first assistant chief probation officer in Bristol County Superior Court in 2005.
Slaney testified that the three members of a second-round interview committee — Slaney, a local judge and the local chief probation officer — all preferred job applicant Mary Viera, ranking her first. But Ed Dooley, preferred by O’Brien, eventually got the job.
Stellio Sinnis, one of O’Brien’s defense lawyers, noted that Slaney ranked Dooley second on her list of seven candidates for the job — suggesting he was qualified for the job.
The argument was in keeping with a broader strategy laid out by the defense in the opening days of the trial: arguing that O’Brien’s preferred candidates were all qualified and that any suggestion that more qualified candidates were passed over is highly subjective.
John Amabile, a lawyer for co-defendant Burke, built on that theme.
He suggested Slaney’s preference for Viera was no different than O’Brien’s for Dooley.
“You had Mary Viera picked out before you ever conducted the interview,” he said.
“I had a preference, yes,” Slaney testified. But she said her preference was based on years of observation of Viera on the job.
Amabile also took direct aim at Slaney. He suggested she had a vendetta against O’Brien and argued that she was “gleefully” testifying against the former commissioner and his co-defendants.
He also suggested that Slaney was testifying in order to preserve her state pension and avoid prosecution.
Slaney brushed off the argument. She said she was never promised anything by the government.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Karin Bell, during re-direct, emphasized that the statute of limitations for racketeering — one of the charges against the defendants — is five years.
She noted that Slaney had last conducted job interviews in 2005 — suggesting that Slaney was not even eligible for a racketeering charge and that freedom from prosecution could not have been a motivation.
Amabile, the lawyer for co-defendant Burke, countered that Slaney talked to a superior about her niece, applying for a job with the Probation Department, in 2008.
That conversation, he suggested, could have resulted in a racketeering charge that fell within the statute of limitations.
Slaney said there was nothing improper about the conversation. She said she was just venting, concerned that her niece was being unfairly treated because of Slaney’s own poor relationship with O’Brien.
McDermott testified that he was hired as a lawyer for the Probation Department in April 2004, after winning the support of then-House Speaker Thomas Finneran.
The next year, he said, he was appointed deputy compact administrator for the Interstate Compact, a federally mandated regulatory agency that oversees transfers of probationers from state to state.
He said he served in that position until five weeks ago, when he was demoted. He said he is unclear what his current title is with the Probation Department.