BOSTON — A Probation Department lawyer said in court Tuesday that he once signed off on a “woefully inadequate” job applicant to satisfy former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien.
Edward McDermott, who served on job interview panels in 2007 and 2008, said he routinely inflated interview scores for applicants favored by O’Brien as part of a political patronage scheme.
But he said he and another panelist were particularly galled by the candidacy of would-be probation officer Kelly Manchester, the then-21-year-old girlfriend of state Sen. Mark Montigny.
“Basically, my memory is we both had grievous concerns about this candidate,” he said.
McDermott said he complained to O’Brien deputy Elizabeth Taveras, who told him not to worry about it.
O’Brien later appointed Manchester to the job.
McDermott’s testimony came on the third day of substantive testimony in the federal mail fraud and racketeering trial of O’Brien, Taveras and another former O’Brien deputy, William Burke III.
The government says the trio traded jobs for state legislators’ friends and constituents for influence on Beacon Hill.
Prosecutors say the patronage, itself, was not illegal. But they charge an elaborate cover-up — designed to make it appear that the most qualified candidates got the jobs — amounts to fraud.
Defense lawyers tried to undermine McDermott’s testimony about Manchester by noting, repeatedly, that he could not remember her name in prior, pretrial proceedings.
He said he had always remembered that the woman was a former bridge operator. And last week, he said, when prosecutors showed him her resume — including a stint as a bridge operator in the town of Dartmouth — “it came back like a flash.”
Defense lawyers also pressed McDermott on why he did not report his concerns about the hiring process to an outside agency or to Probation Department officials other than the pair he complained to — former Deputy Probation Commissioner Francis Wall and, in the case of the Manchester hire, Tavares.
“There was nobody else to go to,” he said, his voice rising. “The whole upper management was in on this fraud scheme.”
Earlier, when the prosecution asked a similar question about why he had not taken action, he said, “I’ve asked myself that question several, several times.”
McDermott testified on Monday that Wall asked him to participate in the interview panels in 2007 and told him 10 minutes before the first interview that O’Brien’s preferred candidates were to get the top score.
McDermott said Tuesday that he had only been on the job three years when he started serving on the interview panels, had a child in college and another getting close to college age, and feared that speaking out could impact his professional standing.
“Why rock the boat,” he said, “because everyone else seemed to be participating.”
McDermott got immunity in exchange for his testimony. And defense lawyers — as they did with the first prosecution witness, former Probation Department official Ellen Slaney — suggested that McDermott was only testifying to save himself from prosecution.
McDermott said he did not believe he had done anything illegal. “I was ordered by my superior to participate in these interviews,” he said.
McDermott got a job as a Probation Department lawyer in 2004 after winning a recommendation from then-Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran.
Defense lawyers, seeking to justify similar patronage hires by O’Brien, asked McDermott if the sort of networking he engaged in to land his own job was wrong or illegal. He said it was not.
McDermott also opened a small window onto what the prosecution maintains was a pay-to-play culture at the Probation Department.
He recalled going to four to six fundraisers at a Ludlow country club for state Rep. Thomas Petrolati, nicknamed the “King of Patronage” for his skill in filling jobs in western Massachusetts courthouses.
He said there were 75 to 100 Probation Department officials at the events. “It was a good party, to be honest with you,” McDermott said.
He said he twice gave cash donations to Petrolati, through Probation Department officials who solicited him.
McDermott also testified that he was friendly with O’Brien during his time at the Probation Department. They went to a few Red Sox games together. McDermott once sent O’Brien’s wife a box of chocolates.
McDermott said O’Brien once lent him his parking pass so he could park closer to the office when he had an ailing hip. He said he would “forever be grateful” to O’Brien for giving him increased responsibility on the job.
But McDermott also said he feared the consequences of crossing O’Brien on patronage hires.
John Cremens, who served as O’Brien’s top deputy before retiring in 2008, took the stand shortly before court adjourned Tuesday.
Cremens said he had a long friendship with O’Brien, who appointed him first deputy commissioner.
He said his secretary kept a list of powerful people who called to recommend job candidates. He said he did not ask her to keep the list and he was unsure who had, suggesting it may have been O’Brien.
Cremens, who won immunity from the federal government in exchange for his testimony, said he was concerned when he learned that Probation Department employees with limited experience were getting promotions over those with decades of experience.
Cremens is scheduled to take the stand again Wednesday morning.