BOSTON — Testifying with immunity from prosecution Monday, Rep. Michael Costello said he still supports backing a probation hire that federal prosecutors claim was made fraudulently as part of a scheme to curry favor with lawmakers.
“I’d give the reference again today,” said the Newburyport Democrat. Costello, the House chairman of the Financial Services Committee who is not running for re-election this year, is the first sitting elected official to testify in the trial looking into allegations of corruption within the public safety agency.
Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and two of his former deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke, are charged with fraud and racketeering for what prosecutors say was a secret patronage system.
Costello said he knew Mari-Elena Sanchez, one of the eight hires prosecutors are charging was fraudulent, through her father, Essex County Juvenile Court Judge Jose Sanchez. The judge presided over cases when Costello was a young prosecutor and worked with Costello’s wife, a probation officer.
“There was a Cinderella story that was presented to me,” Costello said of Sanchez, whom he described as a single-mother who put herself through Tufts University and received a job as a corrections officer in the sheriff’s office before applying for a juvenile court probation job in Middlesex County. He said, “Either her father or my wife had mentioned she was applying.”
Over strong and unsuccessful objections by defense attorneys, Costello was also questioned by prosecutor Robert Fisher about questions he asked O’Brien about his wife’s ineligibility for a promotion to an assistant chief probation officer job in Newburyport, closer to home, and her eventual promotion to probation officer in charge at the Office of Community Corrections in nearby Salisbury, which was originally a temporary position during a hiring freeze.
“My only concern was if she took that position, you know, what would be the process afterwards to make it permanent?” said Costello, whose wife had worked at the Lawrence juvenile court. When the managerial position at the Newburyport court was filled from within, Costello said he brought it up with O’Brien, explaining, “It was my concern that I raised with the commissioner.”
“I object to this entire line of examination,” said defense attorney John Amabile. Prosecutors have not accused any wrongdoing regarding Costello’s wife, Judge William Young explained to the jury, though he let the testimony stand. Costello said his wife was already a probation officer when they met.
Costello said he believes he did nothing wrong and appeared relaxed discussing his involvement and critiquing his reading of the indictments, saying, “I couldn’t tell where the lines were.”
The Newburyport Democrat testified with a May 8, 2014 immunity order from Young. Asked after his testimony why he obtained the immunity order, Costello declined comment and identified his attorney as Thomas Drechsler, who is the former law partner to former House Speaker Thomas Finneran.
Costello said he knew Salvatore DiMasi, Finneran’s successor as speaker, since 1978 through his father, who served as a state representative before him. When constituents asked him for job recommendations for court officer and probation officer positions, Costello said he would often pass them along to Dan Toscano, who was DiMasi’s legal counsel and became Costello’s friend. DiMasi is serving an eight-year federal prison sentence for his 2011 conviction in a case involving state contracts steered toward Cognos Corp. in exchange for kickbacks.
The current House Speaker, Robert DeLeo, was Ways and Means Committee chairman under DiMasi.
Costello said he made his recommendation for the probation job through DiMasi’s office, and did not remember writing his own letter of recommendation for Sanchez. He is also not listed as one of her references, which could bolster the prosecution’s claim that the patronage hiring was disguised as legitimate, merit-based hiring.
“I’m not sure if I wrote a letter on her behalf. I don’t think I did,” said Costello, who said that when he did not have a relationship with agency heads he would “try to go up the ladder” rather than reaching out to them directly.
Former Rep. Steven Walsh, a Lynn Democrat who resigned earlier this year for a community hospital association post, testified Monday that he recommended two of the people prosecutors claim were fraudulently hired.
Michael White, who is now a Lynn police officer, was a football coach and the son of Lynn Classical High School Principal Warren White whom Walsh had known for years when Walsh reached out to Toscano about helping White secure a juvenile probation officer job in Middlesex County, he testified. Kevin O’Brien, a constituent who lived in Nahant, was a part-time police officer, who wanted a letter of recommendation for a Middlesex County Juvenile Court probation officer position.
Walsh reached out to Toscano for both O’Brien and White, but only wrote a letter of recommendation for O’Brien, he said. Both were hired.
It was clear from prosecutor Fred Wyshak’s questions that he was trying to explore why Walsh channeled his recommendations through the speaker’s office, though during Walsh’s brief appearance on the stand defense attorneys were largely successful in blocking the queries.
“Do you know if the speaker’s office had influence with Mr. O’Brien?” Wyshak asked, raising an objection from defense attorneys. Wyshak met a similar protest when he asked, “Did you think that somebody needed legislative influence to get a job with probation?”
Young asked Walsh why he believed going to the speaker’s office would help his constituents seeking jobs.
“I believed as a rank and file member that there was more influence with the speaker’s office than there was with mine,” said Walsh.
Costello said that he first got to know O’Brien when he was chairman of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee and the two sat on a youth offender task force “set up, I think, by the feds.”
The Newburyport representative, who was elected in 2002, said that before his election he worked as chief of staff to Somerset Democrat Sen. Joan Menard and while working there he had made a call to the probation office about someone seeking a job. As a practicing lawyer, Costello said he often hears appeals from “blue shirts,” who handle security at courthouse entrances, who want to be appointed court officers who work in the courtrooms.
“I would get hit walking into the court,” said Costello, who said that he has received “hundreds” of job requests and has tried to make recommendations for people after asking about their qualifications.
Defense attorneys are trying to show the jury that the system of hiring court officers – which was handled by the Trial Court, not any of the defendants – followed a similar system where recommendations from officials were highly valued.
Walsh also mentioned that he would make recommendations for court officer postings, and Costello said his recommendations were not limited to openings within the Judiciary.
“I would call the governor’s legislative liaison and say, you know, so and so’s looking for a job,” said Costello, who said that portion of the governor’s office had changed its name from the Office of Patronage to the Chief Secretary’s Office.