BOSTON — Lawyers delivered closing arguments Tuesday in the federal trial of former state probation commissioner John O’Brien and two deputies who prosecutors say rigged the agency’s hiring process to favor applicants backed by powerful state lawmakers.
O’Brien, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke “cheated people out of jobs,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Karin Bell told the jury, and cheated the state’s court system and Massachusetts residents out of having the best employees.
“Instead of appointing the most qualified probation officers, they appointed the most politically connected,” Bell said.
But defense attorneys said the government failed to prove illegal activities.
“It is time to stop the vilification of (John) O’Brien,” said his attorney, Stellio Sinnis.
O’Brien is charged with conspiracy and racketeering by means of mail fraud, bribery or illegal gratuities. But Sinnis said O’Brien, who spent his career in the probation department, never took a penny or gained any personal benefits from his actions.
“There is no crime. There is no fraud. There is no racketeering,” argued Sinnis, saying there was no evidence O’Brien ever deliberately hired an unqualified candidate.
U.S. District Court Judge William Young reminded jurors prior to closing arguments that patronage – which he defined as getting a job because of who you know, rather than what you know – was not illegal.
“Patronage, standing alone, is not a crime. Whatever you may think of it, it is not a crime,” nor was it a crime, he added, for an agency to keep records of job recommendations.
“You just can’t go about it by illegal means,” Young added, telling jurors that to find the defendants guilty they must find that O’Brien knowingly and willfully participated in a fraudulent scheme and that Tavares and Burke aided and abetted in the scheme.
Jury deliberations were set to begin Wednesday.
The prosecution was a “political witch hunt,” argued Burke’s attorney, John Amabile.
“This is a mudslinging operation,” he said. “This is throw everything but the kitchen sink against these people and see if you can fool the jury into believing that this behavior … amounts to a criminal offense.”
Prosecutors describe O’Brien, who resigned in 2010, as the architect of the scheme that involved compiling so-called “sponsor lists” of candidates recommended for jobs by state legislators.
The defendants would then conduct a “sham” hiring process to assure that applicants pre-selected by O’Brien would get picked for jobs, even if they scored significantly lower in initial interviews than other candidates, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors say O’Brien was seeking favorable treatment on the probation department’s annual budget and other legislative issues.
“That’s not patronage,” Bell contended. That’s fraud and bribery.”
The government also alleges a separate bribery scheme in which O’Brien provided Robert DeLeo, now House speaker and then chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, jobs to fill at a new electronic monitoring facility in Clinton. Bell said DeLeo, in turn, offered several lawmakers the chance to recommend candidates for those jobs, some of whom were “hired sight unseen.”
DeLeo, who was not charged or called to testify at the trial, has vigorously denied assertions that his actions were intended to influence House members to support his bid for speaker.