A former acting chief probation officer from western Massachusetts now faces the first federal charges related to the investigation of the state Probation Department.
Christopher Hoffman, 39, ran the probation office in Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton until he was suspended in October. Authorities then didn't say why Hoffman was suspended with pay from his $73,000 a year job, but federal officials now are charging him with obstruction of justice and intimidating a witness.
The criminal complaint says Hoffman pressured probation officer Maureen Adams, whom he supervised, by telling her not to cooperate with federal officials investigating alleged patronage hiring. For example, the report says, before Adams met with the FBI, Hoffman told her, "I will tell everyone that you are a rat," and "You will be in jail within a week." But about a week after he allegedly made those comments, Hoffman was suspended.
"One indictment might be an anomaly. Two indictments might be an aberration. Three might point to a trend but four or more, which we've been looking at, points to culture.”State Rep. Dan Winslow
"The United States attorney is making a statement that the investigation is going to go forward and no one is going to stop it," said attorney Paul Ware, author of the so-called Ware Report, a document more than 300 pages long detailing rampant patronage in a department that allegedly funneled hundreds of jobs to politically connected candidates.
Ware says wide-ranging state and federal investigations continue. So while these are the first federal criminal charges, they probably won't be the last.
"I believe more charges will be brought by the U.S. attorney, substantive charges regarding the hiring practices within the Probation Department,” Ware said.
Hoffman was not mentioned in Ware's report. He's been working in the Probation Department for a decade and was also interviewed by the FBI in August.
Probation Commissioner Ronald Corbett would not comment on Hoffman's arrest, but issued a statement saying that Hoffman is now on leave without pay.
Many probation reformers say Hoffman's arrest does not mean that there are still problems in the Probation Department.
"I think this is separate from the day to day operation of the Probation Department and court system,” said state Sen. Brian Joyce, a member of the committee that worked on probation reform after the Ware Report. Joyce said lawmakers acted swiftly and there is now a better Probation Department.
"I think we've taken steps to professionalize things to ensure there's an open and transparent process both in hiring and the day to day operation,” Joyce said.
And there have been several changes since the probation scandal first came to light last year in an investigative report in the Boston Globe. There is more oversight of hiring practices, and several top probation officials, including longtime former Commissioner John O'Brien are no longer on the job. O'Brien is also facing state criminal charges.
But state Rep. Dan Winslow said lawmakers and state officials need to do more.
"One indictment might be an anomaly. Two indictments might be an aberration. Three might point to a trend but four or more, which we've been looking at, points to culture,” Winslow said.
“There are multiple pending indictments and it’s my understanding there are multiple grand juries continuing to investigate the allegations raised in the probation report,” Winslow said.
At his court appearance Wednesday, Hoffman was ordered not to have contact with any current or former members of the Probation Department. The orders specifically forbid Hoffman from contacting state Rep. Thomas Petrolati, a western Massachusetts lawmaker mentioned in the Ware Report for having scores of financial supporters with Probation Department jobs. Petrolati has not been charged.
This program aired on December 22, 2011.