3 Indicted In Mass. Probation Hiring Probe

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Three former Massachusetts Probation Department employees pleaded not guilty Friday to federal charges of running a hiring scheme for politically connected job candidates.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz didn't mince words when describing the charges against former Commissioner John O'Brien and two of his former deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke.

Former Massachusetts Probation Commissioner John O'Brien in a 2011 file photo (AP/Pool, File)
Former Massachusetts Probation Commissioner John O'Brien in a 2011 file photo (AP/Pool, File)

"The indictment alleges that O'Brien, Tavares and Burke instituted a hiring system that catered to requests of Massachusetts legislators and others to employ and promote candidates for employment in the Massachusetts Probation Department," Ortiz said.

The racketeering and mail fraud charges stem from what the indictment alleges was a conspiracy that obtained names of job candidates from state lawmakers and other influential individuals. Those names were allegedly put on what the indictment calls "sponsor lists," which were used to make sure that "sponsored candidates" got probation jobs — often instead of applicants who were more qualified.

Ortiz says probation officials created a "sham hiring system" that created the aura of a legitimate hiring process.

"According to today's indictment," she said, "the defendants did this for several reasons, including to maintain their positions, to increase the department's budget, to retain tighter control over the department, and to aggrandize their power."

The indictment describes the cases of 22 department hires, alleges that the hiring scam ran from 2000 to 2010, and involved various lawmakers, including former House Speakers Salvatore DiMasi and Thomas Finneran and current Senate President Therese Murray.

Murray released a statement saying she receives several requests for assistance each year but she did nothing illegal.

No state lawmakers are charged, but Ortiz says the investigation continues.

"Patronage in and of itself is not illegal," Ortiz said. "It may be unseemly, it may be unethical, it could be criminal under certain circumstances. But we really have to be fair. Our responsibility is to determine if federal criminal laws were violated."

The three former probation workers were led into their arraignments in Worcester federal court Friday handcuffed and shackled. Tavares looked particularly upset.

"Anybody in her position would be shaken up, particularly if you feel that you shouldn't be here," said her attorney, Jeffrey Denner. "You build up your reputation over a life and you lose it in a moment, and that's a very difficult thing to confront."

The probation scandal erupted two years ago and an independent review was finished about 18 months ago that outlined some of the problems. Attorney Paul Ware, who conducted the review, says Friday's indictment is similar to that review, but it is likely that more charges are forthcoming.

"These are the most obvious targets," Ware said. "One could imagine an indictment in a month if this were all the U.S. attorney was going to do. In fairness to the investigation, though, if you look at the detailed description of the cases, the U.S. attorney went through a number of probation files, hiring files. That's time-consuming.

"Nevertheless, I think 18 months following the report, this is the very least we could have expected."

Current Probation Commissioner Ron Corbett declined to comment.

The next court appearance is in May.

This post was updated with the All Things Considered feature version.

-- Here's the indictment (on Scribd):

This article was originally published on March 23, 2012.

This program aired on March 23, 2012.

Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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