A top aide to former Probation Commissioner John O'Brien said Wednesday the agency did not always hire the most qualified job applicants.
John Cremens, who served as O'Brien's top deputy for 10 years, told a federal jury he personally inflated the interview scores of at least two job seekers.
One of them, he said, was probation officer James Rush, the father of a state representative. Rush won a promotion to chief probation officer at West Roxbury District Court and retired two years later after a rocky tenure.
Asked if Rush's political connections influenced his scoring, Cremens said "yes, it did." He said a couple of the other candidates for the job were more qualified, though he could not remember why.
Cremens, who retired in 2008, was the second former O'Brien lieutenant in as many days to testify that he pushed a poor candidate through the hiring process to please his boss.
Edward McDermott, a once high-ranking Probation Department lawyer who was demoted five weeks ago, testified Tuesday that he signed off on a "woefully inadequate" job applicant who was the girlfriend of a state senator.
The federal government says O'Brien and two former deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke, doled out jobs to the friends, family and constituents of state legislators in exchange for influence on Beacon Hill.
Prosecutors say the patronage itself was not illegal. But they contend that an elaborate cover-up — involving sham interviews for competing job candidates with little chance of being hired — amounts to fraud.
Cremens says he tried to discuss the hiring process with O'Brien one or two times. "Generally, he would cut you off when you discussed that and say he had to control the hiring," Cremens testified.
Cremens said O'Brien told him he had "to take care of the Legislature" because it controlled the department's funding.
Cremens said the hiring system often meant probation employees with just a few years experience got promotions over those with decades on the job. He testified that the practice hurt morale in the department and "bothered me personally."
But John Amabile, a lawyer for co-defendant Burke, pointed out that Cremens had only seven years on the job when O'Brien, a long-time friend, promoted him from chief probation officer to first deputy commissioner — the second-ranking position in the Probation Department.
Cremens agreed with Amabile that seniority is not the "be-all, end-all" when it comes to promotions.
Amabile's line of questioning fit with a broader defense argument that determining the most qualified candidate is a subjective process — and that, ultimately, the candidates favored by O'Brien were as qualified as those who were passed over.
Cremens also testified to an increasingly combative relationship between O'Brien and his boss Robert Mulligan, then chief justice for administration and management with the state trial court.
Three years before he retired, Cremens said, O'Brien asked him to come along for monthly meetings with Mulligan. About a year-and-a-half later, as relations between O'Brien and Mulligan soured further, he started attending the meetings by himself.
He said Mulligan, who had to sign off on O'Brien's appointments to the probation department, raised questions about hires on several occasions — arguing that O'Brien's choices were not the most qualified.
Defense lawyers attempted to discredit Cremens on cross-examination — asking repeatedly why he did not take action if he was concerned about the hiring process.
They also focused on his immunity deal with the federal government, suggesting he was testifying to protect his pension and avoid prosecution.
Cremens said he was aware that his $84,000 annual pension would be in jeopardy if he were prosecuted. He said he had just learned on Tuesday that he was an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.
He testified that an FBI agent told him and at least one other witness during a conversation in the courthouse hallways.
The mention of a group conversation involving other witnesses raised concern among defense lawyers, who asked for a sidebar with Judge William Young.
The conversation may have been a violation of a "sequestration order," a standard order barring witnesses from hearing other witnesses' testimony or talking to each other during the trial.
Jay Carney, a prominent defense lawyer, said there is "zero" chance a violation would result in Cremens' testimony being tossed out. But he said the judge likely admonished both sides to make sure their witnesses abide by the order going forward.
Cremens is set to take the stand again Thursday morning. Justice Catherine P. Sabaitis of the Plymouth Probate and Family Court is next on the prosecution's witness list.