Defense attorneys (from left) John Amabile, William Fick, Stellio Sennis, Jeffrey Denner, and Brad Bailey

A federal jury found former state Probation Department commissioner John O’Brien guilty of mail fraud, racketeering and conspiracy Thursday, in a verdict that tied leaders of the Massachusetts House and Senate to pervasive hiring fraud within Probation. One former O’Brien aide, Elizabeth Tavares, was also found guilty of racketeering, conspiracy, and conspiracy involving mail fraud; a second aide, William Burke III, was found guilty of conspiracy.

Prosecutors alleged that O’Brien ran the Probation Department like a criminal enterprise, handing out patronage jobs to individuals connected to powerful Beacon Hill lawmakers, in exchange for fattened budgets and legislative clout. O’Brien maintained a database that tracked patronage calls legislators made to the Probation Department. According to several witnesses who testified at the two-month-long trial, O’Brien hired candidates based on their political sponsorship, not based on their resumes or abilities.

Speaking after the verdict, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz castigated what she called “serious corruption in the practices of the Probation Department.” She said O’Brien’s rigged hiring system had demoralized rank-and-file Probation Department employees, and defrauded Massachusetts taxpayers.

Richard Lisi, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, said the O’Brien verdict “should send a message to any corrupt public officials out there.”

Jurors, who deliberated for nearly seven days before reaching their unanimous verdict, declined comment as they exited the courthouse. They convicted O’Brien and Tavares on four acts of mail fraud each; prosecutors had charged them with a total of eight mail fraud acts. O’Brien was also found guilty of 19 acts of racketeering, 10 of which Tavares participated in. Burke was found guilty of a single charge of conspiracy.

O’Brien’s wife collapsed as the verdict was read, and was wheeled out of the courthouse on a stretcher.

“The jury has obviously spoken, and while we respect the jury’s decision, we disagree,” said Brad Bailey, one of the attorneys for Tavares. He added, “Everybody was disappointed. We’ll keep fighting.”

Former Probation Departmnent Deputy Commissioner Elizabeth

O’Brien faces up to a maximum of 20 years in prison, though federal sentencing guidelines make it likely he would serve a far less severe sentence. The judge in the case, William Young, scheduled a November 18 sentencing hearing. O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke are expected to file a flurry of procedural motions before that date.

Attorneys for all three defendants vowed to appeal the verdicts. There may also be a second criminal trial looming, since bribery charges filed against O’Brien, Burke, and Tavares were severed from the mail fraud, racketeering, and conspiracy charges they just faced.

Several of the mail fraud and racketeering acts the jury convicted O’Brien and Tavares on were connected to some of the most prominent lawmakers on Beacon Hill. The jury found O’Brien broke the law in the course of hiring the troubled son of a state judge and a Democratic state committeewoman, both of whom were referred to O’Brien by Senate President Therese Murray. He also broke the law hiring House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s godson, and the wife of Rep. Thomas Petrolati, a former top lieutenant to DeLeo. Other fraudulent hires included the then-girlfriend of Sen. Mark Montigny, a family friend of former state Sen. Jack Hart, and Doug MacLean, the son of a former state senator. MacLean, sponsored by Montigny, had a history of drug arrests. Prosecutors alleged, and the jury found, that seven no-interview jobs O’Brien gave to DeLeo to distribute to other representatives constituted illegal gratuities.

Numerous witnesses testified that O’Brien ran a rigged hiring system, and that he maintained an elaborate system for covering up his patronage hires. O’Brien would pass the names of preferred candidates to Probation officials who sat on job interview panels, on the understanding that the preferred candidates would receive special consideration. One former O’Brien aide, Francis Wall, testified that O’Brien would tell him who to hire before Wall conducted the final round of Probation job interviews, and Wall and others would rig final interview scores to meet O’Brien’s preordained hiring decisions. Wall also testified that he would regularly lie under oath at union grievance hearings to protect O’Brien’s patronage operation.

Prosecutors built their case against O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke around mail fraud charges. Most of the mail fraud charges stemmed from certifications O’Brien sent to the head of the state Trial Court, in which he claimed he was hiring based on merit; others were connected to rejection letters mailed to unsuccessful job candidates.

“I know many wanted to assimilate it and say, this was just patronage or politics as usual,” Ortiz told reporters. “But when you commit fraud, make [false] representations, tamper with documents, that’s not just mere patronage. That’s where we draw the line.”

Ortiz defended her office’s prosecution of the case, including its decision to charge O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke with bribing state legislators, but not to charge those same legislators with accepting bribes. She bridled at one reporter’s suggestion that her office pursued bureaucrats and ignored lawmakers. “I really take issue with the three defendants being mere functionaries or bureaucrats,” she said.

She also refused to back down from the conspiracy charges her office lobbed at DeLeo in the trial’s closing days. “We’re not trying this in the media,” Ortiz said. “I’m going to rest on the evidence presented in court. That’s where cases get tried, in a courtroom, not here in front of the media… The evidence was what it was in court. We brought evidence against the head official of the Probation Department, fraud, illegal gratuities. When you have a conspiracy such as this, and you’re presenting evidence, you’re not trying people in a vacuum. The evidence that came out, the documents, revealed what it revealed.”

No state legislators were tried in connection with O’Brien’s patronage conspiracy, but the trial, which began in early May, elicited damning testimony about several high-profile lawmakers.

Former Probation Departmnent Deputy Commissioner William
Burke III

For instance, Senate President Murray’s office pushed O’Brien for a job for Patrick Lawton. Lawton had had a drug problem and had left his last job, in the district attorney’s office, under a cloud. But Lawton’s father was a politically connected lawmaker-turned-judge, and his mother a friend of Murray’s. So Murray’s office pushed O’Brien to hire Lawton, even after Lawton submitted a job interview performance one state judge described to jurors as “dreadful.” The Senate President was personally involved in the patronage quest, at one point leaving a handwritten note on a staffer’s desk, asking, “How are we doing on him?”

Murray also pushed Probation to hire Patricia Mosca, a Democratic state committeewoman and onetime candidate for the Governor’s Council who was working in the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance. “She stopped by and talked and talked about making a career change to increase her pension,” Murray’s aide, Francine Gannon, told jurors. “She just was rambling about how she wanted to increase her pension. She figured this all out.” Moving out of DTA, and into Probation, allowed Mosca to retire five years early. “She’s very excited and grateful to you,” Gannon wrote in a memo to the Senate President. “Her interview was just OK, she knows it was because of your intervention that she was selected.”

The jury convicted O’Brien and Tavares of mail fraud and racketeering charges related to the Lawton and Mosca hirings.

They also convicted O’Brien and Tavares in connection with the hiring of Kelly Manchester, who was Sen. Montigny’s 24-year-old girlfriend at the time. They found O’Brien and Tavares committed fraud in the hiring of Brian Mirasolo, DeLeo’s godson, and in the hiring of Kathleen Petrolati, whose politician husband was allegedly the king of patronage in western Massachusetts.

One prosecution witness testified that O’Brien had vowed never to hire Doug MacLean, who had a history of drug use, but who was also the son of former state Sen. William “Biff” MacLean. O’Brien quickly reversed course, and hired MacLean, after feeling political pressure from Montigny. The jury convicted O’Brien and Tavares of fraud connected to MacLean’s hiring, too.

The most inflammatory allegations involving State House wrongdoing revolved around DeLeo. In the closing days of the trial, prosecutors alleged that DeLeo, whom they had never accused of committing a crime, conspired with O’Brien to bribe several fellow lawmakers, in order to advance DeLeo’s campaign for House speaker. The allegations, which were legally necessary to admit key testimony against O’Brien, rattled Beacon Hill. They centered around eight no-interview jobs at a Probation facility in Clinton that monitored sex offenders wearing GPS bracelets. “O’Brien gave jobs to DeLeo,” Assistant US Attorney Karin Bell said during her closing argument last week. “And when I say gave, I mean gave. He abdicated complete hiring responsibility.” Bell charged that O’Brien allowed DeLeo and his fellow lawmakers to “moonlight as HR personnel for the Probation Department.”

DeLeo strongly denied the allegations. He said he was being unfairly targeted by Ortiz’s office, since he had no chance to defend himself in court. “I never traded jobs for votes, and no one could honestly have testified otherwise,” he said in a statement.

Jurors effectively split the difference between prosecutors’ allegations, and DeLeo’s protestations. They found all eight jobs connected to the Clinton GPS facility to be illegal gratuities to lawmakers, but not bribes. A gratuity is a lesser charge than a bribe; it involves public officials receiving improper gifts of value, but doesn’t require the public official to take any actions to reciprocate. The jury also found that the one individual DeLeo sponsored for employment directly constituted an illegal gratuity. The jury’s finding would indicate DeLeo was on the receiving end of the transaction, not on the giving end.