A chastened House Speaker Robert DeLeo responded to Thursday’s Probation Department guilty verdict by issuing a statement saying “it is a verdict that all of us have to respect.” But he then gave a legal interpretation of the jury’s verdict that suggested he had been cleared of engaging in any inappropriate conduct.
“The jury concluded that the defendants provided a gratuity, which the law defines as a unilateral offense; they did not conclude that any form of bribery occurred,” DeLeo said in his statement. “In other words, after hearing all the evidence, the jury correctly concluded that neither I nor any other member of the Legislature engaged in any quid pro quo or had any knowledge of the defendant’s intent. The jury’s verdict confirmed what I have been saying all along: that I never participated in a conspiracy with any of the defendants and that I never traded probation jobs for votes.”
DeLeo’s legal interpretation is just that because the jury’s verdict slip does not spell out its reasoning and jurors themselves declined to discuss the case as they left the federal courthouse. US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and her federal prosecutors also refused to discuss their handling of DeLeo and other lawmakers.
The jury found former Probation commissioner John O’Brien guilty of giving illegal gratuities to DeLeo and seven other lawmakers in an attempt to influence their official actions in regard to the Probation Department. The illegal gratuities were jobs paying about $40,000 a year at a new Probation facility in Clinton. The jobs were handed out in 2007 and 2008.
The illegal gratuity charge could create problems for DeLeo and the other lawmakers because state law and House rules prohibit lawmakers from accepting “gifts” from any person with a direct interest in legislation before the Legislature. Prosecutors alleged that O’Brien used jobs as a form of political currency to win bigger budgets and more power for his department from the Legislature.
Bribery is a more serious charge than giving illegal gratuities. The distinction between the two crimes hinges largely on intent. At a court hearing in May, Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak said that bribery involves corrupt intent on the part of both the giver and the recipient. By contrast, Wyshak described a gratuity as a reward, something given to simply curry favor with the recipient.
DeLeo has not denied receiving jobs from O’Brien that he then handed out to fellow lawmakers so they could fill them with people they knew. DeLeo has insisted he never traded the jobs for votes in the battle for speaker. DeLeo was elected speaker by House members in January 2009 after his predecessor, Sal DiMasi, left the post under a legal cloud. DiMasi would later be convicted and sentenced to jail for political corruption.
Senate President Therese Murray also featured prominently in the Probation corruption trial as someone who aggressively pursued jobs on behalf of friends and political supporters. In her statement on Thursday, Murray portrayed herself as someone who pitched job candidates to O’Brien but left the actual hiring decisions to him.
“My office receives hundreds of requests for assistance for education, healthcare, housing, employment and more,” her statement said. “As previously stated, I was unaware of any possible scheme or improper hiring practices at Probation and, when I did learn what was going on, led a thorough overhaul of hiring at the department.”
The statement DeLeo issued on Thursday did not mention Ortiz, the US attorney. Last week, when federal prosecutors first asserted that DeLeo was an unindicated coconspirator in the Probation hiring scheme, the Speaker lashed out at Ortiz, accusing her of trying him in the press because she lacked the evidence to try him in court. He also suggested that Ortiz and her predecessors received their jobs because they were recommended by US senators or congressmen.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors asserted and established through witness testimony that O’Brien gave jobs to DeLeo so he could let his colleagues in the House refer people they knew for Probation positions at the facility in Clinton. Most of the referred job applicants were hired sight unseen.
The government’s case began focusing more on DeLeo’s role after the testimony of Edward Ryan, O’Brien’s former legislative liaison. Ryan testified that O’Brien directed him to steer jobs to DeLeo so the then-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee could use them to build support for his upcoming fight for speaker. He also testified that Leonard Mirasolo, a DeLeo aide, indicated to him that jobs were being traded for votes.
Ryan’s testimony about what Mirasolo said constituted hearsay and could only be admitted if Mirasolo was a coconspirator in the alleged scheme, so prosecutors argued he was. They argued that DeLeo was part of the scheme as well. US District Court Judge William Young agreed, which meant that, instead of allegedly receiving bribes in the form of Probation jobs from O’Brien, DeLeo became someone who, in conjunction with Probation officials, allegedly bribed his legislative colleagues with jobs.
DeLeo noted in his statement that the jury concluded no bribery occurred. He also noted that Ortiz did not call either him or Mirasolo to the stand to testify.
The Speaker also reiterated, as he has before, that Paul Ware, an attorney hired by the Supreme Judicial Court to investigate hiring within the Probation Department, found the Speaker had engaged in no impropriety. Ware said after the release of his report in 2010 that he had “no reason to believe Speaker DeLeo did anything inappropriate,” but he also cautioned that his job was not to investigate lawmakers and their culpability would ultimately be decided by law enforcement officials and the courts.