US Attorney Carmen Ortiz is vowing to continue bringing corruption charges against public officials, but the overturning of her convictions of former Probation commissioner John O’Brien and two of his top aides is another sign that federal prosecutors will probably not be able to lock up pols unless they actually catch them with their hands in the cookie jar.

Ortiz proved fairly convincingly that O’Brien and his aides rigged hiring at the Probation Department to steer jobs to politically connected people. But that’s not a federal crime, so the US Attorney’s office alleged O’Brien violated state laws that, when bundled together, added up to violations of the federal racketeering statute. Specifically, Ortiz’s office argued that O’Brien gave illegal gratuities (jobs) to state officials and committed mail fraud by sending rejection letters to unsuccessful job candidates that gave the appearance the selection process was on the up and up.

In its ruling on Monday, the US Court of Appeals, citing a previous federal decision involving former governor Robert McDonnell of Virginia and a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision involving Rep. Angelo Scaccia of Hyde Park, said Ortiz’s office “overstepped its bounds in using federal criminal statutes to police the hiring practices of these Massachusetts state officials and did not provide sufficient evidence to establish a criminal violation of Massachusetts law.”

On the illegal gratuities charges, the court held that Ortiz’s office failed to show a direct link between the job given and an official act of a politician. Citing another federal decision, the court held that “the government must prove a link between a thing of value conferred upon a public official and a specific official act for or because of which it was given.”

Rep. Thomas Petrolati, a high-ranking House official from Ludlow, filed a budget amendment in April 2000 providing funding for 14 new jobs at the Probation Department. Seven months later, in November 2000, O’Brien appointed Petrolati’s wife to a top position at the agency. The court held that no evidence was presented at trial indicating O’Brien knew of Petrolati’s connection to the amendment or that Petrolati had changed his voting pattern in anticipation of his wife receiving a job. In other words, there was no direct link between Petrolati’s amendment and his wife’s hiring.

O’Brien gave Rep. Robert DeLeo of Winthrop jobs to hand out to his colleagues, but the Appeals Court held that no evidence was presented showing that DeLeo took any action on behalf of O’Brien or that O’Brien pressured DeLeo to do so. Just building up goodwill with the man who would go on to become House speaker was not enough; Ortiz needed to show DeLeo performed an “official act” in return for the jobs.

On the mail fraud charges, Ortiz argued that the letters sent to those rejected for positions at Probation represented use of interstate mail as part of a scheme to defraud. Ortiz argued the rejection letters helped maintain the facade of a merit-based system, but the Appeals Court did not agree, saying the letter “furthered neither the perpetration nor the perpetuation of the scheme.”

The Appeals Court held that although O’Brien’s actions “may well be judged distasteful, and even contrary to Massachusetts’s personnel laws, the function of this court is limited to determining whether they violated the federal criminal statutes charged.”



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Attorney General Maura Healey responds to a public records request by the Gun Owners’ Action League by providing only some documents. The league is seeking information on how Healey developed her policy on copycat assault weapons and incidents involving such weapons. (Telegram & Gazette)

The Senate says goodbye to Sens. Dan Wolf and Ben Downing, but colleague Brian Joyce is a no-show for the farewell session for departing members because of a medical situation involving a family member. (MassLive)


Boston Mayor Marty Walsh says he’s ready to work with Donald Trump and thinks the famously vindictive incoming president, whom he disparaged during the campaign, will “let bygones be bygones.” (Boston Herald)


German officials declared terrorism behind the attack when a truck carrying 25 tons of steel plowed through an outdoor Christmas market in Berlin, killing nine and injuring scores of shoppers and vendors. (U.S. News & World Report)

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Massachusetts electors vote for Hillary Clinton amid protests over Donald Trump. (Salem News) Trump seals the win, but Washington electors show unprecedented resistance. (Governing) The New York Times repeats its 80-year call to end the Electoral College and throws its editorial support behind the National Popular Vote movement as a way around amending the Constitution.


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A friendly 40B project in Billerica would build 200 units of housing, a quarter of them affordable. (Lowell Sun)


State Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester plans to unveil proposed changes in student assessment that will alter when and what 10th graders are tested on for the high-stakes exam for graduation. (State House News)

Two Babson College students are cleared of wrongdoing in connection with the boisterous victory ride they made through the Wellesley College campus to celebrate Donald Trump’s victory. (Boston Herald) Meanwhile, seven Boston College students are facing disciplinary action for staging a protest in the wake of Trump’s election without a permit from the college, another case that will test free speech rights on campuses. (Boston Globe)

Sudbury schools are facing a $4 million budget deficit. (MetroWest Daily News)

Rosalie McCollum retires in style as school secretary at Lee Elementary in the Berkshires town of the same name, complete with limo, red carpet, and chanting, adoring fans. (Berkshire Eagle)


Richard Fernandez, a vice president at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a former chief operating officer for Steward Medical Group, has been named the new president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Milton. (Patriot Ledger)

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The MBTA and its biggest union sign a historic labor agreement that swaps job security for hefty wage concessions. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the Legislature’s suspension of the Pacheco law made it possible. (CommonWealth) A Globe editorial applauds the contract as a model of the savings and efficiency that is possible without the strictures of the state’s anti-privatization law. As part of the agreement, the T’s anachronistic “Picking Room” will be retired. (CommonWealth)

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The Columbia Journalism Review bashes the White House press corps for its party with Donald Trump.

One reply on “Ortiz’s shrinking role on corruption”

  1. Not being satisfied with CommonWealth’s coverage here on the Probation Department’s hiring scandal, I took a few minutes to look up a few things. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team had a very interesting article, “Probation: An agency for the well-connected,” listing dozens of Probation employees connected to politicians and court officials…dozens. Just to name a few, their salaries then & in 2015 and their connections: Stephen Ashe then $88,058 now $123,356 Son of Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe; Alfred E. Barbalunga then $97,984 now $123,356 Son of retired Pittfield District Court Judge Alfred A. Barbalunga; Kerrin M. Costello then $69,686 now $92,318 Wife of Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport; Eugene Irwin then $61,307 now $123,356 Nephew of the late John Irwin, former chief administrative judge, who appointed John J. O’Brien commissioner; Joseph R. Jackson Jr. then $93,021 now $123,356 Husband of Jennifer Jackson, chief of staff for Sen. John Hart, D-South Boston; Lucia M. Ligotti then $74,350 now $92,318 Relative of Hingham District Court Clerk Magistrate Joseph Ligotti; and of course Kathleen Petrolati then $88,058 now $123,356 Wife of Rep. Thomas M. Petrolati, D-Ludlow. Massachusetts taxpayers are not well-served by patronage. Where’s the assurance the person hired is well-qualified when the qualification is that person is related to a State Senator or a State Representative or a Judge or simply gave a contribution to someone? The Appeals Court held that although O’Brien’s actions “may well be judged distasteful, and even contrary to Massachusetts’s personnel laws, the function of this court is limited to determining whether they violated the federal criminal statutes charged.” CommonWealth should be following up on the Probation’s hiring scandal being “contrary to Massachusetts’s personnel laws.” Otherwise, there were no consequences for what went on and all those dozens and dozens of well-connected individuals are collecting great paychecks while working their way up to a great pension.

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