Judge goes very easy on O’Brien, aides

Says former Probation officials were part of “culture of corruption”

A federal judge on Thursday ignored sentencing guidelines and the recommendations of prosecutors – as well as his own history – before handing out much lighter-than-expected sentences to former Probation commissioner John O’Brien and two top deputies, putting the onus for the “sophistry and hypocrisy” of political patronage squarely on the shoulders of the state’s elected officials and judicial system.

Judge William Young sentenced O’Brien, who was tense and in tears throughout the sentencing hearing, to 18 months in prison and a $25,000 fine. Young sentenced former first deputy commissioner Elizabeth Tavares, who offered a tearful plea for leniency, three months and a $10,000 fine. Former deputy commissioner William Burke III was sentenced to one year of probation and a $10,000 fine.

Young made clear his decision to hand out the low sentences was based on his view that the three were just a symptom of a deeper problem and were not “rogue agents.”

“The fact that we tolerate this political patronage for so long is a form of sophistry and hypocrisy,” Young said after he handed out the sentences. “What we have here in this court is fundamentally decent people utterly without a moral compass on a sea awash in political patronage. John O’Brien didn’t invent patronage hiring in Probation.”

In July, a jury convicted O’Brien and Tavares on multiple counts of mail fraud, racketeering, and conspiracy, and convicted Burke on one count of conspiracy. Young had earlier granted prosecutors’ request to add so-called enhancements – circumstances that increase the sentencing range – bringing the potential time in prison to 57 to 71 months for O’Brien and 37 to 46 months for Tavares and Burke.

Prosecutors had asked for O’Brien to receive a 70-month sentence and Tavares and Burke 46-month sentences. But Young sentenced O’Brien to less than a third of the lowest recommended sentence and Tavares to less than a tenth of the lowest recommended sentence for her crime. Burke received no prison time at all.

Outside the courthouse after the sentencing, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz praised her team of prosecutors and, while expressing disappointment in the sentences, declared the era of patronage in Massachusetts at an end.

“This was an extraordinary victory for the government and it was also an extraordinary victory for the citizens of the Commonwealth,” said Ortiz. “There is deep irony about the sentences. The court imposed lower sentences on these three defendants because corruption in the state’s hiring system was so pervasive. In other words, the lies and the fraud which these three perpetrated, they were the illegal acts of those performing in a system which is thoroughly corrupted. While we disagree with the length of the sentences, they nonetheless stand as an important deterrent to corrupt hiring practices.”

During the course of the trial, a number of state lawmakers testified about patronage activities on Beacon Hill and the actions of some of the state’s most powerful legislators, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray, were focal points of testimony. DeLeo was identified by prosecutors as an unindicted coconspirator, a characterization he vehemently decried.

All three defense teams had asked for no prison time. While O’Brien’s lawyers maintained they were disappointed with their client having to serve prison time, O’Brien and his family and friends were clearly relieved after court was adjourned. All three defendants were smiling and hugging supporters. O’Brien’s wife and three daughters, who dabbed at tears throughout the hearing, continued to cry but were smiling in the courtroom.

Stellio Sinnis, one of O’Brien’s attorneys, said the length of his client’s sentence probably reflected his supervisory role at the Probation Department.“I think [the sentence] reflects that the court believes Mr. O’Brien’s position as commissioner accounted for something,”Sinnis said. “We are grateful that the court acknowledged that patronage has been a long standing practice in hiring and we’re grateful that the court acknowledged that.”

Young, who was once cited by the federal sentencing commission as handing out among the most severe punishments to defendants, made clear throughout the hearing he was in full support of the jury verdict, praising prosecutors and investigators for pursuing the case to the end.

“One of the things I absolutely commend the government for is bringing this case to trial,” Young said. “Others may disagree with that, I do not. The trial has served a purpose.”

Much of the testimony during the trial focused on the relationships between O’Brien and legislative leaders, who often received plum positions to hand out to friends and supporters in exchange for bigger budgets and more power for Probation. In Thursday’s sentencing hearings, Sinnis tried to convince Young that the defendants were “plucked out of the system” and left holding the bag when some of the state’s highest elected officials should have been standing in the docket as defendants as well.

But Young made it clear O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke knew what they were doing. “I am convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a rigged hiring scheme and [O’Brien] was the organizer of it,” Young said. “They we hardly plucked out of this system.”

Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak, in arguing for the stiff sentence for O’Brien, said the rigged hiring system had a devastating effect not only on the public safety in hiring politically connected candidates to oversee convicted criminals but in demoralizing a generation of young criminal justice professionals who were thwarted form getting jobs or promotions because they weren’t politically connected.

“It is not an incident of aberrant behavior,” Wyshak told Young. “The seriousness of this offense cannot be overstated. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants for probation jobs. They didn’t have the right political connections.”

But Young said the fact O’Brien and his aides operated in a long-standing “culture of corruption” had to be accounted for in meting out the sentence. He said the reforms triggered by the scandal sent the signal that “the message was received” that patronage hiring would no longer be tolerated. He indicated the reforms were a result of the investigation and trial.

“How should I take that into account?” he asked. “How do I factor in the end of an era here, where for far too long we tolerated this?”

Young pointed out that Gov. Deval Patrick, amid news reports about patronage at the Probation Department, sought to move the agency from the Judiciary into the executive branch to clean it up. He indicated he didn’t think that would be a good idea.

“The governor thought maybe he’d take it over,” said Young. “Only the quick work of [then] chief justice [Roderick] Ireland kept Probation in the judiciary.”

But Young also said the state judiciary, of which he was once a member before being appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan, should be embarrassed by the patronage activities that went on under its nose. “Every judge in Massachusetts ought to be ashamed and appalled at the extent of patronage and corruption in the trial court of Massachusetts,” he said.

Wyshak had argued that part of the punishment should include the lack of remorse on O’Brien’s part and his failure to cooperate with prosecutors who were trying to tie politicians into the case, an argument that Young dismissed out of hand.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

“I’m not going to punish him if he doesn’t beg for forgiveness,” said Young. “No one is going to be sentenced in this court for exercising a constitutional right. The fact that he won’t cooperate because you’re seeking someone else is not a factor here.”