Tearful Tavares admits rigged hiring system

Says she wishes she had courage to stop it

Former deputy Probation commissioner Elizabeth Tavares, in a sobbing plea for leniency on her conviction for racketeering and mail fraud, publicly acknowledged for the first time that a rigged hiring system existed at the agency.

“No one is more remorseful than I,” said a weeping Tavares. “I appear before you today to say I wish I had had the courage to try to change it.”

Tavares, a lawyer and 30-year veteran of the Probation Department, told Judge William Young she now knows she could have done things differently. She asked Young to not send her to jail, pointing out that she has a 14-year-old daughter and she is the sole caretaker of her elderly parents who live with her.

“I regret my actions,” she said. “I didn’t have the wisdom [to change the system.] I bear responsibility for my family’s pain. I plead with this honorable court to spare my daughter, my elderly parents, and my loving spouse for my lack of courage.”

The tension was thick in packed Courtroom 18 on the fifth floor of the Moakley Courthouse on the waterfront as family and friends of former Probation commissioner John O’Brien and his two top aides, Tavares and William Burke III, anxiously awaited their future.

Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak and his team of prosecutors urged Young to hand down a stiff prison sentence for each defendant both as a deterrent to others as well as a message to the three former state officials who prosecutors say were neither repentant nor cooperative.

But, just before issuing his sentence, Young gave each defendant a chance to address the court. O’Brien and Burke declined but Tavares, 57, delivered an emotional plea for leniency that brought many observers, including O’Brien, to tears.

O’Brien and Burke left it to their attorneys to plead their cases, but the toll the trial has taken on each was obvious. Though Young heaped much blame on the “culture of corruption” that pervaded the patronage system on Beacon Hill, he left no doubt that he thought the trio were not mere bystanders but rather active participants in a scheme that was a fraud on taxpayers and innocent applicants who were passed over in favor of those with connections.

Young called O’Brien “the leader of this corrupt scheme” and said the jury found that all three were guilty of “lying, repeatedly lying, facilitating the lies of others, [and] suborning perjury.”

As Young continued to push back against defense attorneys’ characterizations of their clients, O’Brien was noticeably shaken at the defense table. One of his attorneys, Stellio Sinnis, kept putting his hand on O’Brien’s back, kneeding it in comfort, and occasionally putting his arm around the former Boston College lineman’s shoulders.

With Young seemingly ready to hand down a harsh sentence, O’Brien, 57, became increasingly distraught and his wife and three daughters, seated immediately behind him, dabbed tears streaming down their faces, the tension of the wait building with every moment, waiting for the hammer to fall.

John Amabile, the lead attorney for Burke, repeated his plea to Young that the 71-year-old Burke was a broken man. He told Young that Burke was about to lose his pension, as were the other two, and had to resort to finding a job to sustain him and his wife because, as a 37-year state employee, he had no Social Security. Amabile said Burke had just secured a job working on a potato farm, much like when he was a boy working his father’s farm.

With the jury finding him not guilty on nearly all counts save the conspiracy charge, Amabile argued that his client, whom he repeatedly referred to as “Billy Burke,” deserved no prison time, especially when compared to the scores of unindicted co-conspirators, including dozens of lawmakers and legislative leaders, who didn’t even get called to the stand, let alone charged.

“The government vindictively is asking you to impose the maximum sentence,” Amabile boomed. “Sending this 71 year old man to prison is unconscionable.”

When Young announced his sentences, which were a fraction of what prosecutors were seeking and far less than the sentencing guidelines, there was a sense of astonishment in the courtroom, especially given Young’s penchant for harsh sentences.. Young stayed O’Brien’s18-month sentence and Tavares’s 90-day sentence until January 12, giving them a chance to spend the holidays with their families. All three will appeal but they will be out of prison before their appeals are decided.

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.

After Young left the bench, the tears continued to flow – but they were tears of joy as O’Brien went over and hugged Tavares and Burke and the three embraced each other and their supporters.