Probation juror: Patronage ‘disgusting’ but not illegal

Says no legislators should have been charged for the centuries-old practice

A LITTLE MORE than a year after the guilty verdicts came down in the Probation Department hiring scandal and with the appeals process inching along, a former juror in the widely watched eight-week federal corruption trial says he’s still convinced of one thing: They got it right.

The juror is the first of the panel to break their long-held silence on the trial and the deliberations, except for one member who said in an anonymous email to a television station that House Speaker Robert DeLeo should have been charged. The juror, who asked that his name be withheld, says he went into the trial thinking former Probation commissioner John O’Brien and his two top deputies were not guilty of patronage because that is not illegal, albeit a repugnant aspect of government.

“When it was in the paper, I read it,” said the juror of the scandal that broke open in the Boston Globe. “Once it got off the front page, I stopped following it. But once I read it, I said to myself, ‘This is disgusting.’ But I also thought, ‘But what’s illegal here? Patronage has been going on for years.'”

The juror, who lives in the western suburbs, says he disagrees with his unnamed colleague about politicians who should have been charged. Both the officials and O’Brien, he said, were engaged in a system deeply embedded in  government. It was the cover-up and the fraud that did in O’Brien, Elizabeth Tavares, and William Burke III, he said.

“If O’Brien had simply said, ‘I’m hiring who I want to hire or I’m hiring who the legislators ask me to hire,’ there would have been no trial,” said the juror. “What he did was create this scheme to fool people into thinking there was some other reason for it.”

On July 24, 2014, O’Brien and Tavares were found guilty of mail fraud, racketeering, and conspiracy and Burke was found guilty of conspiracy, for their parts in rigging a system to hire probation officers recommended by lawmakers and other elected officials in an effort to curry favor for more power and a bigger budget for O’Brien.

Judge William Young sentenced O’Brien to 18 months in prison and Tavares to three months, with Burke receiving a year’s probation. O’Brien was fined $25,000 and Burke and Tavares were fined $10,000 each. The sentences were stayed pending appeal, which has been moving at a slower than normal pace. Transcripts from the two-month trial were just filed in July and the Appeals Court justice granted a final extension to the trio to file briefs no later than October 9.

Lawyers for the three defendants argued the officials were just doing their jobs, claiming they were being prosecuted for a system that had been part of government going back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony days where people with connections had an inside track to jobs. But the juror said the panel took Young’s repeated admonishments to heart that it wasn’t patronage that was on trial, which is why he disagrees with the assertion that legislators should have joined the former Probation officials at the defendant’s table.

“I think the feeling among most of us was that it would be nice if patronage didn’t exist or existed in a form that as more benign,” he said. “There might have been someone who said those guys [legislators] really instigated this. There was a certain amount of feeling bad for O’Brien. But he really didn’t just do patronage. He really yanked it up a notch.”

The juror said the existence of a “sponsor list,” which showed the name of an applicant alongside the legislator who referred them, showed the interview and hiring process was a scam.

“Those were not recommendations in my mind, those were ‘I want you to do me a favor and hire this person,'” he said. “It’s not like they wrote letters of recommendation and [O’Brien] read the letters. That was the lie; they admitted lying.”

Part of the prosecution case revolved around hirings at the Electronic Monitoring Office (ELMO) in Clinton. Prosecutors showed documents and elicited testimony from both employees and legislators, that they were offered the jobs through DeLeo’s office. Some of the people were hired the same day they did their interviews. The prosecutors claimed O’Brien set aside the positions for DeLeo to hand out in an effort to garner support for his run for the speaker’s office against Rep. John Rogers 2008.

But the juror said he didn’t buy that theory.

“All of these things are a little more subtle than we want them to be,” he said. “I remember when there was that speaker fight, I didn’t know it was related to this. All the legislators [who testified], and I believe them, said, ‘I would never trade a vote for speaker for a job.’ But there’s a little subtle thing here. ‘Maybe I wouldn’t trade my vote for a job but maybe I’d accept their generosity of a job for having done that.’

He continued, “It wasn’t so much [DeLeo] wanted them to vote for him; he wanted them eight months in advance to say publicly they would vote for him. But they were not asked that question. I think most of them were supporters of him. He didn’t offer it to people who didn’t support him.”

The juror said for the most part, he thought the 60-plus witnesses who took the stand on both sides were telling the truth, except for one former lawmaker of whom he had a harsh view.

“There was one legislator, a former senator actually, who basically testified he didn’t remember anything. Jack Hart. He was just totally unbelievable,” the juror said of the former senator from South Boston who is now in private law practice. “If his goal was not to incriminate someone, he succeeded. I couldn’t use the fact I thought he was lying through his teeth to give me any direction. He was what you think of as typical, in the bad sense, of a pol, a caricature. I was thinking, ‘Who would want to be his client.’ I was thinking this guy has a lot of chutzpah.”

Hart came under fire by prosecutors during his testimony for continually claiming he could not remember legislation he filed, recommendation letters he sent, or encounters he had with Probation officials. At one point, Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak asked Hart, “Do you have a memory problem?”

The juror also said he was put off by then-Chief Justice of Administration and Management Robert Mulligan, who was O’Brien’s boss. Mulligan claimed he had no idea that O’Brien was running a fraud to hire connected candidates, contrary to Trial Court regulations, but the juror said Mulligan came across as haughty and disingenuous when asked about his own hiring practices for positions for people who were related to lawmakers.

“He thinks an awful lot of himself,” said the juror. “He was not a character who fostered warm feelings in me. When he said he wasn’t aware of [connections] hiring for people for court clerks, I’m not so sure. He said it didn’t matter they were connected to someone; I’m not so sure that was believable. It’s slightly hard to believe that he didn’t know that so and so was the son or the brother of some legislator. But in the end, it was irrelevant.”

A number of other witnesses testified under immunity, a fact the defense lawyers made a point to spotlight for the jury. But the juror said having immunity made their testimony more believable, not less.

“There was a case made, and I thought it was a reasonable case, that the only way they could get into trouble was by lying,” said the juror. “So you have to say, then, why would anyone lie, that if they only have immunity if they tell the truth and if they don’t tell the truth, they would go to prison?”

Part of the appeals by O’Brien and Tavares center around Young allowing jurors to ask questions in the course of the trial while witnesses were testifying, claiming the actions turned the panel into “mini G-men and women.” In all, the jury asked more than 280 questions, and the juror admitted he asked more than any of his peers. But he said the argument that allowing questions distracted the jurors or revealed their leanings before all the testimony was complete is off-base.

“If that argument is successful in appeals, that would be a little disappointing because it says the jury was incapable of hearing what the judge said,” he said. “The lawyers are basically arguing, ‘Your honor, it didn’t leave us, the defense attorneys, enough leeway to mislead the jury.”

The juror said he wasn’t troubled by the sentences handed down by Young, even though he agreed they were “light.” But he said the jury was fully aware during deliberations that the defendants faced up to 20 years on each count if convicted.

“What went through my mind was I don’t want to screw this up, I want to get the facts right because there are important consequences for them,” he said. “We thought, ‘Gee, these people could lose their livelihood and their freedom.’ That’s one of the things that someone watching the trial doesn’t have hanging over them when they make judgments. But if we’re saying, ‘This is JUST patronage, and all those things they did are technically illegal, well, we don’t care about that,’ that’s jury nullification and we didn’t do that.”

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.

Despite the relatively easy sentences handed down by Young, he lambasted the trio for their participation in the scheme at their sentencing. Though O’Brien and Burke declined to address the court, Tavares made a tearful plea for leniency in which she admitted that she should not have participated in the rigged system.

“You know who got it right? In the end, two people got it right,” said the juror. “The judge, in the sentencing, he said things were out of control, that there was no moral compass there. The other person who got it right was Liz Tavares when she was sentenced. She said, ‘You know, I could have done something about this and I didn’t.’ She was the only one who took responsibility. And I think she’s right.”