DeLeo’s probation problem

Federal trial of Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien likely to shine unflattering spotlight on the House speaker

Laughter and applause rained down on the House chamber on Wednesday. Beacon Hill lawmakers sent one of their own off in style, welcomed a new member to their ranks, and cheered on their leader as he outlined his legislative vision for the year. The man behind the rostrum, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, enjoyed the show.

DeLeo is the most powerful politician on Beacon Hill right now. He’s worked his whole career to get to this point. And the next few months could prove to be the most bruising period he’s ever experienced.

With his counterparts in the Senate and the governor’s office both lame ducks, Beacon Hill belongs to DeLeo right now. The House speaker has made it clear that he knows what to do with his position. Amid the hugs and the jokes Wednesday, DeLeo laid out an energetic agenda for his House. He spoke about raising the minimum wage, overhauling unemployment insurance, passing new curbs on guns and domestic violence, and spreading Boston’s economic boom across the rest of the state.

But DeLeo’s position atop Beacon Hill will soon prove to be a far less enjoyable place to be. For the second time in three years, Massachusetts’s political class is about to meet a blockbuster federal corruption trial.

The trial of DeLeo’s predecessor, former House speaker Sal DiMasi, only delivered a glancing blow to the current speaker. DiMasi used DeLeo’s budget committee to steer a lucrative software contract to a firm that DiMasi and a lobbyist friend were shaking down for hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks. DiMasi turned DeLeo, his faithful lieutenant, into an unwitting conduit for his fraud. He then convened a pair of meetings at which DiMasi set to “figuring out how Bobby could become, how Mr. DeLeo could become, the next speaker,” according to the testimony of a former DiMasi and DeLeo campaign aide.

Still, the focus of the DiMasi corruption trial was on the former speaker himself, and the lengths the rest of the Beacon Hill establishment went to in appeasing (and enabling) him, rather than on the claque of politicians whose own power derived from their fealty to a gavel-wielding crook.

DeLeo was a bit player in the trial of the man who engineered his rise. Come late February, when former Probation Department chief John O’Brien and two top deputies stand trial on racketeering, mail fraud, and bribery charges, the spotlight will largely belong to the House speaker.

The federal inquiry into patronage at O’Brien’s Probation Department has darkened the State House for years. Whispers that DeLeo might fall in the Probation probe – the speaker’s godson appeared to be a prominent patronage hire of O’Brien’s – splintered the leadership team that DeLeo rode to the speakership. When the House gathered to hear DeLeo’s annual address last year, they’d just read reports that federal prosecutors were readying indictments against four sitting lawmakers. Those indictments never materialized. DeLeo’s attorney repeatedly denied that the speaker was a target of the federal inquiry, and DeLeo has not been accused of any crimes. He isn’t skating away, though.

DeLeo is the most prominent politician mentioned in the 58-page Probation indictment. His is likely to be the name most on prosecutors’ lips, the name that pops up most frequently as they compare Beacon Hill patronage to a mob racket. Very little of it will be flattering.

The federal case against O’Brien alleges that the former Probation chief oversaw a corrupt hiring system that illegally employed politically connected job applicants, in return for fattened budgets and increased political leverage with the Legislature. The feds are prosecuting O’Brien and his deputies under the federal RICO statute, a law normally aimed at street gangs and mafia figures. They’ve alleged that the act of trading jobs for fat budgets and political pull amounted to bribery, but they have not charged the recipients of these alleged bribes.

Meet the Author

Paul McMorrow

Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

Federal prosecutors have said DeLeo participated in the fraudulent hiring of a dozen Probation employees, either as a direct sponsor of less-than-qualified job-seekers or as a conduit who helped political loyalists place their own people inside O’Brien’s department. They link seven hires each to DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray.

The indictment against O’Brien highlighted the hiring of DeLeo’s godson, and the systematic effort to stuff a new Probation office dedicated to monitoring sex offenders and domestic violence offenders full of candidates chosen by DeLeo and his loyalists. At the same time that DeLeo’s House is readying new domestic violence protections, prosecutors will be alleging that O’Brien let DeLeo hand out jobs in Probation’s domestic violence office, in part to solidify his campaign for House speaker. DeLeo’s attorney has strongly denied any claims that DeLeo bought votes with Probation jobs.

Lawyers for O’Brien and his two deputies have made it clear that their case rests not in denying that their clients traded horses with Beacon Hill power players, but in arguing that this behavior is so commonplace that it can’t possibly be criminal. They recently filed a list of prospective court officers whose job ambitions came sponsored by local politicians. They look set to argue that O’Brien and his deputies can’t possibly be federal crooks because shoehorning the friends of powerful politicians into jobs is something every government bureaucrat does. Their defense will entail putting Beacon Hill’s political culture on trial. DiMasi’s defense team tried a similar tactic, and wound up seriously muddying the Patrick administration. This time, the mud looks earmarked for DeLeo’s lap.