Feds, in Worcester, investigate probation

O'Brien is already facing state charges filed by Attorney General Martha Coakley

CORRECTION: Because of a reporting error, the location of the federal grand jury investigating patronage at the state’s Probation Department was misidentified in the original version of this story. The grand jury is sitting in Worcester.

A federal grand jury in Worcester is investigating hiring practices at the Massachusetts Probation Department under former commissioner John J. O’Brien, according to a source with knowledge of the probe. O’Brien is already facing state charges filed earlier this week by Attorney General Martha Coakley.

The source said former House Speaker Thomas Finneran has been called before the grand jury, as has Kathleen Petrolati, an employee at the Probation Department and the wife of Rep. Thomas Petrolati of Ludlow, a Democratic lawmaker who has allegedly steered numerous people to jobs at the agency.

Efforts to reach Finneran and the Petrolatis were unsuccessful. A spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s office declined comment.

Finneran and both Petrolatis cited their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination last year in refusing to testify before Paul Ware, the independent counsel retained by the Supreme Judicial Court to investigate alleged patronage practices at the Probation Department.

Ware’s detailed report, issued last November, concluded that hiring at the agency was corrupt because it disproportionately favored politically connected job candidates. Ware recommended that his findings be shared with state and federal law enforcement agencies.

“The rigging by public employees of a hiring and promotion process in favor of politically-connected applicants may constitute criminal conduct in violation of federal fraud statutes,” Ware wrote.

He also said statistical evidence supported the conclusion that state legislators encouraged would-be probation employees or probation employees seeking promotions to make political contributions to them in exchange for their sponsorship. “If such conduct occurred, it may be in violation of state and federal bribery statutes,” Ware wrote.

Coakley on Monday unveiled indictments against O’Brien and Scott Campbell, the former chief of staff to former Treasurer Tim Cahill. The indictments allege O’Brien and Campbell in 2005 agreed that O’Brien would sponsor a fundraiser for Cahill in exchange for a job at the Lottery for O’Brien’s wife, Laurie. The fundraiser was held in late June and Laurie O’Brien landed her job in September.

The indictments also allege that O’Brien falsely told court officials in 2005 that he was following proper hiring procedures in connection with the appointment of an assistant chief probation officer in Worcester District Court. Ware’s report said Bernard Dow, a probation employee in Worcester who was frustrated at being passed over for promotions, testified that he sought the help of then-Speaker Sal DiMasi’s office in getting one of two open jobs.

Dow told Ware that no one in DiMasi’s office solicited campaign contributions from him, but he nevertheless gave two $500 donations to DiMasi’s campaign account before being told the night before his final interview that he would be getting a promotion. DiMasi was recently sentenced to eight years in prison for steering a software contract to a company that paid him money. DiMasi was prosecuted by the US Attorney’s office in Boston.