Lawmakers get immunity

Federal prosecutors have granted immunity to state legislators in the upcoming racketeering trial of the former probation commissioner and his aides.

Lawyers for former Probation commissioner John O’Brien revealed that a number of state legislators have been granted immunity by federal prosecutors in exchange for their testimony in the one-time powerful official’s racketeering and corruption trial.

The revelation came during an often-contentious hearing on a motion by O’Brien’s attorneys for Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV to recuse himself from the trial because of his relationship with another federal judge who could be called as a potential witness. O’Brien attorney Stellio Sinnis made a fleeting and unchallenged reference that prosecutors “gave immunity to various legislators” to entice them to testify before the grand jury and in the trial. The federal prosecutors are alleging that O’Brien hired people favored by those in power in the Legislature in return for lawmakers approving budgets and legislation favorable to the Probation Department.

Sinnis, a federal public defender, said he intended to call US District Court Judge Timothy Hillman, a former state District and Superior Court judge whose name has been tied to at least 22 candidates as a reference or on a recommendation. Sinnis said Hillman’s testimony would buttress the defense’s argument that hiring for government positions often requires a candidate to have support from officials in all areas of public life.

“It is, if you’ll pardon me, your honor, how you become a judge, how you become a US Attorney, how you become a public defender,” Sinnis said, ticking off names of people on O’Brien’s job sponsor lists such as Hillman, Attorney General Martha Coakley, former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, and former US Attorney Michael Sullivan.

A number of lawmakers have been identified as recommending or referring scores of candidates for hiring at the patronage-laden Probation department. Among those is House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who recommended his godson, Brian Mirasolo, for a probation job. DeLeo’s spokesman on Monday said the speaker did not receive immunity.

“The speaker was not a target, was not asked to testify and therefore had no reason to be granted immunity,” DeLeo’s spokesman, Seth Gitell, said in an email.

A spokeswoman for Senate President Therese Murray, whose name has also surfaced in the Probation probe, did not return a call for comment.

Sinnis did not identify the legislators who received immunity and neither the prosecutors nor Saylor disputed the reference. It was the first indication what role state lawmakers are going to play in the upcoming trial since none has been charged with any crime. Immunity would compel the lawmakers to testify but protect them from prosecution for anything they say.

O’Brien and two of his former deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke, are facing more than a dozen racketeering, bribery, conspiracy, and mail fraud charges related to the hiring practices at the scandal-ridden Probation Department. Much of the evidence came from a report by independent counsel Paul Ware, who was a former partner with Saylor at the Boston law firm Goodwin Procter LLP.

Earlier this month, Saylor dismissed the first motion for his recusal that focused on his partnership with Ware at Goodwin Procter, saying he could be impartial and the relationships cited by the defense were tenuous. During his ruling on the Ware challenge, Saylor said he had a “much closer relationship” with Hillman because they had been colleagues at the two-judge Worcester federal courthouse. Saylor said he was friends with Hillman but not Ware, an admission that prompted defense attorney’s to being focusing on his ties to Hillman.

The hearing on Monday was often heated, with Saylor at one point yelling in a booming voice at Sinnis to “be quiet” and admonishing him for interrupting. Saylor had also yelled at defense attorneys in a previous sidebar conversation, two outbursts which prompted Burke attorney John Amabile to question whether Saylor is “so entwined in this that you’ve lost your ability to conduct these proceedings in a fair manner.”

The hearing, which lasted for more than 90 minutes, forced both prosecutors and defense attorneys to reluctantly outline a roadmap of their strategy for the trial, slated to begin on March 24. Defense lawyers said Hillman would be asked about his comment that, before Probation took over the direct hiring of probation officers, judges themselves would do the hiring. During an interview with defense attorneys, Amabile said Hillman told them there was a “two-fer” system in hiring, with lawmakers appropriating enough money for the hiring of two Probation officers and judges would be allowed to pick one and lawmakers the other one. “You get one and I get one,” Amabile said, paraphrasing Hillman.

Assistant US Attorney Robert Fisher said Hillman’s testimony would be irrelevant to what prosecutors are alleging and unaffected by his relationship with Saylor. Fisher said it made sense for state judges, like Hillman was at the time, to recommend people for Probation jobs and promotions because of their knowledge of the job.

But, Fisher said, prefacing what prosecutors will try to prove, it didn’t matter who made recommendations because “to date, we haven’t found one person who said their references were actually called.”

“If that person got the job, I guarantee you someone more powerful than Judge Hillman or someone more powerful at the Legislature made the recommendation,” Fisher said.

The two sides also revealed that former House Speaker Thomas Finneran testified before the grand jury that the Legislature changed the state court’s power structure in 2001 to give O’Brien more authority over hiring. Prosecutors have contended that O’Brien was given more hiring power by lawmakers so they could place more people in jobs at the agency. But in court on Monday the lawyers said that Finneran told the grand jury that the hiring change was made because the Legislature was angry with the judges because “they screwed up” a $75 million grant from the Legislature to launch a new computer system. Sinnis said Hillman would be central to testifying to that scenario.

“I’d rather call Judge Hillman than ex-Speaker Finneran for reasons that are obvious to all,” said Sinnis, without mentioning Finneran’s guilty plea for lying under oath about his involvement in a legislative redistricting process.

Fisher scoffed at the reference to Finneran, noting Finneran’s longtime ties to O’Brien as well as his criminal conviction, in which he pled guilty to obstruction of justice in exchange for prosecutors dropping the perjury charge.

“That’s fraught with danger,” said Fisher, referring to Sinnis’s possibility of calling Finneran to repeat his grand jury testimony. “He’s a convicted perjurer,” he added, mischaracterizing Finneran’s conviction.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. 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.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. 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.

Saylor indicated he was not convinced that he needed to recuse himself from the case but ordered both sides to file a list by tomorrow night of federal and state judges, state officials, and attorneys practicing in Massachusetts who could be called as potential witnesses.

“Hundreds of people, possibly thousands of people, gave references,” said Saylor. “I must have a connection to some of them.”