Ortiz wins big victory, but questions remain

US Attorney doesn’t explain why lawmakers weren’t charged

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz with prosecutors Robert Fisher (left) and Fred Wyshak

Nearly everyone on Beacon Hill thought US Attorney Carmen Ortiz was over-reaching by attempting to make a crime of what they considered business-as-usual hiring practices at the Probation Department, but her lieutenants convinced a jury otherwise. The only question mark for Ortiz in the wake of Thursday’s verdict was why none of the lawmakers who participated in the hiring scheme, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray, were charged with any crimes.

Ortiz appeared outside the federal courthouse after the verdict was handed down, flanked by two of the three prosecutors who argued the case and the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office. She was fairly subdued in her remarks, which she read from typed notecards. She wouldn’t explain why she didn’t charge any lawmakers with crimes. She didn’t mention DeLeo’s name once, although she seemed to address him indirectly at one point when she said she wasn’t going to try the case in the media. DeLeo charged last week that Ortiz was prosecuting him in the press because she lacked the evidence to charge him in a court of law.

“This case was about a fraud perpetrated by Mr. O’Brien and his colleagues on the citizens of the Commonwealth,” Ortiz said, referring to the three convicted Probation officials – former commissioner John O’Brien and his colleagues Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III.

Prosecutors argued that O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke tried to protect and expand the Probation Department’s budget and power by developing a criminal enterprise at the agency that revolved around the awarding of jobs to politically connected people. The criminal enterprise was a hiring system that appeared legitimate on the surface but in fact was rigged in favor of politically connected job candidates, some of them poorly qualified.

Defense attorneys argued that O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke were practicing the ancient art of patronage, but Ortiz said the evidence showed the hiring system wasn’t politics as usual but fraud. Pointing to the manipulation of records and misrepresentations to superiors, Ortiz said: “That’s not just mere patronage.”

The wife of former Probation commissioner John O’Brien collapsed in the courtroom and was rushed to an ambulance

DeLeo pounded Ortiz in statement after statement last week for identifying him as a coconspirator in court, at one point suggesting she got her own job through political connections. But Ortiz on Thursday refused to respond in kind. Asked about DeLeo, she begged off. “I’m going to rest on the evidence presented in the court,” she said. “The evidence revealed what it revealed.”

Ortiz also refused to say the verdict delivered a message to Beacon Hill. “We’re not here to send a message,” she said. “We’re here to prosecute and go where the evidence leads us.”

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Yet Vincent Lisi, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, seemed to disagree. “This should send a message to any corrupt public officials out there,” he said. “There is nothing that’s going to get in our way of identifying them and bringing them to justice.”.

The US Attorney’s office in 2011 tried and convicted former House Speaker Sal DiMasi on corruption charges. The office has also been involved with a series of high-profile cases. It put away Whitey Bulger and is prosecuting alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Ortiz took heat last year for her prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide rather than go to court.