Probation defense: What did Judge Mulligan know?
Was he aware of the hiring shenanigans?
Defense lawyers for former state Probation Department boss John O’Brien fought hard last week to bring patronage-laden court officer hirings into play at O’Brien’s federal corruption trial. On Monday, O’Brien’s defense began to put some of those trial court patronage jobs in play. In doing so, they began to lay the groundwork for what looks likely to become the defining clash of the O’Brien trial: a showdown between O’Brien’s lawyers and Robert Mulligan, the former chief justice of the state’s trial court.
Prosecutors have alleged that O’Brien and two top deputies ran the Probation Department as a crooked patronage haven, one that traded Probation jobs to legislators in return for fat budgets and political clout. The prosecution has argued that the system O’Brien oversaw differed from garden-variety patronage because, they’ve said, O’Brien rigged the Probation hiring system, and then covered it up.
O’Brien and the two deputies, William Burke and Elizabeth Tavares, are facing federal racketeering and conspiracy charges. The US Attorney’s office is trying them with the same law federal prosecutors used to take down the Mafia and Whitey Bulger. But the judge presiding over the Probation case, William Young, has been clear that he believes the O’Brien case is, first and foremost, about mail fraud. And any mail fraud case against O’Brien begins and ends with Robert Mulligan.
This is the core of the government’s mail fraud case against O’Brien: that O’Brien was sending rigged patronage hires to Mulligan and calling them legitimate, while mailing rejection letters to candidates who should have, in a patronage-free system, been hired. The case against O’Brien rests on showing that Mulligan was duped by O’Brien into making bad patronage hires. But the government can’t hang a mail fraud conviction on O’Brien if Mulligan was aware of the hiring shenanigans that were happening at Probation.
On Monday, O’Brien’s lawyers began laying the groundwork for their assault on Mulligan. Prosecutors had spent the past two days at trial having Francine Gannon, a top aide to Senate President Therese Murray, explain how the Legislature steered patronage hires to O’Brien. Gannon kept extensive files on every case she worked on and, in prosecutors’ hands, her files became road maps to Beacon Hill patronage and favor-trading.
Gannon was the second prosecution witness that defense lawyers used to tie Mulligan to questionable hiring practices. On Friday, Judge Catherine Sabaitis, head of the Plymouth Country Probate and Family Court, told a lawyer for Tavares that she was so worried about the quality of one pending Probation hire that she placed two calls to Mulligan’s office. Sabaitis testified that she left complaints with a top Mulligan aide, but that Mulligan signed off on the hiring of the son of a politically-connected Plymouth County family anyway.