Witness for the prosecution

Robert Mulligan has very clear memories of his years in bureaucratic combat with former Probation commissioner John O’Brien

Robert Mulligan leaving the courthouse on Tuesday.

Federal prosecutors at the trial of former Probation commissioner John O’Brien finally got their dream witness on the stand.

After weeks of trying to extract testimony from lawmakers with faulty memories, reluctant coconspirators with immunity agreements, and judges with limited knowledge of hiring policies, Robert Mulligan took the stand on Tuesday and started helping prosecutors pull their sprawling case together. Mulligan, the former chief justice for administration and management at the Trial Court, was articulate and detailed in his responses. He appeared to have a very clear memory of his years in bureaucratic combat with O’Brien over hiring.

And once Mulligan got started, it was hard to shut him up. Defense attorneys repeatedly objected to questions posed by prosecutors, but Mulligan often ignored the objections and plowed ahead with his answers. At one point, O’Brien defense attorney Stellio Sinnis urged Judge William Young to instruct Mulligan to stop talking when an objection is made.

Mulligan also offered some interesting insights about O’Brien, who Mulligan said he has known for more than 25 years. Mulligan said he knew O’Brien as a “well-met fellow, fairly genial” prior to taking the job of chief justice in 2003. But his opinion of the Probation commissioner changed at a meeting the two men held just before Mulligan formally began overseeing the Trial Court and O’Brien. Mulligan said O’Brien at that meeting made a surprising proposal, which O’Brien rejected. Mulligan wasn’t asked to detail that conversation, but it came at a time when O’Brien was suing the Trial Court and an individual judge for tossing him in jail for failing to conduct lab tests ordered by the judge. He reportedly wanted the Trial Court to pay him a financial settlement.

“After that, our relationship changed,” Mulligan testified. “It was oppositional from the time I took office.” He said meetings between the two men were tense and difficult. “It seemed everything between us became a contest,” he said.

Mulligan said O’Brien seemed to have close relationships with some lawmakers. He described O’Brien as elated when Rep. Thomas Finneran became speaker of the House in 1996. He recalled O’Brien introducing him to then-Rep. Robert DeLeo at a meeting in Mulligan’s office. And he remembered waiting years later to see DeLeo when he was speaker. As he was sitting in DeLeo’s outer office, past the time the two men were scheduled to meet, Mulligan said O’Brien came into the office and was immediately ushered in to see the speaker ahead of him.

The testimony so far in the trial of O’Brien and two of his top aides, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, has focused primarily on efforts to steer politically connected job applicants through the hiring process and into jobs at the Probation Department. Mulligan spent most of his time on the witness stand Tuesday testifying about the hiring rules at the agency and, through correspondence between himself and O’Brien, his battles with the commissioner over hiring practices.

Probation had an entire handbook of hiring procedures, but Mulligan said it all boiled down to one thing: merit-based hiring. “You’re looking for the very best person you can get,” he said.

The Legislature in 2001 shifted hiring authority at Probation away from justices at local courts to O’Brien. The switch meant O’Brien could appoint who he wanted to Probation jobs but Mulligan had to approve the hires, basically confirming that all rules and procedures were followed. Mulligan said O’Brien bridled at his oversight and was constantly trying to gain even more control over hiring. The correspondence between the two men was often a form of verbal sparring.

Around 2004, for example, Mulligan said O’Brien began agitating for the removal of judges from hiring panels for Probation jobs. When Mulligan refused to go along with that, the chief justice said O’Brien scheduled 3,800 interviews for 52 Probation jobs in an attempt to overwhelm judges and get them to voluntarily withdraw from the hiring panels. Mulligan responded by ordering O’Brien to winnow down the list of job applicants to more manageable levels.

Mulligan said he became increasingly suspicious about the fairness of the Probation hiring process. He said he didn’t have time to investigate most hires, but occasionally his staff would red-flag some hires and he would investigate them further. He estimated he reviewed about 20 hires.

In 2005, Mulligan said, he reviewed the interview scoring sheets for an assistant chief probation officer job at the Fall River District Court. Mulligan said the interviewing panel at the court passed along eight candidates for the final interview. He said the No. 1 choice of all three members of the court panel was Donelle Gomes, who Mulligan identified as a Cape Verdean with a BA and a master’s degree.

Mulligan said a candidate named Lucia Ligotti came in tenth in the rankings, but the Probation Department’s representative on the panel nevertheless tried to get Ligotti added to the list of eight going on to the final interview. Mulligan said Ligotti was the daughter-in-law of the “clerk for life” at Hingham District Court, Joseph Ligotti. Mulligan said Ligotti didn’t get the job; the post went to an applicant named Larry Lopes instead, much to the chagrin of Mulligan, who felt it should have gone to Gomes. “If I could have appointed her, I would have. She deserved it,” he said.

During April 2006, Mulligan said he scrutinized five appointments made by O’Brien to make sure the Trial Court’s hiring manual was being followed. According to correspondence with O’Brien that was introduced into evidence, Mulligan ended up approving three of the appointments and rejecting the other two because he said they did not meet the post’s minimum qualifications.

“It is not enough that an applicant technically meet the minimum qualifications; the applicant should, by an objective standard, be the most qualified for the position,” Mulligan wrote to O’Brien.

In October 2006, correspondence between Mulligan and O’Brien showed the two men were battling over the appointment of John Chisholm to a job at the Suffolk County Probate and Family Court. Chisholm had been sponsored for the job by former Sen. John Hart. What disturbed Mulligan was that Chisholm performed poorly during the first interview panel but then a week later did extremely well when interviewed by two top aides to O’Brien.

“He all of a sudden became a Probation savant, a Probation genius,” Mulligan said. “It just seemed incredible to me. It didn’t make any sense to me.”

Mulligan said he bumped into Patricia Walsh, one of the two O’Brien aides who handled the final interview with Chisholm. He said he brought her into his office and grilled her for 45 minutes to discover the cause of what he called the “disconnect” between the two interview panels. But Mulligan said Walsh “didn’t give him an inch.” He said she claimed nothing was amiss. He said she insisted no one had fed her names of preferred candidates ahead of the interview or directed her to score Chisholm well.

A letter from O’Brien to Mulligan on Oct. 11, 2006, indicated the Probation chief was furious about what he called the “unprecedented interrogation” of Walsh by the chief justice and threatened to go to the Supreme Judicial Court to make the case that Mulligan was exceeding his authority. Mulligan said he subsequently approved Chisholm’s hire because he had no concrete evidence to overturn it.

“If I had a glimmer of a reason for not approving it, I would have,” he said.

Previously at the Probation trial, Francis Wall, a former top aide to O’Brien who teamed up with Walsh on the final hiring panel for Chisholm, said the two of them were routinely given the names of preferred candidates and told who to score highly.

Another case of what Mulligan called interview panel disconnect occurred in connection with a Worcester Superior Court probation job. A letter from Mulligan to O’Brien cited a candidate who was ranked 18th, 13th, and 10th by the three interviewers at the local court yet that candidate was vaulted into the top five by the interviewers from O’Brien’s office. Mulligan’s letter said the candidate was eventually submitted to him for appointment.

Mulligan said he urged O’Brien to somehow blend the findings of the two interview panels, so the recommendations of the officials at the court who would be working with the Probation worker would not be ignored by the interviewers from O’Brien’s office. He said O’Brien didn’t go along with that proposal or others he made.

Indeed, O’Brien was defiant in a Jan. 25, 2007, letter to Mulligan that the hiring process at Probation was pristine. “The probation officer hiring process (as it has developed and as it exists) may be the most transparent, accountable, and tested process in the public sector,” O’Brien wrote.

Mulligan said he did not agree with O’Brien’s assessment.

OTHER PROBATION NEWS

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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.

Transferability – Toward the close of Tuesday’s testimony, Mulligan began explaining the Beacon Hill concept of transferability, which allowed him as the chief justice of the Trial Court to transfer funds that were surplus in one department within the court to another division running a deficit. He said he transferred $3 million from other divisions to Probation in fiscal 2004 to cover a deficit. In 2005, he said he needed to take $1.3 million from O’Brien’s budget to cover deficits elsewhere. He said he sent DeLeo a note about the impending transfer of funds. The following year, he said, his power to transfer funds out of the Probation Department was revoked by the Legislature.

Intriguing – Mulligan said he regularly met with former state Sen. Steven Panagiotakis, the former chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. At one meeting, he said, the subject of hiring practices at Probation came up. Just before Mulligan started to reveal what he and the senator discussed, Judge Young called a sidebar with all the attorneys and prosecutors subsequently dropped the matter.