Probation listicles all the rage

Lawyers for embattled former Probation Department chief John O’Brien have long claimed that the federal racketeering case against the one-time Beacon Hill fixer represents an attempt to criminalize patronage. They’ve said O’Brien’s hiring of politically connected job-seekers doesn’t represent theft or bribery or criminal organizing. Instead, they’ve argued, it’s an extraordinarily common act, one that greases the gears of government agencies far beyond the reach of O’Brien’s old department.

Yesterday, O’Brien’s lawyers put some teeth into that argument, releasing documents that appear to show that employees of Robert Mulligan, the trial court head who helped push O’Brien out of office, maintained sponsor lists that look an awful lot like the documents at the heart of the US attorney’s case against O’Brien.

Federal prosecutors have alleged that O’Brien presided over a rigged hiring process that handed Probation jobs to under-qualified applicants who were connected to powerful Beacon Hill lawmakers. In return, prosecutors argue, O’Brien and his deputies received fattened budgets from the Legislature, and enjoyed political clout. US Attorney Carmen Ortiz has argued that this arrangement represents a scheme to defraud taxpayers, and a form of bribery.

O’Brien’s lawyers, on the other hand, have argued that O’Brien’s Probation Department played by the same patronage rules everyone else played by. It’s not bribery or racketeering to take care of someone a high-ranking senator wants taken care of, they’ve claimed; it’s something that every state department does.

Both the US attorney’s office and Paul Ware, the independent counsel the state Supreme Judicial Court retained to investigate hiring within Probation, have made much of the political sponsorship lists O’Brien’s department maintained. The lists detailed which job applicants came recommended by individual lawmakers. Ware’s report and the federal indictment against O’Brien both held up the sponsorship lists as evidence that jobs in Probation were tilted toward politically connected job candidates.

Yesterday, O’Brien’s lawyers submitted a sponsor list of their own — one from inside Mulligan’s trial court. The list detailed recommendations for plum court officer jobs that came to the trial court from state legislators, local officials, and a handful of judges. Prominent stars from the Ware report — including Senate President Therese Murray, Sen. Mark Montigny, Sen. Stephen Brewer, and former House Speaker Sal DiMasi — are well represented as sponsors of would-be court officers. But the court officer list also includes the likes of former US rep William Delahunt, Boston politicians Steve Murphy and Chuck Turner, and former state treasurer Shannon O’Brien. (O’Brien’s lawyers also now say they may call Ware — a former law partner of the federal judge presiding over the case — as a witness.)  

Federal prosecutors reportedly tried to broaden their Probation inquiry into court officer hiring last year. That effort did not yield any indictments.

O’Brien’s lawyers pointed to the existence of the court officer list, and the wide range of boldface names represented on it, as evidence that O’Brien’s own sponsor list was nothing special. They argued: “‘Sponsor lists’ were standard operating procedure in the Trial Court, not a nefarious Probation racketeering tool designed to ‘ensure that the sponsored candidates obtained employment’ to which they were not entitled, as the indictment alleges. Consideration of legislative recommendations, and weighing the relative power of legislators, was both an understood and accepted practice.” O’Brien’s trial begins late next month. It’s clear now that patronage on Beacon Hill will be under as much scrutiny as the former Probation chief will be.



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