Probation trial won’t be pretty for Beacon Hill

Lawmakers on Beacon Hill looked like they got off easy in federal prosecutors’ investigation into corruption at the state Probation Department. But as former probation boss John O’Brien heads to trial this spring, it’s increasingly looking like there will be plenty of misery and embarrassment to go around. A hearing at the federal courthouse yesterday made it clear that both sides in the O’Brien case plan on using O’Brien’s probation trial to put Beacon Hill on trial, even without any lawmakers sitting at the defense table.

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz slapped O’Brien and a pair of former probation deputies with federal corruption charges two years ago. She’s prosecuting them under the federal RICO statute — a law normally used to put mobsters behind bars. Ortiz has alleged that O’Brien ran probation as a corrupt racket, overseeing a sham hiring system that offered jobs to candidates offered by legislative sponsors, in return for fat department budgets and legislative clout. Ortiz has cast these transactions as bribery, although she hasn’t prosecuted the alleged recipients of those bribes — including Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Ortiz made it clear two years ago that she wanted the case against the Probation Department to go far beyond O’Brien’s office, calling the indictments of O’Brien and his deputies “just one step” in the inquiry into probation. Legal bills from legislators with close ties to probation seem to show that Ortiz’s office took a hard run at elected officials. Considering that the Lowell Sun once reported that two sitting senators and two sitting representatives would fall in the feds’ probation inquiry, anyone named in the Ware Report should be doing cartwheels down Bowdoin Street when O’Brien’s corruption trial kicks off this spring.

They won’t be, though, because whether O’Brien and company walk away clean or fall to a guilty verdict, Beacon Hill’s political culture is in line for a serious hit at the Moakley Courthouse.

Yesterday, O’Brien’s lawyers revealed that “countless” sitting lawmakers have been offered immunity agreements in return for testimony in the O’Brien case. This means prosecutors are prepared to parade scores of legislators into the Moakley Courthouse, and ask them to explain all the gruesome details of patronage on Beacon Hill. For their part, O’Brien’s lawyers said yesterday that their defense hinges, in large part, on arguing that patronage in Massachusetts is so widespread that it can’t possibly be illegal: “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,” one of O’Brien’s attorneys argued. Depending on which side wins out at trial, the Legislature will either be found to be complicit in a criminal conspiracy, or fine practitioners of widespread favor-trading and backroom dealing. It’s going to be a spectacle either way.

–PAUL MCMORROW      

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

With five drug overdose deaths in the last two weeks in Brockton, interim Police Chief Robert Hayden says his department’s focus will be on saving lives and says he wants to equip every police car with Narcan, a fast-acting treatment to reverse overdoses.

CASINOS

The Lowell Sun backs Leominster as the site of the slots-only casino.

Tom Keane says the communities that lose out on or reject gambling halls will probably feel like winners in the end.

Suffolk Downs makes Margery Eagan sad.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

Republican governors, including several with presidential ambitions, said they were “chilled” by the tone of President Obama during a meeting at the White House that was intended to form partnerships between the states and Washington.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had supporters leave positive comments about him and his policies on online articles, Governing reports.

Tennessee , Idaho, Alabama, and Arkansas are the states with the most minimum wage workers, Governing reports.

A Wall Street Journal editorial highlights opposition from groups like the ACLU and the Sierra Club to the IRS’s proposed regulations of political nonprofits. In a recent CommonWealth conversation, Wendy Kaminer worried that IRS efforts to crack down on dark money nonprofits could sweep up traditional issue advocacy groups from all sides of the political spectrum.

Rep. John Dingell, the longest serving member of Congress in history, will retire after 58 years in the House.

It’s Tea Party primary season again in Congress, although Republican governors who have backed Medicaid expansions under Obamacare haven’t faced a similar backlash.

The New York Times examines Ed Lee‘s attempts to bridge San Francisco‘s class tensions.

ELECTIONS

US Sen. Ed Markey discusses an epidemic of heroin addiction in Taunton, WBUR reports.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker says the Affordable Care Act is the driving force behind health care consolidation and declines to take a stand on the Partners HealthCare acquisition of South Shore Hospital, State House News reports.

Poetic justice? Amid talk of a comeback run for president, a Gallup poll finds that 47 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of Mitt Romney.

Keller@Large lays out the pros and cons of a potential presidential run by the current Massachusetts governor.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Five Guys has a public relations fiasco on its hands, says Telegram & Gazette columnist Dianne Williamson.

You may want to take a wait-and-see attitude on Bitcoin, with a major exchange suddenly going offline, Time reports.

Paul McMorrow says bringing the Olympics to Boston would be a “monumentally bad idea.” A MetroWest Daily News guest columnist also says “nyet” to an Olympics in Boston.

Secretary of State Bill Galvin is taking to the bully pulpit to decry the practice by some employers of making lump-sum, year-end contributions to employees’ 401(k) retirement accounts rather than depositing the money throughout the year.

EDUCATION

Teachers gather in Lynn to tell US Rep. John Tierney that federally mandated assessment programs and evaluations are leaving them drained, the Item reports.

State officials plan to impose conditions requiring the operators of two affiliated, high-performing charter schools to draw clearer lines among their related operations that promote best practices and tutoring advice to other schools.

Part-time faculty at Lesley University in Cambridge have voted to unionize, part of the movement for better wages and working conditions among adjunct faculty members in higher education.

Has MIT‘s wildly successful sports analytics conference jumped the shark?

HEALTH CARE

The Scituate Board of Health voted to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21, becoming the seventh community in the state to raise the age to that level.

State officials identify two cases of measles in the Metrowest area, the Associated Pressreports. One of those affected was at a Trader Joe’s in Framingham on February 15-16 when he was most infectious, NECN reports.

Partners HealthCare tweaks its strategy for care at hospitals in Salem, Lynn, and Medford, but some residents still aren’t satisfied, the Item reports.

An initiative by a New Bedford non-profit group has gotten at least five neighborhood grocers to rearrange the stores to stock healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables and place them in areas that force customers to pass them first before heading to the snack aisles.

TRANSPORTATION

MassDOT considers contracting with a private developer to build a new toll bridge next to the Sagamore.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

A fusion energy project at MIT is restarted, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to keep the federal money for it coming, WBUR reports.

The Supreme Court hears a challenge to the EPA’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act.

New Hampshire Transmission proposes a new underwater cable linking the Seabrook nuclear power plant to Boston.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

A number of state lawmakers have been given immunity in the trial of former Probation commissioner John O’Brien, CommonWealth reports. The Herald has a similar story, while the Globe focuses on efforts by defense attorneys to get the judge removed from the case. The Globestory dismisses the immunity angle as old news, saying it was earlier reported that former House speaker Thomas Finneran had been given immunity to testify before the grand jury. WBURzeroes in on the judicial temperament of US District Judge Dennis Saylor IV, who exploded in anger during the hearing.

Increases in opiate overdoses are prompting calls for more drug courts in the state.

Eileen McNamara , writing for WBUR’s website, says what passes for discipline in the Lowell Police Department doesn’t go far enough.

Police in Groveland say they arrested a couple from Newburyport who drove into town in their minivan with their four children in the back. The couple is accused of trying to sell prescription pain killers to raise money, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

A Weymouth man who was arrested for selling pot to a 17-year-old and other drug possession charges claimed his stash was legal because he has a medical marijuana certificate from the state.

Boston magazine asks whether solving a Waltham triple murder would have prevented the Boston Marathon bombings.

MEDIA

An article in Nature magazine, via Paul Levy, reports that two publishers are removing more than 120 “academic” papers from their subscription service after a French computer scientist proved they were computer-generated gibberish. The papers were created by a software program invented in 2005 by MIT researchers to prove conferences would accept meaningless papers without verification.