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.



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