Prosecution struggles in Probation Department case

Former Probation Department commissioner John O’Brien is on trial at a South Boston federal courthouse for allegedly running his department like a criminal enterprise. Federal prosecutors claim that O’Brien oversaw a rigged hiring system that traded jobs for influence in the state legislature. Fred Wyshak, the lead prosecutor in the O’Brien case, has said O’Brien used probation jobs as “political currency” to advance a corrupt, bribery-riddled relationship with state lawmakers. Prosecutors haven’t had any luck proving that state lawmakers knew they were on the receiving end of a series of crooked deals, though. Federal prosecutors have put three current or former Beacon Hill lawmakers on the stand so far. And none of the three have done prosecutors any favors.

Yesterday saw a pair of Beacon Hill power players — former rep. Steve Walsh and outgoing Rep. Michael Costello — take the stand for the prosecution. Walsh and Costello are connected to three of the eight alleged acts of mail fraud the government says O’Brien committed. Neither had much to offer in the way of incriminating testimony.

Wyshak tried repeatedly to connect Probation hiring to former House speaker Sal DiMasi, whom Walsh and Costello channeled prospective probation hires through. But Wyshak couldn’t get many questions to stick. He met objections when he asked Walsh, “Do you know if the speaker’s office had influence with Mr. O’Brien?” and “Did you think that somebody needed legislative influence to get a job with probation?” After spinning his wheels, the best Wyshak could get Walsh to offer was, “I believed as a rank and file member that there was more influence with the speaker’s office than there was with mine.”

Costello, the first sitting lawmaker to testify, used his time on the stand to critique the indictment prosecutors slapped O’Brien with (“I couldn’t tell where the [legal] lines were,” he said), and to argue that the probation job-seeker he recommended, who is the daughter of a state judge, deserved to be hired. Costello also told defense lawyers that lawmakers routinely called in job-related favors across state government, not just in the Probation Department. Costello didn’t say anything to establish a special, corrupt relationship between the Legislature and O’Brien; he did note that the governor’s office had a wing that “used to be called the Office of Patronage.”

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Paul McMorrow

Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

Prosecutors previously came up empty when they made a run at Jack Hart, a former state senator who now works as a lobbyist. Hart was plagued by a nonexistent memory during much of his testimony, but he said there was nothing special about the act of sending a job applicant’s name to Probation, or any other agency. “We’re in the business of writing letters of recommendation,” he said of lawmakers.