By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON — Job-seekers shuttled through Senate President Therese Murray’s office were hired by the state probation department in a criminally fraudulent manner and jobs granted to members of the House to fill were illegal gratuities, a jury determined Thursday, convicting three former probation officials of a bevy of charges.
“Getting a verdict like this just strengthens our resolve to identify corrupt public officials and bring them to justice just like we did here today,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Vincent Lisi told reporters. He said, “This should send a message to any corrupt public officials out there that there is nothing that is going to get in our way from identifying them and bringing them to justice just like we did here today.”
>>> For video of the prosecution’s comments to the press after the trial, go to: http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-07-24court-pro/
For video of the defense attorneys comments, go to: http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-07-24court-def/
For publishable photos from the courthouse, log on to Statehousenews.com.
Former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and his former deputy Elizabeth Tavares were convicted of racketeering and on four of the eight counts of mail fraud they faced. Former deputy William Burke III, Tavares and O’Brien were convicted of conspiracy to commit racketeering.
The jury’s reading of the verdict was punctuated by sobs from O’Brien’s family and supporters along with a shouted accusation from someone in the courtroom that “government’s corrupt.” The reading of the verdict was uninterrupted by the collapse of O’Brien’s wife Laurie, who was wheeled out of the courtroom in a stretcher.
Defense attorneys, who appeared shaken by the verdict, declined to comment on the prosecution’s case, while assuring reporters that they would attempt to overturn the jury’s ruling. Burke’s attorney John Amabile said he would “exhaust every avenue to try to undo what we believe is a wrong verdict.” O’Brien’s attorney Stellio Sinnis said, “I think that in the end they’ll be vindicated.”
“It was unanimous,” one of the jurors who declined to identify himself, told the News Service. He said, “We did our jobs.”
A woman who served on the jury said coming to a decision was “difficult” and said, “You’re dealing with people’s lives.”
Judge William Young instructed the defendants themselves not to comment on the jury’s verdict.
Sentencing was set for Tuesday, Nov. 18. While the alleged crimes carried a statutory maximum penalty of up to 20 years, sentencing guidelines could cap any potential prison term to much less than that.
Beyond the direct effect on O’Brien, Tavares and Burke, the verdict could lend more credibility to the prosecution’s theory – which has never been fully tested before a jury – that Speaker Robert DeLeo conspired with O’Brien to offer jobs in the electronic monitoring program to his supporters to assist in his ultimately successful campaign for the speakership.
As part of O’Brien’s racketeering charge, the jury determined it was proven that several jobs in the electronic monitoring program were offered as illegal gratuities, while rejecting the charge they were offered as bribes.
DeLeo has forcefully denied that claim, and Gov. Deval Patrick, a former civil rights chief for the Department of Justice, called it “very unusual” that DeLeo would be accused of participating in the conspiracy without being given a chance to defend himself.
Three hours after the verdict, DeLeo had not yet offered a reaction to it.
Outside the courthouse after the verdicts were announced, Ortiz emphasized the seriousness of public corruption and cautioned that any system of awarding public jobs that is not based on merit can “rapidly devolve” into fraud. She said that in conspiracy cases “you are not trying people in a vacuum,” explaining how the case had drawn the names of others, such as DeLeo, into evidence.
In pursuit of the guilty verdict, prosecutors called former officials who had clashed with O’Brien as well as those who respected him, along with judges who saw the hiring process up close. Witnesses were accused of lying by both sides, and defense attorneys claimed former Chief Justice of Administration and Management Robert Mulligan engaged in the same type of patronage when he hired court officers.
In many cases, jurors rejected the defense notion that the recommendations from lawmakers were mere suggestions from respectable and knowledgeable officials, instead embracing the prosecution theory that officials in the key law enforcement agency carefully manipulated hiring, counting interviews and applications as meaningless while the political heft of a candidate’s sponsor carried all the weight.
“Who would really want to send an application into probation with these three at the helm?” prosecutor Robert Fisher asked before the jury began deliberations. He said, “There was no one who got a fair shake unless they had a sponsor.”
The hiring of Patrick Lawton, the scion of a prominent Brockton family, was deemed fraud, as was the hiring of Kelly Manchester, who was Sen. Mark Montigny’s girlfriend when she got a job at a New Bedford family court. Patricia Mosca, who allegedly sought out a probation job for its effect on her pension status, was hired based on a fraudulent process, the jury found, and Melissa Melia – who was hired after Cape and Island District Attorney Michael O’Keefe endorsed her candidacy – was also hired based on her political backing rather than her qualifications, the jury found. Mosca and Lawton no longer work for probation.
DeLeo’s godson Brian Mirasolo, who allegedly became one of the youngest chief probation officers in the state, was proven a fraudulent hire, which was wrapped into the racketeering charge but not included as a standalone fraud count. Four other hires recommended by Rep. Michael Costello, former Rep. Steven Walsh and former Sen. Fred Berry were not deemed fraudulent by the 12-person jury.
The trial put leaders of the state’s judiciary under the microscope, and the guilty verdict could underscore the message for lawmakers to stay out of the nitty gritty of personnel decisions. After an independent investigation into the probation department’s hiring, the Legislature passed a state law in 2011 limiting lawmakers’ roles making job recommendations.
Describing probation officers duties as “tough hard and critically important work,” Ortiz said the rigged hiring system “demoralized hard-working qualified employees” and “robbed the taxpayers.”
The prosecution’s case took 10 weeks of testimony, and the jury deliberated for about 50 hours before reaching the verdict. The defense, which engaged in heated cross-examination, elected not to call its own witnesses.
Tavares and O’Brien were convicted on four counts of mail fraud and acquitted on the four others. Burke was acquitted of all mail fraud counts. All three were convicted of conspiracy to commit racketeering.
Francis Wall, a former probation official, provided perhaps the most comprehensive view of the scheme, claiming he always manipulated scores and lied for O’Brien in arbitration proceedings while defense attorneys attempted to undercut him as a “serial liar.” The jury requested a transcript of Wall’s testimony on the first day of deliberations.
The latter days of the trial featured a full-throated public dispute between several prominent members of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Attorney’s office, which opted against public statements while accusing DeLeo in the courtroom of passing out bribes, in the form of probation jobs for state representatives.
“The old saying is where do you go to get your reputation back?” House Minority Leader Brad Jones asked the Boston Globe.
“I know that there have been many comments stated in the media, but we’re not trying this case in the media,” Ortiz said.
The verdict, which arrives seven weeks before the primary elections, is likely to send a ripple through the corridors of Beacon Hill and around the state.
“Realization that some of these released inmates have been under the tutelage of underprepared and likely incompetent probation officers, qualified only by their political connections, is disturbing to the point of disgust,” wrote Dr. Joseph Gerstein, the founding president of SMART Recovery Self-Help Network, in a recent letter to the Globe.
Capitalizing on the corruption that bloomed during Democratic control of the Legislature, the Massachusetts Republican Party started selling T-shirts with the message, “I applied for a probation dept. job and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”
The possibility remains that federal prosecutors could go to trial on additional charges, which Judge William Young had severed from the trial that ended Thursday. Those additional federal bribery charges relate to the same alleged trading of jobs for votes.
“I think it unlikely that the severed charges will ever be tried,” Boston attorney Tom Hoopes, a fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, wrote in an email to the News Service. “The case,” he wrote, “regardless of the charges – is being decided here and now.”