Federal Prosecutors Seek 70-Month Prison Sentence For Disgraced Former Massachusetts Probation Commissioner John O’Brien

Today boston.com reported that federal prosecutors are recommending that the former Massachusetts state probation commissioner, John O’Brien, serve 5 years and 10 months in prison following his convictions for racketeering, mail fraud, and conspiracy.

O’Brien ran the probation department from 1998 until he resigned in 2010.  He was accused of orchestrating a sham hiring process, whereby his assistants would hire people who were recommended by members of the Massachusetts Legislature.  Many of the politically-connected new hires were not as qualified as other applicants.  In exchange for hiring their friends and constituents, the legislators would vote to increase the budget of the probation department.

O’Brien’s defense at trial was that the hiring procedures in the probation department did not constitute a crime, as legislators have always been permitted to lobby for jobs for their constituents.  The prosecution team countered that O’Brien did not just engage in simple patronage – instead he falsely and fraudulently contented that his department was hiring applicants based on their qualifications for the job.  As a result, more-qualified candidates were denied job opportunities if they did not have the necessary political connections.

The two-month long trial was a spectacle in which many high-profile current and former members of the legislature and the judicial system testified about the hiring processes of various government departments.  While no legislators were indicted, prosecutors alleged during the trial that Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo conspired with O’Brien to give probation jobs to certain legislators’ friends and constituents.  In turn, those legislators would support DeLeo’s candidacy for the speakership.  DeLeo denied the allegations and United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz never explained why he was not indicted.

In requesting a 70-month sentence, prosecutors said O’Brien never received the message that society has attempted to eliminate “crony politics” from state hiring decisions.  O’Brien’s attorneys have not yet made their own sentencing recommendations.  The trial judge recently rejected O’Brien’s motion to dismiss his convictions or order a new trial.  The judge has also ruled that O’Brien is eligible for a more severe sentence as a result of his abusing his position of public trust.  Two of O’Brien’s deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke, were also convicted of crimes for their involvement in the criminal scheme.  Prosecutors are asking that they both receive five-year prison sentences.  A sentencing hearing is scheduled for November 18th.

This was not O’Brien’s first experience as a criminal defendant.  Last year he was found not guilty of state charges that he conspired to commit bribery.  He was accused in that case of influencing his probation department employees to appear at a fundraiser for then State Treasurer Tim Cahill.  Prosecutors alleged that Cahill then hired O’Brien’s wife to work at the Lottery.

O’Brien’s case received some attention during the recent race for Massachusetts governor.  Governor-Elect Charlie Baker said he didn’t have a problem with O’Brien’s convictions and believed he received a fair trial.  Baker has also proposed that the Commonwealth publish the names, resumes, and recommendations of anybody who receives a state job.  Baker has argued that such a system would reveal whether people hired for state jobs are qualified.