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Former Massachusetts Probation Commissioner John O’Brien Sentenced to Serve 18 Months in Federal Prison

A federal judge today sentenced former Massachusetts Probation Commissioner John O’Brien to serve 18 months in federal prison resulting from his recent convictions for racketeering, mail fraud, and conspiracy.  U.S. District Court Judge William Young’s sentence was far less than the 70-month sentence that was recommended by the government.  One of O’Brien’s deputies was sentenced to serve three months in prison, and a second deputy received a sentence of probation.  O’Brien was also fined $25,000 and will lose his state pension.

O’Brien and two of his top deputies were convicted over the summer of organizing a corrupt hiring scheme within the probation department whereby politically-connected applicants would be hired over more-qualified candidates.  In exchange, legislators would vote to increase the budget of the Probation Department.  Prosecutors also alleged that O’Brien and Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo conspired to give probation jobs to some legislators’ friends and constituents.  According to the prosecution team, those legislators would then vote to make DeLeo the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  DeLeo repeatedly and angrily denied the allegations.  The prosecution labeled DeLeo as an unindicted co-conspirator but never charged him, or any other legislator, with a crime.  United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz has never explained the decision to charge O’Brien and his deputies but not the legislators.

O’Brien argued during his trial that it was not a crime for him to accept legislators’ recommendations for job applicants.  Some of the witnesses at trial conceded that legislators and others (including members of the judiciary) have long lobbied other departments for jobs for friends, family members, and constituents.  The government successfully argued that this case did not involve simple patronage because O’Brien and his deputies facilitated a sham of a hiring process that purported to be hiring people based on merit instead of political connections.

To a certain extent, Judge Young appeared sympathetic toward O’Brien and his codefendants.  According to the Boston Globe, Young called them “fundamentally decent people utterly without a moral compass” and pointed out that O’Brien didn’t invent patronage hiring.  Young also said that every Massachusetts state judge should be ashamed by the level of corruption and patronage in the judicial department.  Young also expressed his belief that patronage hiring in the Massachusetts judiciary is now over.

The Globe reported that O’Brien and his deputies appeared relieved by their sentences, but not everyone is happy with the outcome.  According to the Boston Herald, Massachusetts House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, Jr., called O’Brien’s sentence “disappointing” and said the defendants betrayed the public trust.  His comments echoed those of U.S. Attorney Ortiz, who told the Globe that the trial exposed a “pervasively dysfunctional system.”

O’Brien will report to prison on January 12th.  He has requested that he be permitted to serve his sentence at nearby Ft. Devens. There is no doubt that O’Brien’s trial has altered the hiring process in the judiciary.  The Chief Justice of the Trial Court, Paula Carey, released a statement to the Globe in which she said the probation scandal has resulted in an outside review that has made recommendations designed to ensure the hiring process in the judiciary is “constantly examined and improved.”

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