Massachusetts jury starts deliberating over ex-probation officials accused of rigging hiring



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BOSTON — A federal jury started deliberations Wednesday in the trial of former state probation commissioner John O'Brien and two deputies, a case that has focused attention on the patronage culture in state government.

O'Brien and the deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke, are accused of a scheme to rig the agency's hiring process to favor applicants who had the backing of powerful state legislators, often at the expense of more qualified job candidates.

The jury, which got the case after some final instructions from U.S. District Court Judge William Young, almost immediately requested a list of the 60 witnesses who testified during the two-month trial, and the dates on which they took the stand. Jurors ended their first day without a verdict and were to resume deliberating Thursday morning.

All three defendants are charged with mail fraud and conspiracy to commit racketeering. O'Brien and Tavares are also charged with racketeering.

No legislators were charged in the case.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has issued a series of statements over the past week denying assertions made by prosecutors that he traded jobs for votes from fellow lawmakers during his bid for the speakership. In his most recent statement, DeLeo said prosecutors "knowingly mischaracterized" testimony at the trial.

On Wednesday, Gov. Deval Patrick appeared to question why DeLeo was not given an opportunity by prosecutors to testify at the trial or address the allegations.

"Leaving aside the merits of the case and the charges, as a lawyer it seems to me unusual if not unfair to draw someone into a trial without giving them an opportunity to defend themselves," Patrick told reporters.

Young reminded the jury Tuesday that patronage, by itself, is not a crime, and that prosecutors must show that criminal acts were committed.

During closing arguments, assistant U.S. Attorney Karin Bell said the defendants created a "sham" hiring system designed to give the impression that candidates were being hired on merit, in hopes of favorable treatment from lawmakers on legislative issues.

"That's not patronage," Bell contended. "That's fraud and bribery."

Defense attorneys argued the government failed to prove any crimes, with Burke's attorney, John Amabile, calling the prosecution a "witch hunt" and a "mudslinging operation."

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