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News and Features: Online exclusives

Judge rules patronage not a crime

Young says trial could last two months

BY: Jack Sullivan

The federal judge in the trial of former Probation commissioner John O’Brien and top aides set a high bar on Monday for prosecutors, saying he will instruct jurors at the start of the trial that the hiring of friends, family members, or preferred candidates is not a criminal offense.

“I’m going to emphasize in my pretrial instructions that political patronage is not a crime,” Judge William Young told lawyers as the first phase of jury selection began. “The crimes, or the crimes here that are alleged, are fraud crimes.”

Young also said that violating hiring rules and procedures contained in the Trial Court’s manual would not constitute a crime. Taken together, Young’s rulings mean prosecutors will have to show that O’Brien and his deputies engaged in a quid pro quo with lawmakers, steering jobs to politically connected people in return for greater power and money for what the US Attorney’s office alleges was a criminal enterprise.

Young’s ruling was one of several the judge made as the long-awaited trial of O’Brien and two of his deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, is set to begin this week. The three are charged with conspiracy, racketeering, bribery, and mail fraud charges for allegedly running a rigged hiring system that favored job candidates sponsored by legislators. The US Attorney’s office alleges jobs were steered to politically connected people in order to curry favor for a bigger budget and more power.

Young also took away one potential argument for prosecutors, that O’Brien and his deputies were rogue administrators beholden to no one. Young said O’Brien reported to the Chief Justice of Administration and Management and that probation is a division of the state Trial Court. “As a matter of law, he did not have sole and exclusive hiring authority,” Young said. “For anyone who argues the contrary of my ruling, I will correct them with the jury.”

Young, the defendants, and lawyers from both sides met with 154 prospective jurors to begin the process of culling the number down to 16 – 12 regular jurors and four alternates. Young gave a brief lecture on the Constitution, emphasizing the right of the defendants to a presumption of innocence.

“The most important thing to remember here is the three people the government has charged, they are innocent, they are truly innocent people,” he said. The jurors were given a questionnaire to fill out that will be used to eliminate those who have obvious conflicts or legitimate reasons to not serve.

Among the questions on the survey is whether the potential jurors know anyone on a list of potential witnesses including lawmakers, such as Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo; state and federal judges; appointed officials, and lawyers. But Young told them that not wanting to serve as jurors during the expected two-month trial is not sufficient reason for dismissal and he would only consider “legitimate” excuses.

Young said the trial is expected to last about two months. O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke also face bribery and other fraud charges in a second trial after Young severed the massive indictment into two parts to make it more manageable for jurors. Young took over the trial in March from Judge Dennis Saylor, who recused himself after a motion by defense attorneys claimed he had a conflict based on his friendships and associations with judges who could be called as witnesses.
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