A federal appeals court on Monday overturned the convictions of three former probation department officials, ruling that the government "overstepped its bounds in using federal criminal statutes to police the hiring practices of these Massachusetts state officials."
Former probation commissioner John O'Brien and former deputy commissioners Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke were convicted in 2014 for their roles in a patronage scheme in which they "abused the hiring process...in exchange for favorable budget treatment from the state legislature and increased control over the Probation Department," three U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit judges wrote in their opinion.
O'Brien and Tavares were both sentenced to prison time for their roles in the hiring scheme, but were allowed to remain free while their appeals were pending. Burke was given a year of probation.
Judge Juan Torruella wrote that while the trio's actions "may well be judged distasteful, and even contrary to Massachusetts's personnel laws," the court's job is limited to determining if they broke the federal laws as charged.
The opinion said O'Brien and the other defendants "misran the Probation Department and made efforts to conceal the patronage hiring system" but "not all unappealing conduct is criminal." The government did not present enough evidence that O'Brien violated the law and did not show a sufficient link between the jobs awarded and "official acts" performed in return, according to the ruling.
The ruling is a stunning turnaround in a case that cast a dark shadow for years over Beacon Hill. Persistent rumors of indictments and a trial that forced several elected officials to testify tarnished the reputation of the Legislature and caused many lawmakers to accuse U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz both publicly and privately of prosecutorial overreach.
The court also pointed to insufficient evidence regarding a meeting between O'Brien and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, then the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Prosecutors sought to show a link between O'Brien giving control of Electric Monitoring Program appointments to DeLeo and meeting with him to propose legislation that would boost his power as commissioner.
"All the Government demonstrated, however, is that O'Brien and DeLeo met," the opinion said. "The evidence does not show, for example, that DeLeo subsequently introduced a bill based on either of O'Brien's proposals or took some official act with respect to such a bill proposed by another legislator."
DeLeo has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and was never charged despite Ortiz's office dubbing the Winthrop Democrat an "unindicted co-conspirator" to the case.
O'Brien and Tavares were both found guilty of mail fraud charges, and the court said prosecutors did not prove the relevant mailings - rejection letters for candidates not selected for jobs - advanced the hiring scheme.
The court also expressed "reservations about the extent and type of juror questions allowed by the trial judge in this case," but said the reversal was based on "more central issues."