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Ex-Massachusetts probation commissioner sentenced to 18 months in job-rigging scheme

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BOSTON — Former state probation commissioner John O'Brien, who was convicted of rigging the agency's hiring process to favor politically-connected candidates, was sentenced Thursday to 18 months in federal prison and fined $25,000.

U.S. District Court Judge William Young, in handing down the sentence, said Massachusetts judges should be "appalled" by the extent of corruption revealed by the two-month long trial.

"For far too long we have tolerated a culture of political patronage in hiring judicial staff," he said. "It's a form of hypocrisy. ... John O'Brien didn't invent patronage hiring."

The judge also sentenced one of O'Brien's former deputies, Elizabeth Tavares, to three months in prison and a $10,000 fine, and another deputy, William Burke, to a year of supervised release and a $10,000 fine.

O'Brien and Tavares were convicted by a jury of racketeering and mail fraud this summer. Burke was convicted of the lesser charge of racketeering conspiracy. All three denied the charges and are appealing their convictions. O'Brien and Tavares must report to prison in January.

Prosecutors alleged the defendants, led by O'Brien, created a "sham" process designed to circumvent the agency's merit-based hiring policies, ensuring that coveted probation officer jobs went to candidates backed by state lawmakers or other officials, many times at the expense of more qualified applicants. No current or former lawmakers were charged.

Tavares, who was the only defendant to speak in court, expressed remorse as she pleaded for leniency.

"I wish I had had the courage to try to change it," she said of the pervasive cronyism in her former department. "I bear responsibility for my family's pain. I bear responsibility for not being brave."

PHOTO: Elizabeth Tavares, center right, a former first deputy commissioner in the Massachusetts probation department, arrives at Federal Court before a sentencing hearing, Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, in Boston. Tavares is one of three defendants convicted on charges of rigging the agency's hiring process to favor politically-connected candidates. Woman at left is unidentified. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Elizabeth Tavares, center right, a former first deputy commissioner in the Massachusetts probation department, arrives at Federal Court before a sentencing hearing, Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, in Boston. Tavares is one of three defendants convicted on charges of rigging the agency's hiring process to favor politically-connected candidates. Woman at left is unidentified. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Defense attorneys argued that their clients have already suffered enough after having their pensions revoked and their reputations tarnished.

"He's been personally destroyed and humbled," said Stylianus Sinnis, O'Brien's public defender. "His life is never going to be the same."

The sentences were lower than those recommended by prosecutors, who argued that nearly six years in prison for O'Brien and five years for the other two defendants would serve as a necessary deterrent.

"If this sentence does not speak loudly to this culture, it will persist," said Fred Wyshak of the U.S. Attorney's Office. "If the court does not act on (the) verdict in a matter that gives it the weight and importance it deserves, it sends the wrong message."

But the judge said that an overly harsh penalty would suggest the defendants were simply "rogue agents" or "people completely out of the pale."

"Tragically, that's not so," Young said. "What we have here (are) fundamentally decent people utterly without a moral compass in a field awash with political patronage."

Still, Young went to declare patronage hiring in the state judicial system "over" and "done" as a result of recent reforms, a sentiment that U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said she hoped was true following the hearing.

Ortiz also downplayed the lighter sentences.

"In all, this was an extraordinary victory for the government," Ortiz said. "It exposed a pervasively dysfunctional system in which probation officers were hired for their connections to politicians rather than their qualifications for the job."

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