State Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien resigned abruptly on Friday, amid ongoing criminal investigations by state and federal authorities that he regularly handed out important agency jobs to reward political patrons.
O’Brien, 53, quit to avoid appearing in a termination hearing scheduled for Tuesday. His lawyer, Paul Flavin, said O’Brien was being made a scapegoat in the hiring scandal and that “numerous individuals from every branch of government make, receive and take into considerations recommendations.”
The hearing was scheduled to follow up on the investigative work by special counsel Paul F. Ware, appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court, to look into allegations of corruption in the Probation Department. Ware’s report, issued in November, provided a critical and damaging assessment that the hiring practices of the department were riddled with fraud and “systemic corruption.”
Sources said that O’Brien resigned to avoid answering questions that might incriminate him a criminal proceeding, which is almost a certainty. A federal grand jury is examining evidence and considering fraud and extortion charges. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, has assigned a team of prosecutors to collect evidence against O’Brien and others in the department.
During the investigation, O’Brien was subpoenaed by Ware to testify under oath about department practices, and initially agreed. Afterwards, O’Brien cancelled his appearance citing his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
The report said that important jobs were handed out as rewards to campaign donors, after politicians sent letters of recommendation to O’Brian asking him to intercede on the applicant’s behalf. Thousands of phony job interviews were held to create the illusion of an open hiring process, even though jobs had been already committed to the politically connected.
O’Brien’s troubles began with a Boston Globe investigative report that on May 24 that told of pay-to-play arrangements rewarding political donors using departmental jobs, and rampant fraud throughout the organization from weak fiscal oversight. O’Brien was suspended shortly thereafter amid calls for his firing or resignation.
Three of O’Brien’s chief deputies were also suspended without pay, leaving the 2000-plus employee department with no senior management. Those executives were former chief deputy Elizabeth V. Tavares, deputy commissioner Francis M. Wall and the department’s chief lawyer, deputy commissioner Christopher J. Bulger.
The investigation claimed Tavares was “at the heart of perpetuating the sham selection process” and passed along O’Brien’s favored candidates to a hiring committee that was already told who it should hire.
The report accused Wall of collecting political campaign contributions on state time, and on state property. Bulger was accused of knowing about the hiring corruption, and not taking any action to stop it.
O’Brien was a 29-year employee of the agency, starting at the Suffolk Superior Court, and working his way up through the ranks.