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Mass. probation trial final arguments set

BOSTON — The federal trial of former state probation Commissioner John O’Brien and two deputies could be heading to the jury soon.

The prosecution rested its case Friday and the defense opted not to call any witnesses, including O’Brien.

O’Brien and two deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke, are accused of funneling jobs to politically connected applicants at the expense of more qualified candidates. They pleaded not guilty to charges including mail fraud and bribery.

The trial has lasted more than two months and focused attention on the patronage culture on Beacon Hill. Closing arguments are expected to begin Tuesday.

Although no lawmakers were charged, they have figured into the prosecution’s case.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo this week strongly denied assertions by prosecutors that he traded jobs for votes or deliberately spared the agency from budget cuts.

Former state Rep. Charles Murphy, who chaired the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, testified Wednesday that during the height of the recession in 2009, when across-the-board cuts were being made in state government, DeLeo instructed him not to reduce the agency’s budget.

On Friday, DeLeo called Murphy’s allegation that the probation budget was protected from cuts “not only illogical, it was untruthful.”

“The public records are irrefutable and confirm the truth that, like almost all of the rest of state government, the Office of the Commissioner of Probation’s budget was cut substantially in Fiscal Year 2010,” DeLeo said in a written statement.

He said the budget for the department was 14.2 percent less in the 2010 fiscal year compared to the prior year. DeLeo was not called to testify at the trial.

Prosecutors said in a court filing this week that a “quid pro quo” arraignment existed between DeLeo and O’Brien.

Investigators allege O’Brien rigged the agency’s hiring process to favor applicants referred by powerful lawmakers in exchange for favorable legislative action on the budget or other matters.

Earlier in the trial, an aide to Senate President Therese Murray testified that she provided help to several people who contacted the Democratic leader’s office about jobs in the state probation department, but also said under cross-examination that she also routinely assisted job seekers in other government agencies.

The probation department scandal has roiled Beacon Hill for several years.

A scathing 2010 report by independent counsel Paul Ware suggested an understanding between O’Brien and certain lawmakers linking generous state funding for the department to O’Brien’s willingness to give jobs to favored applicants.

At the very beginning of the trial U.S. District Court Judge William Young reminded the jury that political patronage has been common practice in American government for centuries.

“Political patronage, standing alone, is not a crime,” the judge said, adding that prosecutors would have to show that federal laws were actually broken.

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