July 24, 2014

Drama-filled verdict in Probation Department trial

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 11:41 pm


After seven days of deliberations, a jury finally returned a verdict in the corruption trial of former Massachusetts Commissioner of Probation John J. O’Brien and his deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke. Both O’Brien and Tavares were convicted of racketeering and four counts of mail fraud. They had been charged with eight counts of mail fraud each. Burke was convicted only of conspiracy to commit racketeering. Although the jury did not find that the defendants actually bribed legislators, they found them guilty of providing “improper gratuities” by hiring legislators’ friends and relatives in an attempt to curry favor.

The jury reached their verdict at about 2:15 this afternoon, causing Courtroom 18 to rapidly fill with people. Shortly before 2:30, the jury filed in, Judge William G. Young looked over the verdict slip, and his clerk began reading the verdicts on each of the charges. Because there were 109 different counts and sub-counts, this took quite a while. The defendants’ family members, who filled at least two rows of benches, became very emotional, loudly sobbing and at least one person shouting, “The government is corrupt!” O’Brien’s wife even fainted, and someone called for a medic. The courthouse nurse arrived with a wheelchair. Eventually an ambulance pulled up outside the courthouse with sirens blaring, and O’Brien’s wife was taken away on a stretcher. Surprisingly, as all this was going on, the clerk did not pause in her reading of the verdicts, which made it difficult to hear the specifics.

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July 16, 2014

Probation Department trial: closing arguments

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 12:01 am


Closing arguments took place today in the trial of former Massachusetts Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien and his top deputies, William Burke and Elizabeth Tavares. They are charged with mail fraud, racketeering, and bribery for carrying out and covering up a patronage scheme that involved hiring candidates recommended by state legislators, allegedly without regard for their qualifications, in exchange for budget increases.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Karin Bell delivered the government’s closing. She called the Probation Department’s hiring process “a complete scam” and “fraud.” O’Brien, she said, made hiring decisions before any resumes were reviewed or interviews took place, and sometimes before job openings were even posted. He then passed the names of the legislator-endorsed candidates to the interview panel, telling them that they had to make it through to the second-round interview, which was conducted by O’Brien and his deputies. Then, O’Brien told his deputies ahead of time the order in which they must rank the candidates in the second-round interviews.

“The politically connected candidates are moved on at the expense of other candidates who are probably more qualified,” Bell explained. “They had to break the rules, and they had to cover it up.” Bell argued that in addition to Chief Justice of Administration and Management Robert Mulligan, the trial court itself was a victim because it was cheated out of getting the most qualified probation officers, and unsuccessful applicants were victims because they were cheated out of jobs.

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July 14, 2014

Probation Department trial heading to the jury

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 11:54 pm


The corruption trial of former Massachusetts Commissioner of Probation John J. O’Brien, as well as two of his deputies, William Burke and Elizabeth Tavares, will be in the jury’s hands tomorrow.

Today, lawyers for the prosecution and defense met in court for a charge conference and hearing on the defendants’ Rule 29 motions for acquittal. Judge William G. Young denied all three defendants’ motions for acquittal. If these had been granted, the case (either in its entirety or just some of the charges) would have simply been thrown out without ever going to the jury. Judge Young also announced his planned jury instructions. The following are among the things he plans to tell the jury:

  • The burden of proof is with the prosecution and never shifts to the defense.
  • Verdicts on each count must be unanimous.
  • Special scrutiny should be given to witnesses who were part of the alleged conspiracy or received immunity.
  • Participating in the political process is encouraged, and campaign contributions are protected by the First Amendment.
  • Neither the indictment, nor the behavior of the attorneys or judge, is evidence.
  • There is “nothing criminal” about government officials from any of the three branches of government recommending candidates for jobs, or about hiring authorities keeping track of these recommendations.
  • The jury should not sit as “some giant personnel board” to make decisions about which applicants were the most qualified, but merely to determine if hiring was done with complete disregard to the procedures outlined in the Trial Court Manual.

Judge Young also complimented all of the lawyers. “I think this case has been very well-tried, and I will say that [to the jury]. You’ve been doing a great job for your respective clients.”

Somewhat controversially, he called it “improper,” but not criminal, for hiring authorities to pass names of preferred candidates to those in charge of interviewing or rating candidates. “The passage of such names from a superior to a subordinate is highly improper, whether a judge does it or whether anybody else does it,” he added. However, he assured the lawyers, “standing alone, that’s not criminal.” What is criminal, and what O’Brien and his co-defendants are accused of doing, is “material misrepresentation of the fact that the procedures manual is being followed.” Defense Attorney Brad Bailey, who represents Tavares, expressed his concerns with the description of the defendants’ conduct as “improper,” but Judge Young was not swayed. Defense Attorney Stellio Sinnis, who represents O’Brien, did succeed in getting Judge Young to emphasize to the jury that “a violation of the Trial Court Manual is not criminal.”

The defendants face 8 counts of mail fraud. For them to be found guilty of these charges, it must be proven that they falsely certified through the U.S. mail that they had chosen the most qualified applicants for probation officer jobs, and that they succeeded in deceiving the Chief Justice of Administration and Management, Robert Mulligan. They are also charged with racketeering and bribery. For these charges to stick, either there must have been a concerted effort by O’Brien and Speaker Robert DeLeo to bribe specific legislators to increase the Probation Department’s funding in exchange for their relatives and friends receiving jobs, or O’Brien’s actions must have been done corruptly in hopes of receiving a benefit from legislators.

During the charge conference, Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Wyshak pointed out that Judge Mulligan is not the only alleged victim in this case. “We think that unsuccessful applicants who relied on a fair hiring system, we think that the trial court as an institution is a victim,” he told Judge Young.

Closing arguments, as well as jury instructions, will take place tomorrow.

July 13, 2014

Azamat Tazhayakov trial: recap of the first week

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 10:51 pm


Azamat Tazhayakov

Two high-profile trials will be wrapping up next week at Boston’s John Joseph Moakley Federal Courthouse. The Probation Department corruption trial, which began on May 4th, will have opening statements on Monday. Additionally, the trial of Azamat Tazhayakov, charged with obstruction of justice in the Boston Marathon bombing, will be going to the jury by Wednesday, with the prosecution expected to rest their case on Monday. Unlike the Probation trial, the Tazhayakov trial has been moving forward quickly and efficiently. I have been able to watch an hour or so of testimony each day during my lunch break at work. Below is a recap of what I witnessed during the last three days of the trial. (My post about the first two days can be found here.) I decided to only include the witnesses that I personally saw, as details about the others are available from numerous media outlets and reporters’ twitter accounts.

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July 8, 2014

Azamat Tazhayakov trial: notes from opening statements and the first few witnesses

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 9:52 pm

Azamat Tazhayakov

The trial began this week for Azamat Tazhayakov, a friend of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who is accused of obstructing the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Opening statements took place yesterday. The most interesting piece of information to come out during opening statements was that Tsarnaev told his friend during dinner a month before the bombing that he knew how to make a bomb using gunpowder, and that it was good to be a martyr because “you die with a smile on your face and go straight to heaven.” Just 90 minutes after the bombing, Tsarnaev texted Tazhayakov, “Don’t go thinking it’s me, you cooked bastard.”

So far, the court has heard testimony from at least six witnesses.

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July 2, 2014

Judge Mulligan takes the stand

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 11:15 pm

Judge Mulligan

Photo by Krista Zanin, Massachusetts Bar Association

Judge Robert A. Mulligan was the most anticipated witness in the Probation Department corruption trial, and his testimony this week lived up to expectations. To recap, former Commissioner of Probation John O’Brien and his deputies, William Burke and Elizabeth Tavares, are on trial in federal court for racketeering and mail fraud. They are accused of covering up a patronage scheme in which they hired candidates recommended by legislators, in exchange for the legislators voting to increase their budget.

Judge Mulligan is one of O’Brien’s biggest detractors. After becoming the Chief Justice for Administration and Management (CJAM) of the Massachusetts Trial Court in 2003, he clashed with O’Brien over their respective roles in hiring probation officers. Mulligan wanted judges to have more say in the process, and he took issue with suspicious hiring decisions made by O’Brien and his deputies. He voiced his concerns in letters to O’Brien, creating a paper trail of their testy exchanges which was displayed in court.

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June 29, 2014

Trial to begin for Azamat Tazhayakov, friend of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Filed under: law & crime by Victoria Liberty @ 8:09 am

Tsarnaev & friends

Azamat Tazhayakov, one of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s friends who is accused of obstructing the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing, is set to go on trial this upcoming week. Pretrial hearings took place last week, during which lawyers finalized the logistics of the trial and jury selection. Judge Douglas Woodlock will be presiding over the trial in Courtroom 1 of the Moakley Federal Courthouse.

There were surprisingly few people in court for the pretrial hearings. Tazhayakov’s parents and little sister were in attendance, as was Tazhayakov himself. He wore a black suit and navy tie, and in person looks very small and skinny, and younger than his 20 years. He smiled at his family each day as he entered the courtroom.

The main topic of discussion at Wednesday’s hearing was the jury questionnaires to be filled out by prospective jurors. Judge Woodlock announced that jury selection will “follow the Bulger format.” The process will start on Monday, June 30th, with an initial pool of jurors arriving at the courthouse and filling out questionnaires. That afternoon, lawyers will begin reviewing the hundreds of questionnaires to determine which jurors should be excused for cause. On Tuesday, another pool of jurors will go through the same process. The goal is to be ready for opening statements by July 7, and the trial is expected to last three weeks. After the jury is selected, Judge Woodlock said, opening statements will be discussed in more detail.

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