On John J. O’Brien, Former Probation Commissioner:

P1010306The case involving John J. O’Brien concerns the scandal that never happened. It began with a media report that the O’Brien filled positions in the probation department with people who were politically connected. The beginning of the end for O’Brien came with a federal racketeering indictment.

The words of the federal indictment, here, charging him with mail fraud stated that he and his co-defendants:

“having devised                . . . a scheme . . . to defraud, and for obtaining money and property by means of materially false and fraudulent pretenses  . . .  did cause to be placed in the post office . . . any matter and thing whatever to be sent and delivered by the Postal Service . . . for the purposes of executing . . . such scheme and artifice to defraud , . . . did (1) cause those individuals set forth below to be hired and promoted when they were not the most qualified candidate; (2) provide materially false  documents to the CJAM to make it appear that those individuals were the most qualified candidates and were hired pursuant to a merit based system; and (3) use the United States Post Office . . . to deliver rejection letters to other unsuccessful candidates. . . .

Throwing aside the legal mumbo jumbo, some of which I left out, what the indictment alleges and the trial showed after three months was that O’Brien hired around a couple of dozen people for jobs, maybe a little more or less, who although qualified “were not the most qualified candidates.” Some of those hired seemed to be of questionable validity but even those that stuck around seemed to have done a good job.

All of these less than most qualified candidates were tracked back to other people pushing for them to get jobs. Some were recommended by the President of the Senate, others by members of the Senate, or of the judiciary, or of the House of Representative, and by one of O’Brien’s co-defendants. None of those involved in putting up and pushing the candidates did wrong: as the judge, the prosecutor, and most Americans seem to know that patronage is not a crime.

The fraud is not against the public you might note. It is against the CJAM (the chief judge for administration and management, Robert Mulligan) who apparently suggested despite having spent 33 years in the court system he had no idea some of O’Brien’s hires were done to please those who controlled his budget. Anyone who has been in a courtroom waiting for his case to be called and seeing a politically powerful state politician walk in can bet his bottom dollar the pols case will be called first. If you know anything about judges, you have to be certain that one thing uppermost in their minds is when will they get their next raise.

Now guess how the judges get raises? And I’m not just talking about the state judges. Both state and federal get them by cozying up to the legislators. So as sure as I need electricity to get on the internet, you can be sure Mulligan was constantly interested in pleasing the law makers and pleading with them to get a raise. When I heard of Mulligan’s surprise that some of the people O’Brien hired were not the “most qualified” but had sponsors in the Legislature I could only think of Captain Louis Renault’s discovery of gambling at Rick’s Café Américain,

John O’Brien, who I have never met nor even heard of before this case began, is around 57 years of age. He led a spotless life. He played football at Boston College and spent his career working in probation. He did not sell any jobs; he thought everything he was doing was right.

He’s now a convicted felon. What penalty will he face for playing the game of patronage in a manner offensive to the U.S. prosecutor? This prosecutor’s office is heartless; remember it recommended 10 years in prison to Catherine Greig who also was in her fifties and her only crime was being Whitey Bulger’s girlfriend. Although it found one when it came to a Congressman’s wife involved in a money scheme. It recommended no time. Patronage anyone?

The other day we were hit with an article saying that O’Brien had ruined the probation department and the public suffered. Unlike that author, I’ve worked in the system and with many probation officers. They are dedicated individuals and work hard no matter who is commissioner. My gut told me the one or two bits of anecdotal evidence he put out did not tell the true story.

It seemed to me that there had to be an objective way to determine whether O’Brien did do damage the people of Massachusetts by his actions. The job of the probation officer is to help those who have been in trouble stay out of trouble. It’s a frustrating job. The best probation officers I found were those that had the sense of the criminal; those from the streets who grew up with people like those they were working with. People with many academic degrees were unlikely to have the wherewithal to do the best job. Former alcoholics or drug users who turned their lives around were much better even though not “the most qualified.”

I knew O’Brien was probation commissioner from 1998 to 2010. I thought if the probation officers had not been doing their jobs under him it would show in the state’s crime statistics. I found a chart showing them. Violent crimes in 1998 were 38,192, property crimes 173,011. In 2010 they were 30,737 violent, 154,496 property. In 2012 they continued to fall under the people O’Brien had put into probation positions to 26,953 and 143,089.

Between 1998 and 2010 violent crime is down 19.52%; property crime 10.70%; between 1998 and 2012 violent crime is down 29.43% and property crime 17.29%. Where then is the damage caused by O’Brien playing the political game?

O’Brien has no criminal record; O’Brien took no money; Under O’Brien’s leadership the probation department did its work quite well in reducing crime. Where there is no harm there is no foul. Imprisoning O’Brien will be a mockery of justice.


11 thoughts on “On John J. O’Brien, Former Probation Commissioner:

  1. I did a little research, these jobs are NOT Civil Service jobs. Therefore external candidates not within the bargaining unit would have no recourse if they were not hired. I believe the state is taking a look at the hiring practices and I have seen online petitions to make probation jobs Civil Service positions. This is a good thing as Civil Service was created in the late 19th to prevent patronage in government jobs. The civil service system is designed “to guard against political considerations, favoritism, and bias in governmental employment decisions; when there are, in connection with personnel decisions, overtones of political control or objectives unrelated to merit standards or neutrally applied public policy.” Cambridge v. Civil Service Commission, 43 Mass. App. Ct. 300, 304 (1997). I think making the probation jobs Civil Service positions would easily fix this issue and put the public’s mind at ease.

    1. Dave:

      I’m not so sure the Civil Service is the right way to go. I understand its purpose and why it was instituted. I used to work for a crusty old lawyer JJ Sullivan (he wasn’t that old but I was quite young then so he seemed old to me) who used a very successful argument to juries about whether they believed someone who learned things from a book or whether they believed the person who learned something in the school of hard knock. The Civil Service relies too much on book learning rather than other strengths a person may have. For some jobs that don’t involve interaction with other people it may be good, but for jobs like probation officer or assistant DA or even cop or fireman there are many things that come up that cannot be put into an exam situation.

      Al Seedman the first Jewish chief of detectives in NY City wrote a book called Chief. He tells in the book why he thought Civil Service was not good for the police force. He tells how he got a job and his detective badge through the help of a sponsor and how he worked extra hard not to embarrass that person. Civil Service sounds good but it seems to me even with that there are ways to get around it.

      I’m not so turned off by patronage as it is practiced not only in public service but in all walks of life. What parent will not try to help out his kid if he has a connection in his industry; as Judge Mulligan said when he gave a sixty something guy a court officer’s job that he has a soft spot for Vietnam veterans much is done for reasons that cannot be determined by a test.

      As for O’Brien, he might have pushed the envelope too far in rolling over for the legislators but because he did that isn’t in my mind a reason to throw out the whole system.

  2. Hello Matt,
    Looking for your opinion on the origins of the Connolly/Whitey relationship. I have thrown out my theory in the past, and now that Connolly’s conviction was overturned, it seems to make more sense. Matt, I respect your opinion and I would like to hear it.
    Thank you.
    Rather Not

    1. Rather:

      Good question. I am still working through that in my mind. Here’s where I am to date. This is rough since I’m a little bit removed from the issue right now. It obviously never began in Old Harbor Village despite the stories of ice cream purchases and breaking up a fight that probably came from Connolly’s imagination. The age difference between Whitey and Connolly was too great. But the Old Harbor connection is something that plays a role in the idea of trust. Having come from there myself and run into guys from there many years later who I hardly knew there’s a sense of something like comradeship.

      Connolly came to Boston from New York in 1973. J.Edgar Hoover died May 1 or 2 1972. He used the confusion in the FBI after that death and the McCormick connection to get home. (Somewhere I read his old man was sick) When he gets here Flemmi is on the lam but still in contact with the FBI and still working with Dennis Condon. Rico in 1970 went to Miami. Condom you may recall in 1971 made a run at Whitey as an informant that turned up dry.

      When Connolly gets here in 1973 he is made part of Condon’s group. Whitey is a Southie guy not interested in working for the FBI. It is two years before he and Whitey will hook up, according to the FBI records that date was in September 1975. In the meantime Condon manages to bring Flemmi back in mid-1974, gets two murder cases dropped against him and has him working again as an informant.

      Whitey has in the meantime gone over to Winter Hill to get some allies in his Southie wars. He hooks up with Martorano and the Winter Group. Flemmi, one of Martorano’s buddies, comes back and joins the group over in Soverville. He meets Whitey and the two of them over time get real close: both are alike, avoid drugs and booze, like to work out, the women and most of all money. They pair up and over time the rest of the group gets jailed, killed, or flees.

      The situation at the beginning of 1975 is Rico is leaving the FBI, Condon plans to leave (he will go in 1977) The FBI’s main goal is to get the Mafia. One of its top Mafia informants is Flemmi. Whitey and Flemmi are close. The problem faced is how to transfer Flemmi to another agent; and to figure out if Flemmi is so close to Whitey how to deal with the situation.

      Condon has had time to work with Connolly. He figures he can work with Flemmi. He is introduced to him and Flemmi accepts him. Flemmi’s closeness with Whitey remains a problem. Flemmi knows he’ll have to meet with Connolly to keep his protection like he was doing with Condon but he knows it will be difficult doing without Whitey knowing.

      Condon knows something about Whitey from his previous run at him. Here’s where I need your help. I believe at some time Condon/Flemmi had to disclose to Whitey that Flemmi was a rat. My gut tells me that Flemmi broke it to Whitey after they cemented their relationship spelling out the great benefits. Once he did that and Whitey came on board Connolly is brought into the mix. The Old Harbor connection, newness, the Irishness, etc. makes Connolly closer to Whitey which Flemmi doesn’t care about preferring to let Whitey be the contact person.

      What do you think?

      1. Matt,
        First of all, thank you for your detailed answer. It makes a lot of sense. The only part that is weird is Flemmi and/or Condon telling Whitey that Flemmi is an informant. That could have gotten Flemmi killed. Whitey’s whole persona was built around being perceived as a gangster’s gangster,…tough, loyal, and above all, a stand-up guy ( not a Rat.) It’s hard to believe that Flemmi would broach that subject with Whitey, given his reputation. Also, since Condon had already made an unsuccessful run at Whitey, Flemmi and Condon both must have known his mindset on the subject. It certainly is a tangled web they wove. If I can get past that revelation, I would go on to think that Whitey and Stevie possibly hatched a plan to play all sides against the middle, and in the process, exponentially increase their power base around Boston, which is in fact what happened. The part that bothers me still is why Connolly stuck his neck out so far for Whitey.

        1. Just thought of something else. What if Flemmi was the real contact person? It would be more like Whitey to reap the benefits of his partner being an informant. That leaves Whitey once removed and insulated. I have my doubts about his informant status after the trial, and also after seeing the Joe Berlinger documentary. You should check it out, if you haven’t already.
          Also, direct quote from Jay Carney to my ears….” Whitey’s version will be coming out, written through his niece.” That manuscript is still on my mind, and I can’t wait to hear his version since we never got to hear from him at trial.

          1. Rather:

            I’ll see the documentary. There is no doubt Whitey was an informant in my mind. There is no way Flemmi could have been and informant without Whitey knowing about it. Flemmi admits he was an informant. He said their deal was they were not to hit anyone. How many times did Whitey, Flemmi, Connolly and Morris meet together. Was Whitey stepping out of the room when they ate dinner. Why did Whitey think he was meeting with Morris and Connolly; he and Connolly were meeting all the time. How did Whitey know enough to tell Stippo to stay away from Joe Lundbohm; what was he meeting with Connolly and Morris after the Donohue/Halloran killing for.

            I know Whitey’s version. It’s created out of whole cloth that defies reality. Harvey Silverglate who recently wrote an article in Lawyer’s weekly about the documentary tells part of it. Silverglate says the codumentary “for the first time that I’ve seen, seriously considered the possibility there was an immunity deal between Bulger and . . . O’Sullivan.”

            The deal was supposed to have been, according to Silverglate, that Whitey “had been granted immunity for the crimes charged” . . . “in return for Bulger’s protection of O’Sullivan from the Italian mob.” That is a part of the version I know that Whitey will be talking about. There’s more to it but it all lacks substance and is put out there for suckers who want to somehow believe Whitey’s version which is put out in dribs and drabs by Carney.

            I knew O’Sullivan. He knew he could not make such a deal as to give immunity to Whitey. For him to do it he would be going against everything he believed. O’Sullivan did organized crime prosecutions as I did. O’Sullivan knew that if he ever made any type of deal with a criminal it would come back to bite him. That’s so elementary that to suggest otherwise is to portray O’Sullivan as some type of kid just out of law school. When asked O’Sullivan denied making any deals with Bulger.

            Remember O’Sullivan was a top prosecutor and a tough guy – have you known of any prosecutor in America who was hit by the Mafia? Why would he all of a sudden be afraid. He had a good grasp of the scene in Boston. I’d call him when I wanted to know some of the players. Explain to me why he would go to Whitey to be protected from the Boston Italians when Whitey had no clout with them. They hated Whitey. Gerry O’Sullivan knew that. If he wanted protection he could have had every FBI agent in Boston helping him without giving any deals. I’d take that any day over a gangster. What was Whitey to do sit outside Gerry’s house every night.

            There’s too much nonsense being spilled out by people who are telling only half the story. The documentary is only as good as the people who are sourcing it and from what I understand Davis and the Donohue’s participated in it which give me a good idea of its take. Whitey story is complicated in parts and simple in other parts. One of the simple parts is that he was an informant. Joe Berlinger knows less about Whitey than you do, Rather. Stop waiting for Whitey’s version – you’ve just read it and its all lies.

        2. Rather:

          Whitey’s persona as the “gangster’s gangster” was not so in the mid-Seventies. Howie, McDonald and Jimmy Sims (the Winter group) weren’t particularly impressed with him; the Mafia never thought much of him; but they all got along because it was good for business. I can see Flemmi playing to his ego and telling him they could have the whole ball of wax if Whitey went along with him. Flemmi could have laid out how the FBI made two murder cases disappear. He’d be able to appeal to Whitey’s ego pointing out that there was no down side to it especially if they only gave the information on the Mafia. Both man although dealing with it hated it. Winter Hill and the Mafia were uncomfortable allies.

          Obviously Whitey and Stevie hatched a plan where they would come out on the top which involved playing the game.

          Connolly is easy to explain. He was doing his job. He was handling two top echelon informants with the approval of the FBI brass. He was supposed to be the expert in handling these people and was videotaped by the FBI as to how it should be done. The FBI wanted its Top Echelon Informants protected; all the guy on the job knew that. Connolly did nothing for Whitey that he would not have done for any other Top Echelon Informant. That’s where it got muddy when he was charged because the FBI had him as a rogue agent and could pretend he did something wrong when it knows what is wrong is the program itself which still continues.

          1. Matt,
            Wow, what a response!!! Thank you. You weren’t kidding when you said you had to work that through your (gifted) mind, and boy did you ever. I agree that his story is complicated in some ways and simple in some ways. I don’t believe Whitey had a deal with O’Sullivan. How could he protect a Federal Prosecutor? Impossible.
            I guess I have to do some more thinking too.
            Thanks again.

  3. I could not agree more. O’Brien did not adhere to the hiring procedures of the Probation Department. He violated work rules and potentially CBA promotional provisions (I don’t know if there were internal job postings as well). If the probation jobs are Civil Service jobs, the external candidates have the ability to file appeals at the Civil Service Commission. Internal candidates have other remedies. Many state workers are represented by SEIU/NAGE. I believe probation officers in MA are represented by SEIU/NAGE Local 229. It is very likely along with the Hiring procedures in place on the managerial side, there are CBA provisions that must be followed. Those candidates who were current members of the bargaining unit would have had the ability to file bypass grievances if they believed they had been wrongfully bypassed for a promotion, which if meritorious would eventually go to arbitration. If an arbitrator decided the Dept. violated the CBA she would award what she felt was the appropriate remedy. The violation of the work rule does not thereafter generate a criminal indictment. This case is an obvious witchhunt and all involved including the Globe and Ortiz should be ashamed of themselves while they sit up in the ivory tower casting judgment upon an innocent man. All public employer should take notice that if they do not adhere to the hiring procedures (or any other work rule for that matter) in place at the managerial and CBA level, they could be accused of patronage and criminally indicted if they dropped any documents into the mail.

    1. Dave:

      Well put. I appreciate you setting forth your knowledge of the inner procedures relating to the hiring that I do not know. I’m glad we both come to the same conclusion that no matter what happened it certainly was not criminal and was a matter for the state to handle in the same manner it handles all other disputes.

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