Officials weigh in on probation hiring scandal

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez talked to the Gazette about their reactions to recent federal convictions in a state Probation Department hiring fraud scandal.

A jury last month found former state Probation Department commissioner John O’Brien guilty of mail fraud, racketeering and conspiracy last month. Two of his former aides, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, were found guilty of racketeering, conspiracy, and conspiracy involving mail fraud and of conspiracy, respectively.

Prosecutors argued that O’Brien handed out jobs to people—some of them unqualified—with connections to lawmakers in exchange for larger budgets and other benefits, including maintaining a log of who asked for favors. But he was only convicted of, essentially, lying about following normal hiring practices in official documents.

“It’s a very sad story,” Chang-Díaz said. “The Probation Department has a hugely important mandate to protect public safety while rehabilitating” prisoners, she said.

“It’s important that people be able to have confidence in the system,” she added.

“I don’t know the details of the case,” Sánchez said. But “the jury made their decision. They obviously found something.”

Sánchez emphasized that he is not an expert in this area and that his primary focus is in health laws.

“I always had issues that there was never enough diversity” in Probation Department hiring, he said.

As for what the state legislature can do to prevent this happening again, Chang-Díaz took the pragmatic approach: “You can’t legislate people following rules. You can set up strong rules, but you can’t legislate professionalism,” she said.

She said that added transparency is important for watchdog groups to monitor state activities.

She also said that O’Brien’s last year was her first in office: “The situation really preceded my experience,” she said.

Sánchez aid that recommendations for job openings should only be given under “certain guidelines.”

“There should be no undue force on people so they will consider a candidate” for an opening, he said.

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