Taxpayers to foot legal bill for former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien

A lawyer with the Federal Public Defender Office has been appointed to represent John J. O’Brien, the former state probation commissioner charged with racketeering.

US Magistrate Judge Timothy Hillman agreed today to appoint Stylianus Sinnis to represent O’Brien, after refusing earlier this week to appoint two lawyers O’Brien had hand-picked. Public defender William Fick also signed on to the case this afternoon.

O’Brien and two codefendants are accused of racketeering conspiracy and mail fraud for allegedly running a rigged hiring and promotional system in the probation department that rewarded those with political connections. They were indicted in March.

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In April, O’Brien submitted a motion asking Hillman to approve the use of public funds to pay for Paul Flavin of Milton, his long-time lawyer who has represented him in state hearings, and Anthony M. Traini of Providence, whom Flavin wanted on his team because of Traini’s expertise in federal white-collar crime cases.

Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak opposed the request, saying O’Brien was trying to use public funds for his own hand-picked attorneys.

Under the federal Criminal Justice Act, criminal defendants in federal court in Massachusetts who do not have the financial means can get representation from either federal public defenders or from a group of private attorneys who have volunteered to be on a list and met certain qualifications.

In some instances, the court will allow for the appointment of private lawyers who are not on the list. However, Hillman ruled Monday that O’Brien did not meet those special circumstances.

O’Brien submitted a follow-up request Wednesday asking for a public defender. Hillman approved the request today, saying an examination of O’Brien’s finances showed he would need an appointment. However, Hillman said, the judge who handles O’Brien’s case may reexamine his finances in the future to see if O’Brien can contribute anything to the costs.