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Key figure resigns in probation scandal

Tavares funneled orders to rig hirings, report said

“I submit this resignation so my family can begin to move forward,” said Elizabeth V. Tavares, who served as the Probation Department’s first deputy commissioner. “I submit this resignation so my family can begin to move forward,” said Elizabeth V. Tavares, who served as the Probation Department’s first deputy commissioner. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff/ File)
By Thomas Farragher and Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff / January 19, 2011

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John J. O’Brien’s top lieutenant, accused of being with him at the center of the allegedly rigged hiring and promotion practices at the state Probation Department, resigned yesterday, nearly three weeks after O’Brien quit as probation commissioner in the face of scandal and possible criminal charges.

Elizabeth V. Tavares, who served as the department’s first deputy commissioner and was a longtime official of the department, was suspended with pay in November after a special counsel appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court concluded that she was “at the heart of perpetuating the sham selection process’’ that had corrupted hiring at the 2,000-employee department.

She resigned yesterday, effective immediately, a day before a disciplinary hearing was to begin that would probably have led to her dismissal.

Like O’Brien, Tavares will be eligible for her state pension unless she is convicted of a crime.

A federal grand jury is considering charges in the case, including fraud and extortion, and Attorney General Martha Coakley has assigned a team of prosecutors to consider whether probation officials broke state laws.

In his November report, independent prosecutor Paul F. Ware Jr. concluded that O’Brien and Tavares oversaw a phony hiring system that was rigged on a “grand scale,’’ conducting thousands of bogus job interviews for positions that had already been promised to politically wired candidates.

“First Deputy Commissioner Elizabeth Tavares was central to the process, admitting that she received names of favored candidates from the commissioner and funneled them to other deputy commissioners and regional supervisors in order to ensure that the commissioner’s candidates received final round interviews,’’ Ware wrote in his report.

He recommended that she should be immediately suspended, possibly fired, and that her actions to referred to the Board of Bar Overseers for possible sanctions.

In her letter yesterday to Ronald P. Corbett Jr., acting administator of the department, Tavares said she had decided to quit after considerable deliberation.

“It is in the best interest of my family that I submit this resignation so my family can begin to move forward from the recent events,’’ she wrote.

She added later: “In my heart, I know that there are many hard-working and dedicated probation officers making a difference in the lives of people they touch.’’

Tavares was promoted from the department’s third job to O’Brien’s chief assistant in 2008 and, according to Ware, was a principal enforcer of O’Brien’s fake hiring system.

Ware welcomed Tavares’s resignation yesterday.

“The decision of Elizabeth Tavares to resign as first deputy commissioner is consistent with my findings, and I believe it is in the best interests of the Probation Department,’’ said Ware, who was prepared to present his report today at Tavares’s disciplinary hearing.

That report’s criticism of Tavares’s conduct was unstinting.

“First Deputy Commissioner Tavares, by her own admission and through the testimony of others, was extensively involved in the department’s fraudulent hiring and promotion practices,’’ Ware concluded. “As an attorney and member of the Massachusetts Bar, Tavares should have refused to be an active participant in this scheme.’’

As Ware’s investigation got underway, Tavares at first agreed to be interviewed by his investigators, but later, like O’Brien and other top deputies, she invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

“She initially cooperated with the investigation during her early testimony, providing valuable information concerning Commissioner O’Brien’s role in fraudulent hiring,’’ Ware said in his report. “Tavares would ordinarily be given credit for doing so, but she subsequently refused to testify on the second day of her testimony.’’

With the resignations of O’Brien and Tavares now in hand, top administrators of the state’s Trial Court, which supervises the Probation Department, will now turn to disciplinary actions against other employees caught up in the probation scandal. Chief among those are Deputy Commissioner Christopher J. Bulger, the department’s legal counsel, and Deputy Commissioner Francis M. Wall.

Like Tavares, both were suspended with pay after Ware’s report was released.

Ware said Bulger “had substantial reason to believe that wrongdoing was occurring and chose to ignore it.’’ Ware called the legal counsel “evasive and dishonest.’’ Bulger’s disciplinary hearing is scheduled for Jan. 25.

The special counsel said Wall should be fired because he participated in the rigged hiring process and may have perjured himself during arbitration hearings over sham hirings. Wall’s disciplinary hearing is set to begin Jan. 27.

Ware’s report described in detail some instances of Tavares’s alleged direct role in the probation hiring process.

One of the examples Ware recounted involved an effort in 2005 to promote Lucia M. Ligotti, the daughter-in-law of a clerk magistrate, to assistant chief probation officer. Before the interviews, Tavares gave a list of preferred candidates to Ellen Slaney, a probation official serving on the interview panel, Slaney said.

When Ligotti did not make the list of eight finalists for the job, Tavares complained that “there’s a name missing from the list,’’ Slaney testified. She insisted that Slaney go back to the rest of the interview panel to have Ligotti added as a finalist. Slaney did, and O’Brien chose Ligotti for the job.

When Slaney presented Tavares with the amended list, Tavares said “she hoped [Slaney] would support the commissioner in his decision and that sometimes the political thing needed to be done.’’ Slaney testified. Tavares also asked her to “present a united front’’ if the process was questioned.

Indeed, the chief justice for administration did question the process, refusing to sign off on the promotion because of the irregularity of hiring the ninth-ranked person on a list that was only supposed to include eight candidates.

Ware called Tavares’s explanation for why Ligotti’s scores should have made her a finalist under the hiring rules “deliberately false.’’

Scott Allen of the Globe Spotlight Team contributed to this report. Farragher can be reached at farragher@globe.com; Bombardieri at bombardieri@globe.com.