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Kevin Cullen

Corruption interrupted?

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / September 27, 2011

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History was made yesterday when Jackie O’Brien, the erstwhile state probation commissioner, was arraigned on bribery and conspiracy charges in the magistrate’s session at Suffolk Superior Court: the first case on a Monday morning didn’t just start on time, it began a few minutes early.

Historical punctuality aside, Jackie O’Brien had to feel like he was on the wrong side of history, being made an example of, the latest scalp in the never-ending assault on corruption, blah, blah, blah.

Not that he hung around long enough to opine. One advantage of having worked for probation so long is that you know the ins and outs of the old Pemberton Square courthouse like the Christians of ancient Rome knew the catacombs. As soon as O’Brien was penciled in for a hearing in November, he was out of the courtroom, like a shot, taking a hard left through a side door to avoid the waiting TV cameras. I gave chase, if only to ask Jackie what he thought of the Globe’s new website. Alas, he had two buddies in back of him, one of them the size of Vince Wilfork, and they were taking the scenic route, a long, slow descent of the narrow staircase as Jackie sped ahead. If O’Brien’s beloved BC Eagles could block like that, they’d be 3-1 right now instead of 1-3.

The Commonwealth’s case against O’Brien is that he used the Probation Department as his personal fiefdom, doling out jobs to people who didn’t deserve them, using his clout to land jobs for family members at other public agencies. He is accused of getting his wife a job at the lottery in exchange for organizing a fund-raiser for then-Treasurer Tim Cahill.

Walking away from the courthouse, O’Brien’s lawyer, Paul Flavin, was more talkative than his client. I asked Flavin why, if you believe the Commonwealth’s case, wasn’t Cahill in the courtroom, too? “That,’’ Paul Flavin said, “is a good question.’’

A question that so far neither Attorney General Martha Coakley nor her assistant, Peter Mullin, who represented the Commonwealth at the arraignment, is prepared to answer. Worse, Mullin didn’t thwart a defense request to keep the specifics of the government’s case against O’Brien and Cahill aide Scott Campbell sealed.

As he walked down New Sudbury Street, Flavin expressed utter bewilderment that his client is facing criminal charges at all. There was no quid pro quo for Laurie O’Brien’s job, he said, and it was an entry-level position anyway. Jackie O’Brien, he said, hired no one who wasn’t qualified, and if the issue is he shouldn’t be hiring people referred to him by politicians, then they need to change the law, not charge his client. “My guy didn’t do anything illegal, or anything wrong,’’ he said. “If they’ve got a problem with the hiring system, change the system. Don’t have elected officials or the judiciary make recommendations.’’

If you believe the Commonwealth’s argument, it isn’t just Jackie O’Brien and Scott Campbell who are about to go on trial. It’s the political culture of Massachusetts. It’s the way business is done on Beacon Hill, how people get sponsors, how people get jobs on the public payroll. And if you believe the Commonwealth’s case, there are probably dozens if not hundreds of people who did things similar to what O’Brien and Campbell are charged with in the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine world of Massachusetts politics. But the Everybody’s Doing It defense is not exactly popular with juries these days. Ask Sal DiMasi.

After the arraignment, I called Tim Cahill on his cellphone. His voicemail promised he’d call right back, but he didn’t.

Is that an empty promise, a lie, or a violation of Massachusetts General Laws?

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeCullen.