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Finneran was silent when queried on agency patronage

Thomas M. Finneran pushed through a 2001 change in law that gave John J. O’Brien personal control over Probation Department hiring and promotion. Thomas M. Finneran pushed through a 2001 change in law that gave John J. O’Brien personal control over Probation Department hiring and promotion. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff File 2007)
By Scott Allen
Globe Staff / November 20, 2010

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Former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran, in many ways, made the Probation Department what it is today.

The longtime probation commissioner — John J. O’Brien, who now faces firing and criminal investigation — is a Finneran protégé and former jogging buddy.

It was Finneran, more than anyone else, who pushed through the 2001 change in law that gave O’Brien personal control over hiring and promotion in the 2,000-employee agency.

Yet when he got the chance to explain how probation could have become an employment agency for politicians’ friends, families, and supporters, the normally loquacious Finneran became a stone.

Under questioning from independent counsel Paul F. Ware Jr. at Ware’s law office in Boston’s Financial District, Finneran took his constitutional right to remain silent to an extreme.

“What’s your current home address?’’ asked Ware, a former federal prosecutor used to smoking out reluctant witnesses.

“Based upon advice from counsel, I’m not going to answer that,’’ replied Finneran, who has had trouble in the past with sworn testimony. He resigned as speaker in 2004 amid a perjury investigation based on his testimony in a lawsuit. The charges were later dismissed, but he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.

Ware asked if Richard Hayes, the lawyer who accompanied Finneran to the Sept. 21 meeting, was, in fact, Finneran’s lawyer.

“I’m going to invoke my right to remain silent,’’ came the reply.

Ware said Hayes would have to leave if he was not, in fact, Finneran’s attorney. Even that did not shake Finneran and Hayes from their script.

Finneran was invoking his constitutional right to remain silent, while the lawyer said he was not allowed to speak to Ware because the Supreme Judicial Court had said lawyers could sit in on their client’s testimony but not participate. Ware had to step out of the room to learn from Hayes that he was working for the former speaker.

Eventually, Ware gave up on getting meaningful answers, but he kept asking questions anyway:

“Did you pressure Mr. O’Brien in any way to make jobs available in exchange for increases in the budget?’’

“Was any gratuity or payment to your knowledge ever given to Mr. O’Brien in exchange for his hiring individuals recommended by the Legislature?’’

Is there “any other information that you may feel exonerates you?’’

No comment. No comment. No comment.

Ware said yesterday that questioning Finneran was frustrating because the former speaker knows so much.

Finneran is one of the few people who knows that the roots of probation’s current patronage scandal go back to 1997, when the late chief justice for administration, John J. Irwin Jr., lowered the education requirements for probation commissioner so that O’Brien, who has only a bachelor’s degree, would qualify.

“Speaker Finneran was there at the creation,’’ Ware said. “I had hoped to elicit the truth from Speaker Finneran, and instead I was stonewalled.’’

But Finneran regained his voice the day after the release of Ware’s report. He defended himself on his morning radio show on WRKO-AM.

Scott Allen can reached at allen@globe.com