Federal Appeals Court Overturns Convictions

On December 19, 2016, a federal appeals court overturned the convictions of former Massachusetts Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and two former deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke. In overturning these convictions, the Court ruled that the prosecutors failed to prove a scheme to favor politically connected job candidates was a federal crime.

O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke were accused of creating a bogus system to make it appear that candidates were being hired for jobs in the probation department on merit when really these candidates were hired because they had been sponsored by powerful state lawmakers. After the politically charged trial, a U.S. District Court found the three defendants guilty of charges including racketeering and mail fraud.

Racketeering refers to making money from a variety of illegal activities, such as bribery, fraud and intimidation. This act usually involves a group of people. Many people most associate racketeering with the mob but over time this act has grown to include many different kinds of operations. Massachusetts operates under the federal Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in order to prosecute these crimes. In order to be convicted of this crime, the government must prove:

  • The presence of an enterprise;
  • That the enterprise’s activities affected commerce;
  • That the defendant was/is employed or associated with the enterprise;
  • That the defendant knowingly participated in the enterprise; and
  • That the defendant knowingly engaged in a pattern of racketeering on the enterprise’s behalf

A pattern of racketeering is then established when it is proved that the defendant committed at least two of the 35 specified criminal acts within a 10-year period of each other in connection with, or in the furtherance of, the affairs with the enterprise.

However, upon appeal the Court found that the government “overstepped its bounds in using federal criminal statutes to police the hiring practices of these Massachusetts state officials and did not provide sufficient evidence to establish a criminal violation of Massachusetts law under the Government’s theory of the case.” The Court went into detail stating that the government did not adequately prove that O’Brien accepted a gratuity for these hires since there was not sufficient evidence to link O’Brien’s offering favored candidates a job and him receiving a specific item of value in return. Instead, most of the benefits that O’Brien was alleged to have received were indirect, such as a favorable budget amendment introduced several months after new hires were made. In terms of the mail fraud, the Court found that these mailings were not a sufficient part of the hiring scheme to warrant charged.

Many are still disappointed with the ultimate decision and Judge Juan Toruella, of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted this opposition in the ruling. He stated, “[a]lthough the actions of the defendants may well be judged distasteful, and even contrary to Massachusetts personnel laws, the function of the Court is limited to determining whether they violated the federal criminal statutes.”

If you are debating appealing your federal case or a case to the federal level, please contact the experienced attorneys at Shein & Brandenburg. We will discuss the details of your case with you and the chances of its success on appeal. Our dedicated attorneys will assure that all your questions are answered and the best course of action is decided upon.