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First Circuit Reverses Convictions of Massachusetts Probation Officials

by Christopher Zoukis

In December 19, 2016, the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the convictions of several former public officials in Massachusetts for their roles in a hiring scheme at the Office of the Commissioner of Probation (OCP).

The defendants, Elizabeth V. Tavares, John J. O’Brien and William H. Burke III, were high-ranking officials in the OCP. According to the appellate court, “they catered to hiring requests from members of the state legislature with the hope of obtaining favorable legislation for the Department of Probation and the OCP.” Essentially, the three defendants were part of a conspiracy that arranged the hiring of certain job candidates in exchange for budgetary considerations. [See: PLN, Jan. 2011, p.36].

After the release of a bombshell report by the Boston Globe highlighting the patronage scheme, federal prosecutors charged the defendants with RICO violations and mail fraud. Following a 47-day trial, all three were convicted on the RICO count and most of the mail fraud counts. They appealed, arguing that the sufficiency of the evidence did not support their convictions.

The First Circuit agreed and reversed. The appellate court noted that while the conduct of the defendants was “distasteful and even contrary to Massachusetts personnel laws,” it did not rise to the level of a federal crime.

In short, the evidence as to the gratuities scheme, which served as the basis for the RICO charge, did not show “adequate linkage between the thing of ‘substantial value’ conferred by” one of the defendants (the jobs) and “an ‘official act’ performed or to be performed.”

The Court of Appeals added that “[b]ad men, like good men, are entitled to be tried and sentenced in accordance with [the] law.”

The Court further rebuked the government for overstepping the bounds of its authority. “[T]he Supreme Court has warned against interpreting federal laws ‘in a manner that ... involves the Federal Government in setting standards’ of ‘good government for local and state officials,’” the First Circuit stated. See: United States v. Tavares, 844 F.3d 46 (1st Cir. 2016). 


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Related legal case

United States v. Tavares