By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- The prosecution's designation of Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo as a co-conspirator in an alleged scheme to bribe lawmakers ahead of his election as speaker has no direct legal ramifications for the Winthrop Democrat but it underscores the extent of his involvement in a scheme where prosecutors say jobs were traded for votes, an accusation DeLeo has rejected as false.
Prosecutors claim former Probation Commissioner John O'Brien and DeLeo conspired to ferry no-interview jobs at the probation department's electronic monitoring program through DeLeo's office to House lawmakers in an effort to shore up support for DeLeo as he chaired the Ways and Means Committee and battled veteran Democrat Rep. John Rogers behind the scenes in a 2008 competition to see who would succeed Speaker Salvatore DiMasi.
Judge William Young agreed to the theory in a hearing Monday outside the presence of the jury, and clarified that DeLeo was not bribed, but instead there was a "concerted effort of O'Brien and DeLeo to bribe the reps."
Last Wednesday, DeLeo rejected a prosecution claim that he gave a "quid pro quo" in the form of more budget autonomy or other favorable treatment to the probation department, calling the prosecution's statements "inaccurate and inflammatory." DeLeo said, "There was never a quid pro quo for any legislative action.
Last Thursday, DeLeo's attorney Robert Popeo told the News Service he was not aware of DeLeo's designation as an unindicted co-conspirator, and said he didn't think DeLeo's political fate would hinge on the verdict.
"I don't think it's going to be politically damaging to the speaker either way, because he's not tainted by this," Popeo told the News Service. He said the fact that DeLeo has not been called to testify shows prosecutors believe he has little to add. The designation of DeLeo as a co-conspirator allows statements made by him and a former aide to remain in evidence.
There were fresh signs Monday from Republicans that they'll use the trial in this fall's elections, with the party's chair calling for voters to help to "put an end to the waste and corruption on Beacon Hill."
In a newly released video released, Massachusetts Republican Party Chair Kirsten Hughes said that since 2001 nearly $250,000 has been given by probation department employees to campaign accounts, with more than half of the funds flowing to 25 Democrats. Hughes said "it takes two to tango" in a rigged hiring process.
"What about the Democratic legislators involved in this scheme?" Hughes asked. "Without their cooperation, there'd be no scandal. The super-majority of Democrats in the Legislature took the probation department, a public safety function, and created a dumping ground for their friends."
Without mentioning any legislators by name, Hughes said Beacon Hill has too few checks and balances, questioned Attorney General Martha Coakley's work on the case, and urged voters to look into whether the state representatives or senators who represent them stood up to DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray to say the rigged hiring scheme "is wrong." Hughes asserted lawmakers "went along to get along."
Popeo, who said DeLeo has no one attending the trial on his behalf, said evidence in the case is thin, but it is difficult to predict what the jury will decide because patronage has fallen out of fashion.
"All of a sudden it's a bad word, and you cannot confuse criminality with personal views of morality," Popeo said. Popeo said the statute of limitations has expired for all the potential charges DeLeo could face and said the fact he was not indicted indicates the weakness of the allegations against him, calling it "the lowest possible threshold."
As an unindicted co-conspirator, DeLeo and his former aide, Leonard Mirasolo, another unindicted co-conspirator, have not had an opportunity to fight the claim in court. Mirasolo retired March 2012, according to Open Checkbook. A spokesman for DeLeo said he retired on his own volition.
O'Brien's attorneys objected to inclusion of the alleged speaker's race help, saying it had not been part of the indictment.
"This is a fiction created after the fact, probably from the losing party in the speaker's race to tar DeLeo," argued O'Brien's attorney William Fick, who said only Ed Ryan, a former legislative liaison, has testified about the alleged conspiracy involving DeLeo.
DeLeo, whose speakership follows the tenure of three House leaders that either pled guilty or were convicted of criminal charges, said the allegations have had an effect on him.
"The U.S. Attorney's office is very invested in this case. I realize that but I'm not going to sit by and stand by and let them make these false allegations against me personally," DeLeo told WBZ News last week. Saying he has never even faced an ethics complaint and the claims in court have raised questions from his children, DeLeo told reporter Jon Keller, "If they want to have the feeling that they got to me, congratulations. They got to me."
Popeo said he has followed news coverage of the case, which spans several aspects of the probation hiring process, and said the case relies on a subjective determination of who should have been hired to various jobs.
"You keep hearing that this person was not the most qualified," Popeo said. He said, "What is the most qualified candidate? Where is that criteria? Where is that criteria spelled out? It's a subjective standard."
While other powerful pols have been mentioned through the trial, DeLeo has been the elected official most tightly wound in the alleged scheme.
"If it were just strictly a matter of the evidence, this case falls flat," said Popeo. He said, "You don't know what they're going to do, because they don't like patronage."
Michael Norton contributed reporting.