The patronage scandal as it was known erupted from a November 2010 report on the Massachusetts Department of Probation.
The report found that probation commissioner Jack O’Brien made it a point to hire and promote politically connected employees to influence favorable budget decisions by the Legislature. DeLeo, who had been speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives since 2009, was never charged but considered an unindicted co-conspirator for working with O’Brien on the hirings.
O’Brien and two of his employees, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke, were convicted in 2014 of violating federal anti-racketeering law, but the First Circuit reversed on Monday.
“Although the actions of the defendants may well be judged distasteful, and even contrary to Massachusetts's personnel laws, the function of this court is limited to determining whether they violated the federal criminal statutes charged," U.S. Circuit Judge Juan Torruella wrote for a three-person panel. “We find 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.”
O’Brien has admitted that his hiring practices were intended to curry favor with the legislature, but the First Circuit noted that criminal liability hinges on proof that there was a direct link between O’Brien’s hiring practices and his receiving a specific benefit or favor from lawmakers.
“This case involves state officials' efforts to increase funding for their department through closed-door arrangements with state legislators and other public officials,” Torruella wrote. “But not all unappealing conduct is criminal.”
The appellate opinion also exonerates DeLeo.
“All the government demonstrated, however, is that O'Brien and DeLeo met,” wrote Torruella. “The evidence does not show, for example, that DeLeo subsequently introduced a bill based on either of O'Brien's proposals or took some official act with respect to such a bill proposed by another legislator.”
DeLeo applauded the court’s finding.
“It is unfortunate that for six and a half years other legislators and I have lived under the cloud of suspicion of having been involved in illegal activity,” the speaker said in a statement on the ruling. “Today, the Court of Appeals has affirmed what I have said for the entire period – that neither I, nor to my knowledge any other legislator had engaged in any wrongdoing. The decision of the court constitutes a complete exoneration for this institution and all of its members. These false and scurrilous allegations can now be given an appropriate burial.”