Former probation chief arrested in hiring scandal probe

A former acting chief probation officer in western Massachusetts was arrested and charged with intimidating and harassing a witness today as part of the federal investigation of the patronage hiring scandal at the state Probation Department.

The arrest of Christopher Hoffman, 39, who ran the probation office in Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton until he was suspended in October, marks the first criminal charges stemming from the federal investigation into the department’s allegedly rigged hiring system that funneled hundreds of jobs to politically and personally connected candidates.

The scandal, initially reported by the Globe’s Spotlight Team, led to the resignation of the entire probation leadership, including former commissioner John J. O’Brien. O’Brien is already facing state criminal charges.

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Hoffman is accused of pressuring an underling not to cooperate with federal authorities. He is charged with intimidating a witness and, if convicted, faces up to 20 years in prison.

He allegedly said to a probation officer who was about to be interviewed by the FBI, “I’m going to tell everyone that you are a rat.”

Hoffman, who will make an appearance today in US District Court in Worcester, could not be reached for comment.

A federal grand jury has been hearing evidence for months, but Hoffman so far is the only person to have been indicted federally. A state grand jury indicted O’Brien, charging him with trading campaign contributions to former state treasurer Timothy Cahill for a state lottery job for his wife, Laurie.

In late October, Hoffman was placed on administrative leave.

Paul. F Ware Jr., the independent counsel who investigated the department, concluded that O’Brien and his top deputies may have violated federal law by running a sham hiring process. Under the system in place during O’Brien’s 12 year tenure, the top brass pre-selected finalists for jobs, often choosing politically connected candidates. To create the appearance of an open and fair process, the officials conducted hundreds of interviews.

Hoffman’s unusually rapid rise through the probation ranks made him a focus of Ware’s investigation into favoritism at the 2,200-employee agency. A Globe Spotlight report found that O’Brien hired at least 250 friends, relatives, or financial backers of politicians and court officials.

Hoffman, who grew up in Hatfield alongside the children of William Burke, the probation official in charge of hiring in Western Massachusetts, was promoted ahead of another probation officer with more experience who had served with the National Guard in Somalia. Hoffman moonlighted as a bartender at a Northampton pizza parlor frequented by Burke and traveled with Burke to fundraisers for state representative Thomas M. Petrolati, of Ludlow, who was perhaps the legislator with the most influence in the Probation Department.