Coakley looks into treasury job offers

Probation chief’s wife, daughter hired after Cahill fund-raiser

Tim Cahill made his concession speech on election night in Boston last November after failing in his bid for governor. Tim Cahill made his concession speech on election night in Boston last November after failing in his bid for governor. (John Blanding/Globe Staff/File 2010)
By Andrea Estes and Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff / May 8, 2011

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Attorney General Martha Coakley is investigating whether former state treasurer Timothy P. Cahill and former probation commissioner John O’Brien violated state ethics law by trading treasury jobs for campaign donations, according to several people briefed on the inquiry.

Cahill, who left office to run unsuccessfully for governor last year, hired O’Brien’s wife and daughter shortly after a July 2005 fund-raiser at which scores of probation employees poured at least $7,000 into his campaign fund. An independent counsel called in to investigate charges of political patronage in the Probation Department last November found that O’Brien orchestrated the donations to boost the job prospects of his wife and possibly his daughter.

If Cahill and O’Brien traded donations for jobs, they may have violated the state ethics law, which carries penalties that can include prison time and fines. But investigators would need to bring charges soon, since the statute of limitations runs out in July. In recent weeks, state troopers assigned to Coakley’s office have interviewed numerous probation employees who donated to Cahill on July 6, 2005.

Probation employees, who paid $100 or more for tickets to the Quincy fund-raiser, say they were urged to attend by one of O’Brien’s top deputies, and one of those questioned by investigators said he knew it was because Cahill was helping Laurie and Kelly Rose O’Brien get jobs.

“Employees who were asked to go were told it was because of [O’Brien’s] wife and daughter,’’ said this person. “It was payback.’’

Cahill did not return calls seeking comment. His lawyer, Joseph DeMeo, said he was unaware of any criminal inquiry. “There’s no basis to believe that the Cahill campaign or Tim Cahill is a subject or target of the investigation concerning the Probation Department,’’ he said.

O’Brien’s lawyer, Paul Flavin, did not return calls for comment.

Federal and state officials have been investigating allegations of rigged hiring, illegal campaign contributions, and other abuses since November when independent counsel Paul F. Ware Jr., who launched his investigation after a Globe Spotlight Team series, released a report portraying the agency as rife with political patronage. O’Brien and two top deputies resigned rather than face disciplinary proceedings, but no criminal charges have been brought.

Separately, Coakley has been investigating whether Cahill violated state law by running taxpayer-funded state lottery ads in the weeks before the November election. Her office began that inquiry before the election and urged him to take down the ads “to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.’’ Cahill agreed.

DeMeo, Cahill’s attorney, rejected the idea that there was anything out of the ordinary about the ads. “The lottery elected to spend funds already designated by the Legislature for lottery ads. The lottery had been running ads for years.’’

Coakley’s probation investigation centers on the July 6, 2005 fund-raiser for Cahill in Quincy, where Cahill and O’Brien have lived for years. More than 50 employees of O’Brien’s agency from as far away as Pittsfield bought tickets, most of them giving to Cahill for the first — and only — time. Several probation employees interviewed by Ware said that one of O’Brien’s top aides, Francis Wall, urged them to go.

Just five days before the fund-raiser, the state lottery, which was controlled by Cahill, offered O’Brien’s wife, Laurie, a job as a night-shift computer operator, even though she had never formally applied.

“Subsequently, there was a concerted effort within the Probation Department to help Laurie O’Brien obtain a more desirable position within the Lottery,’’ wrote Ware.

A week after Cahill got the thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from probation employees, his aides decided to offer Laurie O’Brien a better job, a day job in customer service that paid her $50,950 in 2009, according to state payroll records.

Ware called O’Brien’s fund-raising efforts on Cahill’s behalf “an abuse of O’Brien’s position of authority.’’ It could also be a violation of state law, which prohibits public employers from asking their employees to do political work or make campaign donations. Public employees are also barred from using public resources — including government offices — for political purposes.

Ware also noted that O’Brien improperly relied on an employee who was an old friend of Cahill to act as a go-between in promoting his wife for the job.

In testimony before Ware, Scott Campbell, a top Cahill aide who others said helped Laurie O’Brien land her job, repeatedly said “I cannot recall,’’ when asked how she came to be hired or who contacted him on her behalf. He did remember, however, that he never discussed her employment with Cahill.

Ware also raised questions about the conduct of Cahill, noting that his staff knew that Laurie O’Brien was married to the probation commissioner when they offered her the night-shift job. Cahill aides told Ware that Cahill had initially been reluctant to hire her, but he eventually gave in. A few days after the fund-raiser, Campbell, in an e-mail, described her employment in customer service as “fantastic.’’

Ware also suggested that Cahill may have hired O’Brien’s daughter Kelly Rose O’Brien later in 2005 as a reward for O’Brien’s fund-raising, though the independent counsel admitted he had not collected as much evidence on her hiring. Kelly Rose O’Brien made $38,500 as a claims analyst in the treasurer’s office in 2009, according to payroll records.

A probation worker who spoke on condition of anonymity because the agency does not permit employees to speak to the media said two state troopers working with the attorney general’s office recently visited his home unannounced to ask him why he donated to Cahill. “How did you get asked? Where did you get asked?’’ he said they asked him.

They seemed eager to find out if Wall had asked him for a donation on state property. “They were trying to pin me down to where did Fran Wall ask me to write a check,’’ the probation worker said. “They were trying to figure out whether it was in the building [on Ashburton Place] or not in the building.’’

Fund-raising in state government buildings is unlawful.

Also, the worker said, “They asked if I had any knowledge of Jack O’Brien’s wife or daughter getting hired.’’

And he recalled Wall saying, “There’s a fund-raiser coming up for Tim Cahill and we’re all going and we’ll have a few drinks and a few laughs. Do you want to go?

“I did what I was asked to do,’’ he said, meaning he wrote a check. He said he wasn’t upset to be asked, but also knew “you’re not going to say no.’’

Specialists in the state’s conflict of interest law say that Cahill and O’Brien are in very different legal situations, and proving wrongdoing by Cahill would be much more difficult.

If O’Brien organized the fund-raiser to help his wife’s job prospects, he would likely have violated the state ethics law. Cahill could have violated the law if he hired O’Brien’s relatives over other more qualified candidates because of O’Brien’s relationship to them. If he agreed to hire O’Brien’s wife or daughter in exchange for donations, he or O’Brien could face bribery charges.

But under existing ethics law, specialists said, Cahill would have committed no violation if O’Brien solicited donations from probation employees to thank Cahill for hiring his wife and daughter.