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First witnesses take stand in Christopher J. Hoffman obstruction of justice trial

Burke wielded significant influence over hiring and promotion under the tenure of former Probation Chief John J. O’Brien, according to testimony by the agent, Kevin D. Constantine.

But whether or not Hatfield resident Christopher J. Hoffman, whom Burke sponsored, relied on that influence to ascend to acting chief probation officer of Hampshire Superior Court is one of the central questions in an obstruction-of-justice case against Hoffman in U.S. District Court in Worcester.

Constantine was the first witness to take the stand and was followed by former FBI special agent Dominic J. Barbara. The trial by jury is expected to last about a week.

Hoffman was removed from his job in October 2011, less than two months after he was interviewed by Constantine. He was later arrested and indicted on charges that he harassed and intimidated fellow Probation Officer Maureen Adams of Goshen, who was questioned about Hoffman and Burke the same month as part of a wider federal investigation into corrupt hiring practices in the state’s Probation Department.

“Mr. Burke had absolute control in the western part of the state,” Constantine said. “He could make or break your career over jobs and promotions in probation. Mr. Hoffman admitted that Mr. Burke had significant influence in the hiring and promoting within the Probation Department.”

Federal prosecutors allege that Hoffman knew Adams was going to be interviewed by the FBI and allegedly told her that he was going to tell everyone that she was a “rat” and that she would be in a jail within a week.

Hoffman, dressed in a brown suit in court Tuesday, remains on unpaid leave.

His defense attorney, Vincent A. Bongiorni of Springfield, raised new questions about Adams’ credibility, particularly when Barbara, the former FBI agent, acknowledged that Adams had told him during an Oct. 19, 2011, interview that Hoffman made the rat statement “jokingly.”

In addition, new information emerged from a text message in which Adams informed a friend, Laurie Clark, a probation officer in Northampton District Court, that Hoffman had told her to “tell the truth and don’t lie,” prior to Adams’ initial interview with federal agents.

Barbara said Adams was visibly upset when he and another agent interviewed her as part of the larger Probation Department corruption probe at Friendly’s restaurant on King Street in Northampton. He said he contemplated suspending the interview at one point because of her demeanor, but continued on. Barbara said that while Hoffman may have made the rat comment jokingly, “she (Adams) interpreted it as being serious.”

Hoffman also told Adams he wanted to know the substance of her interview with the special agents when she returned to the courthouse, according to a later conversation she had with Barbara.

The case against Hoffman comes against the backdrop of a wider, ongoing federal corruption probe that earlier ensnared three top probation officials, including Burke, 68, who served in the Probation Department for 37 years before retiring in 2009.

A former supervisor of district court probation offices for western Massachusetts, Burke last year pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Worcester to 10 counts of mail fraud and one count of racketeering conspiracy. He was charged along with his former boss, Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien, and another top former commissioner, Elizabeth V. Tavares, who face a second racketeering conspiracy charge, in addition to the 11 charges also brought against Burke.

All three face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, followed by five years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine on each count.

The trio is alleged to have instituted a rigged hiring system aimed at currying favor with the Legislature, increasing their individual power and the influence of the Probation Department.

“Through hiring and promoting individuals who were sponsored by members of the Legislature, while also maintaining the facade of a merit-based hiring system, the defendants and their co-conspirators sought to increase their ability to obtain favorable votes on their budget and requests and other interests,” an indictment said.

In a related development, Burke on Monday pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Boston to charges of mail fraud, racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to commit bribery and bribery in a superseding indictment. O’Brien and Tavares did the same just days earlier.

Testimony Tuesday repeatedly came back to questions about Hoffman’s personal relationship to Burke. Hoffman became an associate probation officer in 2001, a temporary probation officer in 2004 and was promoted to acting assistant chief probation officer in Greenfield District Court in 2008. He was named acting chief probation officer in Hampshire Superior Court in 2009.

Constantine said Hoffman sought to “soften” his connection to Burke during the federal investigation. He said he did not have a personal relationship with him in his first few years in probation, but after 2004, “he said he became quite friendly with Mr. Burke.”

According to statements that neither side refuted, Hoffman attended University of Massachusetts basketball games with Burke and occasionally served him a free drink at Joe’s Cafe, where Hoffman bartended part-time while working at Hampshire Superior Court. Constantine also said Hoffman was one of several probation officers who would get in a van owned by the Burke family and travel from Northampton to an annual fundraising event for state Rep. Thomas Petrolati, D-Ludlow, at the Ludlow Country Club.

Petrolati also is a target of the ongoing federal investigation, Constantine testified.

“It was a way to meet people and make connections,” Constantine said of the fundraisers.

State election records show Hoffman contributed $500 to Petrolati’s political campaigns, donating $100 each year from 2006 to 2010.

A special report issued in November 2010 by Paul F. Ware Jr., an independent lawyer assigned by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court to review the hiring system in the Probation Department, found evidence that patronage played a role in hiring and promotions within the department and that employees had a “pay for play” arrangement with elected officials, particularly Petrolati, who represents Ludlow and parts of Chicopee, Springfield and Belchertown.

According to the Ware report, Burke admitted giving special treatment to job applicants put forward by elected officials, including Petrolati. Burke said Petrolati would call him with names of favored candidates for positions in western Massachusetts. No state lawmakers have been charged in the Probation Department probe to date.

Several witnesses are expected to take the stand today in Hoffman’s trial, including Adams and Sean MacDonald, both probation officers in Hampshire Superior Court. U.S. District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman is presiding over the trial.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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