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Jury out in trial of ex-probation chief Christopher Hoffman

Hoffman, of Hatfield, is the former acting probation chief of Hampshire Superior Court. He has pleaded not guilty to two counts of attempted harassment and intimidation of a witness, charges which grew out of an FBI probe into corrupt hiring and promotion practices in the state’s Probation Department.

“It’s an important case for the government and an important case for the defendant,” said Judge Timothy S. Hillman as he gave the jury lengthy instructions.

Hoffman was removed from his position in October 2011, less than two months after he was questioned by federal agents about his employment and relationship with William H. Burke III of Hatfield, the former deputy probation commissioner who Hoffman later told the FBI was responsible for all of his jobs and promotions in probation.

Hoffman was later arrested and indicted on charges that he harassed and intimidated fellow Probation Officer Maureen Adams, his subordinate, around the time she was to be questioned by the FBI. Adams, of Goshen, testified earlier in the week that Hoffman told her he was going to tell everyone that she was a “rat” shortly before her interview with the FBI and that she would be in jail within a week.

In closing statements Friday, the prosecution sought to establish that Hoffman had a strong motive to make the rat comment and others to Adams because he knew Burke was a target of the federal investigation and was worried about his own job security. Adams had informed Hoffman at the courthouse that the FBI had wanted to interview her on Oct. 19, 2011, which they did at Friendly’s restaurant on King Street in Northampton.

“He knew when Maureen Adams went into his office that day that part of that interview was going to be about him,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Karin M. Bell told the jury. “He was afraid that if Maureen ratted him out, he was going to lose his job.”

Hoffman also told Adams he wanted her to return to the courthouse and debrief him on her interview with the federal agents, and downplayed his relationship with Burke, according to Adams’ testimony.

“That statement was said to intimidate Maureen Adams into silence,” Bell said.

Burke, 69, was earlier indicted as part of a larger corruption probe and has pleaded not guilty to charges of mail fraud, racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to commit bribery and bribery, along with former Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien and former Deputy Probation Commissioner Elizabeth V. Tavares. No trial date has been set in those cases.

Hoffman’s defense attorney, Vincent A. Bongiorni of Springfield, told jurors that while they were in the courtroom to judge Hoffman, they also had to weigh the credibility of Adams.

“There isn’t anybody in this case to corroborate what she said,” Bongiorni said.

Bongiorni argued that Adams had been selective in her statements to the FBI on multiple occasions and to former acting Probation Commissioner Ronald Corbett Jr. because she did not tell them for months that Hoffman had also told her to “tell the truth” and “don’t lie” before her meeting with federal agents.

“If Ms. Adams wanted to provide the FBI with facts, why did she keep that from (former FBI special agent) Nick Barbara?” he asked the jury.

Bongiorni pointed to testimony that revealed Adams knew little about Hoffman’s personal life and relationship with Burke, seeking to deflate the prosecution’s theory that he had a strong motive to intimidate Adams into silence. Instead, he argued, Adams was bitter about Hoffman’s rise through the probation ranks.

“Maureen Adams had an ax to grind with Christopher Hoffman and anything she’s said and done points to that,” Bongiorni said during his closing argument. “What’s the important information that Maureen Adams had? The bottom line is, nothing.”

Jurors during the week-long trial heard testimony from more than a half-dozen current and former employees of Hampshire Superior Court and Northampton District Court and from two FBI agents involved in the Probation Department investigation. Hoffman, who has appeared calm throughout the trial, did not take the stand.

Several family and friends, including Hoffman’s mother and sister, were with him Friday afternoon outside the courtroom as a 12-member jury deliberated for the afternoon. Among them was former judge W. Michael Ryan of Northampton, a potential witness in the trial whose son was a close boyhood friend of Hoffman’s.

“You never know what they’re doing,” said Ryan of juries. “I’m hoping with all my heart for an acquittal.”

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

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