Witnesses describe tensions in Hampshire Superior Court probation office over hiring
WORCESTER — As evidence of a rigged hiring system in the state’s Probation Department became publicly known, the atmosphere in Hampshire Superior Court’s probation office grew tense as FBI agents began issuing subpoenas and interviewing staff in a public corruption probe, several probation employees testified Thursday in U.S. District Court.
Morale plummeted while longtime friendships and working relationships among probation officers and staff deteriorated. In some cases the tensions led to formal complaints, verbal arguments and profane gestures between colleagues, according to testimony heard in the obstruction-of-justice case against Christopher J. Hoffman, the former acting probation chief of Hampshire Superior Court.
“It was terrible, it was awful,” said Sean P. McDonald of Florence, a probation officer in the court. “Everyone was walking around on eggshells. Everyone was afraid to make a mistake.”
Hoffman, of Hatfield, began implementing changes in the office under the direction of his supervisor, Francine Ryan, and was among those interviewed by federal agents in October 2011 and then again in February 2012. Among the changes were cutting the staff’s lunch time from one hour to a half-hour and reducing probation officers’ days in the field from two to one day per week. He also demanded better record-keeping, according to his subordinates.
“He did an excellent job,” said Ryan, who oversees the probation offices of Hampshire and Berkshire counties.
Questioned about Hoffman’s 2009 appointment by Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. Fisher, Ryan, who was Hoffman’s direct supervisor, said she could not recall how he had been promoted to acting chief probation officer of the court.
Others who took the stand testified that as probation chief, Hoffman was inconsistent and unprofessional at times, which led to divisions in the probation office. He referred to some of his female support staff as his “angels” and on a few occasions greeted office staff by saying “What’s up, bitches?” according to McDonald, who got into a verbal altercation with Hoffman at one point over a work-related issue that led to Hoffman writing up McDonald for insubordination.
Hoffman was removed from his position in October 2011 and 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.
On Wednesday, Adams testified that Hoffman had told her in the courthouse prior to her Oct. 19, 2011, interview with federal agents that he was going to tell everyone that she was a “rat” and that she’d be in jail within a week. He also had told her he wanted her to come back to the courthouse and tell him about the substance of her interview with the FBI. Adams had confided in her friend, Northampton District Court Probation Officer Laurie Clark, about her conversations with Hoffman.
“I was shocked,” Clark, of Northampton, testified Thursday. “I told her she needed to talk to the FBI about this.”
Several probation staffers testified Thursday that they believed it was an October 2011 complaint about the rat comment filed by Adams with acting probation commissioner Ronald Corbett Jr. that led to Hoffman’s removal. Federal agents have said they were interested in learning about the relationship between Hoffman and former deputy probation commissioner William H. Burke III, 69, of Hatfield, and the role Burke may have played in getting Hoffman hired and promoted, among other probation officers. Hoffman did not testify and he remains on unpaid leave.
Defense attorney Vincent A. Bongiorni of Springfield called several witnesses to the stand after the prosecution rested its case, including Cheryl Leone of Easthampton, a support staff worker in Hampshire Superior Court. Leone said she overheard Adams seek counsel from Hoffman before her initial FBI interview, specifically about what she should say and what kinds of questions the federal agents might ask.
“He (Hoffman) said, ‘Maureen, just go and tell the truth and everything will be fine,’ ” Leone recalled.
Denise McCarthy of Northampton, a probation operations supervisor formerly known as Denise Cerreta, said she heard Hoffman at one point “joking around” with Adams around the time of her FBI interview. Hoffman was singing a song to Adams referencing the word “rat,” she said. McCarthy said Adams was laughing and crying at the same time.
Throughout the day, prosecutors continued to question witnesses about hiring and promotions in the Probation Department, which came under intense scrutiny after a 2010 Boston Globe investigative series and subsequent special report by independent counsel Paul F. Ware Jr. found strong evidence to suggest that it was corrupt. The so-called Ware Report was initiated at the behest of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court.
Clark said Hoffman had at one time brushed off the matter during a conversation he had with her and Adams in his office.
“He told me it was all going to blow over, this whole big probation scandal,” Clark said.
The court testimony Thursday continued to revolve around the influence that Burke, who retired in 2009, had on hiring and promotions in probation in western Massachusetts during his 37-year tenure with the agency. Burke, along with former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien and deputy probation commissioner Elizabeth V. Tavares, has pleaded not guilty to charges of mail fraud, racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to commit bribery and bribery.
In Ware’s report, Burke had admitted giving special treatment to job applicants put forward by elected officials, including state Rep. Thomas Petrolati, D-Ludlow, whose annual fundraisers he and other probation officers from western Massachusetts, including Hoffman and McDonald, would attend.
Bongiorni pressed Clark about her relationship with Burke, who had earlier worked with her father in district court. Clark acknowledged that she had once been upset when she didn’t receive a transfer to the former Eastern Hampshire District Court in Hadley, and called Burke at his home on a Friday night regarding the matter. Clark said she was angry and wanted to vent when she called him.
“Mr. Burke said to you, ‘No, no, no,’” Bongiorni said. “You knew it was in Bill Burke’s power to get it (the transfer) for you.”
Unlike the first time Hoffman was interviewed in October 2011, FBI Special Agent Kevin D. Constantine testified Thursday that Hoffman had provided “significant information” on Burke’s role in hiring and promotions during a subsequent FBI interview in February 2012.
“He felt that it wasn’t a level playing field for the other candidates,” Constantine said of Hoffman’s assessment of the promotions he received within the Probation Department.
According to Constantine, Hoffman also told federal agents that Burke had told him that after his retirement he “still controls the jobs for Hampshire County, while Petrolati controls the jobs for Hampden County.” Petrolati’s attorney, John P. Pucci, said this week that investigators have found no wrongdoing by the state representative.
Also testifying Thursday was Probation Officer Kerry Mazza of Springfield.
Prosecutors Fisher and Karin M. Bell and defense attorney Bongiorni are scheduled to give closing statements today before the case is handed over to a 14-member jury.
Dan Crowley can be reached at email@example.com.