William H. Burke III of Hatfield placed on probation, fined $10,000 for racketeering conspiracy

Last modified: Thursday, November 13, 2014

BOSTON — Former deputy probation commissioner William H. Burke III of Hatfield avoided prison time Thursday when U.S. District Judge William G. Young placed him on probation for a year and fined him $10,000 for his involvement in a decade-long political patronage hiring scheme in the state’s Probation Department.

In addition, Young sentenced former probation commissioner John “Jack” O’Brien to 18 months with a $25,000 fine and a year of supervised release, and former deputy probation commissioner Elizabeth Tavares to a 90-day sentence and $10,000 fine with a year of supervised release.

O’Brien, Tavares and Burke were convicted in July of racketeering conspiracy charges after a high-profile, 12-week trial that exposed a rigged hiring system in the Probation Department resulting in favorable treatment from legislators in exchange for jobs for their friends and relatives, in many cases at the expense of more-qualified job applicants.

O’Brien and Tavares were also convicted on mail fraud charges in connection with the scheme that prosecutors say occurred between 2000 to 2010.

“These sentences are fair and just,” Young said in court. “One of the problems here is that for far too long, we all have tolerated a culture of political patronage in the hiring of judicial staff. The fact that we have tolerated the political patronage for so long is a form of sophistry (and) hypocrisy.”

He said every judge in Massachusetts must stand “ashamed and appalled” at the extent of the corruption that has taken place in the state’s court system.

While Young said that O’Brien was the “organizing leader of this massive corrupt scheme” in the Probation Department’s hiring system, he also said O’Brien “didn’t create political patronage.”

“What we have here, is fundamentally decent people utterly without a moral compass, at sea ... awash in political patronage,” he said after sentencing the three defendants.

In impassioned remarks, Young also stressed the significance of the trial, commending U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz for prosecuting a case he said has helped put an end to patronage hiring in the judiciary by exposing the corruption that eventually spawned state reforms.

“It’s over, it’s finished, it’s done,” Young said sternly.

Tavares emotional

While Burke and O’Brien chose not to address Young before their sentencing, Tavares delivered an emotional plea for leniency before the judge, who could have sentenced her and Burke to up to 46 months in prison and O’Brien to up to nearly six years. Attorneys for all three defendants had requested probation and said they will appeal the jury’s verdicts.

Prosecutors had asked for O’Brien to be sentenced to 70 months and Burke and Tavares 46 months each. Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred M. Wyshak Jr. said the rigged hiring system not only “demoralized” qualified people who sought jobs in the Probation Department, but also those who worked within the department and were ensnared in the scheme.

“They were ashamed and embarrassed by what they had to do,” Wyshak said.

He said O’Brien had abandoned his obligation to serve the public and instead began to serve the political interests of his friends and allies, undermining the public’s confidence in government.

“This is a 10-year-long conspiracy, not a single episode,” Wyshak said, still referring to O’Brien. “He had an option to say ‘No’.

Speaking through tears. Tavares talked about having to support her ailing 89-year-old mother and 91-year-old father, who live with her, as well as her 14-year-old daughter, and the agony the case has caused in all their lives.

“No one has more remorse than I,” Tavares said. “They will be helpless if I am sent to prison.”

She also said she wished she had done more to stop the political patronage system that permeated the judicial system.

“I stand before you today proclaiming that I wish that I had had the courage to change it,” Tavares said. “I bear responsibility for my family’s pain, I bear responsibility for not being brave.”

Letters of support

Earlier this week, Burke’s attorney, John A. Amabile of Brockton, filed 76 pages of support letters for Burke. They were written by law enforcement officials, former judges, court staff, family and friends in western Massachusetts where Burke, 71, rose through the ranks of Northampton District Court and became a former supervisor of district court probation offices. He served as a deputy commissioner in the Probation Department from 1999 until his retirement in 2009.

“He was the Jack O’Brien out west,” U.S. Assistant Attorney Robert Fisher told Young in court while seeking a 46-month sentence on the racketeering conspiracy charge. “This is someone who knew the ins and outs of what was going on.”

Amabile asked Young to take into account Burke’s record in public service, his many letters of support, and his loss of a state pension when others involved in the Probation Department’s sham hiring process committed “much more egregious” acts but have gone unpunished.

“This is an individual who has led an exemplary life,” Amabile told the judge. “He spent his entire life as a dedicated public servant. He was an incredible worker. He grew up on a farm. He’s worked hard his entire life.”

“Sending this 71-year-old man to prison is unconscionable under the circumstances of this case,” he said, adding that Burke has potential employment at a potato farm.

Burke became the second Hatfield man in a little over a year to be sentenced in connection with the public corruption probe in the Probation Department. In October 2013, Christopher J. Hoffman, a former acting chief probation officer in Hampshire Superior Court, was convicted on obstruction of justice charges related to questioning by federal agents about his employment and relationship with Burke. Hoffman, who also was placed on probation and fined, ultimately told the FBI that Burke was responsible for all of the jobs he held and the promotions he received in the probation department.

While Burke remained silent in court, he did utter that he was “very happy” with the outcome of his sentencing as he walked briskly along the sidewalk and into a vehicle while surrounded by news reporters. Moments earlier, he had left the courtroom and was greeted with emotional embraces from family and friends, including former Northampton District Court judge and Northwestern district attorney W. Michael Ryan, a lifelong friend.

“I’m extremely relieved,” Ryan said, as Burke embraced his daughter Mindy Burke, a Probation Department manager. “Judge Young, I think, got it right. He saw it for what it was.”

“He’s exactly right that the era of political patronage is over,” Ryan said.

Amabile, Burke’s attorney, also praised Young for a sentence that he said was “just” given the circumstances. “It took tremendous courage for Judge Young to impose what is a fair sentence,” Amabile added.

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


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