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June 10, 2014

Costello testifies in fraud trial

Newburyport Democrat was granted immunity

BOSTON — Testifying with immunity from prosecution yesterday, Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport, said he still supports backing a probation hire that federal prosecutors claim was made fraudulently as part of a scheme to curry favor with lawmakers.

“I’d give the reference again today,” said the Newburyport Democrat. Costello, the House chairman of the Financial Services Committee who is not running for re-election this year, is the first sitting elected official to testify in the trial looking into allegations of corruption within the public safety agency.

Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and two of his former deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke, are charged with fraud and racketeering for what prosecutors say was a secret patronage system.

Costello said he knew Mari-Elena Sanchez, one of the eight hires prosecutors are charging was fraudulent, through her father, Essex County Juvenile Court Judge Jose Sanchez. The judge presided over cases when Costello was a young prosecutor and worked with Costello’s wife, a probation officer.

“There was a Cinderella story that was presented to me,” Costello said of Sanchez, whom he described as a single mother who put herself through Tufts University and received a job as a corrections officer in the sheriff’s office before applying for a juvenile court probation job in Middlesex County. He said, “Either her father or my wife had mentioned she was applying.”

Over strong and unsuccessful objections by defense attorneys, Costello was also questioned by prosecutor Robert Fisher about questions he asked O’Brien about his wife’s ineligibility for a promotion to an assistant chief probation officer job in Newburyport, closer to home, and her eventual promotion to probation officer in charge at the Office of Community Corrections in nearby Salisbury, which was originally a temporary position during a hiring freeze.

“My only concern was if she took that position, you know, what would be the process afterwards to make it permanent?” said Costello, whose wife had worked at the Lawrence juvenile court. When the managerial position at the Newburyport court was filled from within, Costello said he brought it up with O’Brien, explaining, “It was my concern that I raised with the commissioner.”

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