BOSTON (SHNS) – Senate President Therese Murray’s recommended hire for a probation job in Brockton was shaking and sweating during his April 2008 job interview, and was arrested on drug charges about two years after his hire, retired chief probation officer Michael LaFrance testified Thursday.
In the federal court trial of three former probation officials accused of running a sham hiring process to steer jobs to politically connected applicants, prosecution witnesses said the interview process was manipulated to advance Patrick Lawton despite his lack of qualifications and poor interview performance.
Called by prosecutors to the witness stand, Plymouth Probate and Family Court Judge Catherine Sabaitis said after Patrick Lawton’s “dreadful” interview, LaFrance was pressured by a top probation official to adjust Lawton’s scores and a list of finalists was expanded from eight candidates to 10.
The scion of a political family, Lawton was hired in June 2008, and then suspended in May 2010 after a drug arrest, LaFrance said. He later resigned.
Former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and two of his top deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, have pleaded not guilty to charges of mail fraud and racketeering for allegedly operating scheming to cover-up their patronage system.
After regional supervisor Frank Campbell allegedly said Lawton had to make the list of finalists and expanded the list from eight to 10 to include Lawton’s name, Sabaitis said she complained to the chief justice of probate, Paula Carey, who was promoted to chief of the Trial Court in May 2013.
“Mr. Campbell kept repeating that Patrick would have to make the final list,” Sabaitis testified Thursday. She said, “I didn’t think it was fair, and I was angry.”
Probation hiring policy said the three-person interview panel should submit eight finalists for an open position. There were three open positions, which LaFrance said was a justification for expanding the list of finalists to 10.
Sabaitis said a person in the commissioner’s office put LaFrance “into a corner,” and he changed his scores. LaFrance differed on that point.
“Based on the interview, I didn’t see him as a candidate for the job,” said LaFrance, who said he was also concerned about Brockton Enterprise articles about Lawton – which described him sending an insulting email about his aunt, former Bridgewater selectwoman Mary Beth Lawton.
Both LaFrance and Sabaitis said Lawton appeared nervous in his interview.
“He was visibly nervous,” said LaFrance, who was first hired as a probation officer in the late 1970s by Lawton’s grandfather, Judge James Lawton. He said, “He was shaking and perspiring quite a bit.” He also said, “I thought Patrick had a hard time concentrating during the interview. He seemed distracted.”
“I remember him being very anxious, very uptight,” said Sabaitis, who said she had known Lawton since he was a little boy, through his father Mark Lawton, a judge and former state representative. She said Lawton’s answers were “way off base” about the duties of a probation officer in the family court.
In his opening statement, prosecutor Fred Wyshak said that Lawton had been sponsored by Senate President Therese Murray. In a pre-trial filing, prosecutors quoted Murray aide Francine Gannon as saying Lawton had a “bit of difficulty” getting through a third-round interview, but “he should be OK.”
Defense attorneys pointed out that Lawton had a law degree – though he had not passed the bar exam – and had experience working in the Plymouth DA’s office, both unique attributes for the job.
O’Brien’s attorney, William Fick, drew LaFrance into acknowledging that Campbell only told him that the commissioner had an “interest” in Lawton, not that he had to be advanced. Lawton also acknowledged that even before the interview he was apprehensive about Lawton’s hire because of the media “scrutiny” it could create after the high-profile email controversy.
In Lawton’s two years as a probation officer, LaFrance said he “did a good job,” while Sabaitis said his responsibilities were limited to an employment program and he needed oversight.
“He didn’t have the skills. He didn’t have the temperament, and he needed a lot of close supervision for the work he did do,” Sabaitis said.
Sabaitis and LaFrance differed on whether LaFrance changed his scores after the interview. LaFrance, who testified first, never said he had changed the scores.
“Mr. LaFrance said he’d made an adjustment to his score and that bumped Patrick” into the ninth position, Sabaitis said. LaFrance said he had scored Lawton at number 10 out of 13 candidates, and when the three scores were added up, Lawton ranked ninth.
LaFrance said both he and Sabaitis agreed that the list of finalists should be expanded from eight to 10 because there were a total of three hires to be made.
“The list was to be expanded to include Patrick Lawton’s name,” said LaFrance, relaying what he said Campbell told him.
Thursday ended with O’Brien’s attorney Stellio Sinnis laying into Sabaitis for the political backing she had received at the Governor’s Council before the elected body confirmed her nomination, which was made by Gov. Michael Dukakis. Sabaitis said she asked Judge James Lawton and Sen. Michael Creedon to speak on her behalf. Elected officials, judges, lawyers and others regularly testify on behalf of judicial nominees before the council.
“You wanted them to speak because you thought that would increase your chances,” Sinnis said, his voice raised.
The day began with the end of former first deputy commissioner John Cremens’s testimony. Cremens has repeatedly been challenged with variances between statements he made in the past and statements he made in court, and he admitted to lying to Paul Ware, the independent counsel who investigated patronage in probation after a 2010 Boston Globe expose.
“Did you commit perjury when you gave sworn testimony in 2010?” Burke’s attorney John Amabile asked Cremens just before he left the witness stand.
“It wasn’t my intent to do that,” Cremens said.