Probation intervention helped Lawton along

Despite poor interview, he still landed a job

Two officials affiliated with the Plymouth County Probate and Family Court testified on Thursday that the Probation commissioner’s office intervened in a 2008 hiring process for a job as a probation officer on behalf of Patrick Lawton, whose father and grandfather were judges.

The two officials – the court’s chief probation officer at the time, Michael LaFrance, and the court’s first justice, Catherine Sabaitis – both said the commissioner’s office intervened to make sure that Lawton made it through to the final hiring stage, but they gave differing accounts of how that happened.

LaFrance said Lawton made it through to the next round of the hiring process only after the number of applicants forwarded on to Probation commissioner John O’Brien was expanded from eight to 10. Lawton was ranked ninth on that list. Sabaitis, by contrast, said Lawton survived only after LaFrance changed his score of Lawton’s interview performance, allowing him to make it into the top 10 applicants for the job.

Lawton went on to be hired as a probation officer at the court, along with two others from the group. The hiring of politically connected people at the Probation Department is a central theme in the ongoing US District Court trial of O’Brien and two of his top aides, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III. The three are charged with multiple counts of racketeering, mail fraud, bribery, and conspiracy.

Lawton comes from one of Plymouth County’s most prominent political families. He is the son of Mark Lawton, a former state representative and a retired state judge (he preceded Sabaitis as the first justice of the Plymouth Probate and Family Court), and the grandson of the James Lawton, a judge and a former state representative who died in 2007. Lawton’s mother also ran for state rep.

The April 2008 interview for a probation officer’s job at the Plymouth County court was conducted by LaFrance, Sabaitis, and Frank Campbell, another Probation official representing O’Brien. LaFrance said Campbell told him prior to the interview that the commissioner’s office had an interest in Lawton moving on to the next stage of the process, which Lawton said he interpreted as a directive to make that happen. Sabaitis testified that Campbell “kept repeating that Patrick had to make the final list.”

Both LaFrance and Sabaitis said Lawton did poorly during the interview. LaFrance said Lawton was visibly nervous and failed to answer some of the questions directly. “He was shaking and perspiring quite a bit,” said LaFrance, who added that he was also concerned about newspaper reports that indicated Lawton had been fired the year before from a job at the Plymouth County District Attorney’s office for sending a political email from an office computer. LaFrance ranked Lawton 10th out of the 13 job candidates interviewed.

Sabaitis said Lawton didn’t have the right background for a probation officer’s job at a probate court, where she believed negotiating skills and a social work or mental health background were helpful. In the interview itself, Sabaitis said, Lawton didn’t fare well. “His performance at the interview was very poor. It was dreadful,” she said. She ranked Lawton 11th out of the 13 candidates.

Campbell ranked Lawton No. 3 out of the 13 candidates. After the interviews were concluded and the scores tallied, he called the Probation commissioner’s office. Shortly afterward, Francis Wall, a high-ranking official in the commissioner’s office, called LaFrance and questioned him about Lawton’s scores. LaFrance said Wall did not ask him to change his score and didn’t pressure him. LaFrance said Wall asked him: “How bad could he be? He graduated from law school.” (Testimony at the trial indicated Lawton never passed the bar.)

Afterwards, LaFrance said Campbell suggested that the pool of applicants forwarded on to the commissioner’s office be expanded from eight to 10, which LaFrance said he agreed to since Probation Department rules allowed for eight candidates to be forwarded along for each position. Since three positions were being filled, sending along 10 names was within the rules, LaFrance said.

Sabaitis gave a different account of what happened. She said LaFrance agreed to change his scoring of the Lawton interview so Lawton would move up to the ninth position and be forwarded along to the commissioner’s office for a final interview.

Both LaFrance and Sabaitis said they were upset about the intervention by the commissioner’s office and made their concerns known to superiors. LaFrance said the next day he called Tavares, one of O’Brien’s top deputies, and told her what happened. “I was upset about what had happened the day before. I didn’t think the list should be expanded,” he said.

Sabaitis said she called the chief judge for the probate court, Paula Carey, and Carey agreed to pass her concerns along to O’Brien. (Carey is now the chief justice of the Trial Court.) “This wasn’t accurate,” Sabaitis said of the interview process. “I didn’t think it was fair and I was angry.”

LaFrance said Lawton worked hard at his probation job and generally did well before he resigned in 2010 after being charged with drug possession. Sabaitis, by contrast, said Lawton was given very limited duties, primarily helping people hunt for jobs. “He didn’t have the skills. He didn’t have the temperament,” she said of Lawton.

Related: Ex-Probation aide says jobs curried favor with lawmakers William Fick, who represents O’Brien, asked LaFrance if he was aware the US Attorney’s office considered him an unindicted coconspirator along with O’Brien, Tavares, and Burke. LaFrance said he wasn’t aware of that. When Fick asked if LaFrance had engaged in racketeering, LaFrance said he did not.

When Sabaitis completed her initial testimony, another O’Brien defense attorney, Stellio Sinnis, jumped out of his seat and immediately accused her of using political influence to gain her judgeship. He said she had enlisted then-Sen. Michael Creedon and James and Mark Lawton to vouch for her before the Governor’s Council when former Gov. Michael Dukakis recommended her for a judgeship. Before he could proceed much further, Judge William Young recessed the trial until Friday.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Other Probation news

John F. Cremens Jr., a retired probation official who testified on Wednesday that people were hired at the agency to curry favor with lawmakers, came under withering fire from defense attorneys on Thursday for changing his story to avoid prosecution. Defense attorneys pointed out that, in 2010, Cremens had said he would be shocked if former Probation commissioner John O’Brien had done anything wrong. He subsequently said in a sworn deposition that he wouldn’t change an interview score to benefit one of O’Brien’s preferred candidates. But before a federal grand jury in 2011 he said he did alter at least one interview score and also said O’Brien talked openly about hiring people to please lawmakers who oversaw the agency’s budget and powers. John Amabile, who represents William Burke III, pointed out the discrepancies in his statements and asked if Cremens had committed perjury. “It wasn’t my intent to do that,” Cremens said.