Senate President pushed Probation on son of judge

Lawton drops off flowers after getting the job

Senate President Therese Murray personally tracked the progress of a controversial patronage hire within the Probation Department, at one point leaving a handwritten note on a staffer’s desk, asking, “How are we doing on him?” The job-seeker Murray was asking about, Patrick Lawton, is the son of a politically connected Plymouth County family. According to testimony Friday at the federal corruption trial of John O’Brien, the former Probation Department boss, Murray’s office quarterbacked Lawton’s job application through Probation. When Lawton emerged with a job in the department, an O’Brien deputy offered Murray the opportunity to break the news to Lawton’s mother.

Prosecutors used the sixth day of O’Brien’s federal corruption trial to hone in on the relationship between would-be Probation Department employees and their political sponsors. Prosecutors had spent Thursday describing how an interview committee moved the goalposts in a way that allowed Lawton, the son and grandson of state judges, to overcome a “dreadful” interview and advance toward a Probation job — allegedly with O’Brien’s blessing. On Friday, they honed in on the alleged reason why O’Brien wanted to bring Lawton into Probation: His candidacy was sponsored by Murray, one of the most powerful figures on Beacon Hill.

Francine Gannon, a top aide to Murray, described an intense push to land a state job for Patrick Lawton by his father, Judge Mark Lawton. She told prosecutors Friday that Kevin O’Reilly, a friend and former campaign manager of Murray’s, asked the Senate president to help Patrick Lawton find a job in early 2008. A day after O’Reilly’s inquiry, both Patrick and Mark Lawton were emailing and faxing Murray’s office with job inquiries.

Patrick Lawton initially made a bid for a job in the Brockton office of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, but he didn’t appear picky; at one point, he sent Gannon a list of nine state jobs he was chasing. He wound up targeting a probation job in the Plymouth Country Probate and Family Court.

In Mark Lawton’s first email to Murray’s office, he name-dropped Kevin Burke, who was the state secretary of public safety. In a later email to Gannon, Mark Lawton appeared to ask Murray to put an arm on the state Probation boss, writing, “I know Jack O’Brien takes very serious calls from your office where there is a strong interest on the part of the Senate President. Francine, I need your help and assistance.” Murray’s office responded by urging Probation to hire Lawton.

A memo from Gannon to Murray also indicates that Mark Lawton had personally called O’Brien to lobby for a job for his son. Related: Probation intervention helped Lawton along

Prosecutors have charged that O’Brien ran a rigged hiring system in Probation, one that claimed to be making legitimate personnel decisions but was actually trading jobs to lawmakers for increased funding and political chits. During opening arguments last week, prosecutors claimed O’Brien “handed out jobs like lollipops” to well-connected applicants.

A pair of officials in the Plymouth probate court – the court’s presiding judge and its chief probation officer – testified Thursday that Lawton bombed the Probation interview they both conducted. “His performance at the interview was very poor. It was dreadful,” Judge Catherine Sabaitis testified Thursday. In brief testimony Friday, Sabaitis described Lawton as being “ill-qualified” for a Probation job. She was so concerned, in fact, that Sabaitis made two phone calls to Robert Mulligan, the Trial Court administrator who signs off on all Probation hires. Despite those calls, Lawton was hired.

A 2010 report on Probation hiring commissioned by the Supreme Judicial Court found that, after Lawton’s job interview struggles, O’Brien’s representative on the interview panel had to intervene to keep Lawton’s candidacy alive. O’Brien’s office allegedly widened the pool of job applicants eligible for a final-round interview, to Lawton’s benefit.

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Paul McMorrow

Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

The notes Gannon kept for Murray indicate that Lawton had a rough interview with Sabaitis. “Pat had a bit of difficulty getting through the third round with judges,” Gannon’s notes read. The notes also indicate that Ed Ryan, O’Brien’s legislative liaison, had told Gannon that since Lawton had managed to advance to the final round of interviews, which O’Brien’s office controlled, Lawton’s job prospects “should be OK.” Weeks later, Ryan called again, telling Gannon that Lawton would be hired the following Monday. He suggested Senate President Murray call Lawton’s mother with the good news. Days later, Lawton stopped by Murray’s office and dropped off a bouquet of flowers.

Other Probation news

Judge Sabaitis on Friday backtracked on testimony that had contradicted statements made by another prosecution witness, Michael LaFrance. LaFrance and Sabaitis both sat on Lawton’s Probation interview, and while they both agreed Lawton was unimpressive in the interview, they offered differing versions of how he advanced past the interview round. On Thursday, LaFrance said that the pool of finalists, which normally contains eight names, had to be expanded to 10 to accommodate Lawton. By contrast, Sabaitis had testified that LaFrance changed the score he awarded Lawton. Friday, after reviewing notes of a 2012 interview with officials from the FBI and the US Attorney’s office, Sabaitis said she had misremembered the incident, and backed away from claims that LaFrance had altered the scoring.