Retired judge, prosecutor parry over son’s hiring

Father says son ‘uniquely qualified’ for Probation job

A combative and evasive retired state judge insisted his son was “uniquely qualified” for a position as a probation officer even though he had trouble holding down other jobs and was an admitted drug addict.

Mark Lawton, a former state representative from Brockton who went on to serve 27 years on the bench in district and juvenile courts, testified in the federal corruption trial of former Probation commissioner John J. O’Brien and two top aides that he pushed hard for a job for his son, Patrick Lawton, because he had heard the chief probation officer of the court, Michael LaFrance, had his own preferred candidate.

“Did you do that to tilt the scale for your son?” Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak asked the former judge.

“Partially,” Lawton replied. “Mike LaFrance had his own candidate and he would do whatever he could to get her selected…I was determined to not let that happen.”

Patrick Lawton is one of the Probation hires at the center of the racketeering, bribery, conspiracy, and mail fraud charges brought against O’Brien, Elizabeth Tavares, and William Burke III. Prosecutors have presented evidence and taken testimony from witnesses suggesting that Lawton was moved up in front of other more qualified candidates because he was being sponsored by Senate President Therese Murray.

Lawton got the job as a probation officer in Plymouth County Probate and Family Court despite an underwhelming interview with court officials that left him outside the final panel. At least two former probation officials said O’Brien and his aides expanded the list to allow Lawton to make it to the final round, when he was awarded one of three probation officer jobs. He was fired two years later after being arrested for possession of heroin.

Mark Lawton refused to concede much to Wyshak, at one point saying that the only way he knew an email he was reading came from him was because Wyshak said so, even though Lawton’s name was in the sender space. Lawton said he went to Murray, former senator Jack Hart of South Boston, and a childhood friend, former senator Robert Creedon of Brockton, to get support for his son’s candidacy, claiming O’Brien had a good reputation among lawmakers because of what Lawton said was an innovative approach to community corrections.

Lawton said his son was the only candidate for the job at Probation with a law degree but he hesitated when Wyshak asked how he knew the qualifications of other candidates. Lawton said he knew from experience that few lawyers applied for Probation jobs. Wyshak asked Lawton to read an email he sent to Francine Gannon, who oversaw references and referrals in Murray’s office, in which Lawton wrote, “I know that Jack O’Brien takes very seriously calls from your office where there’s a strong interest on the part of the Senate President. Francine, I need your help & assistance.”

Wyshak pushed Lawton on whether he thought there was a quid pro quo between the Legislature and O’Brien in regard to probation jobs, but Lawton said he was not aware of any tit for tat. “There is no basis for me to know that,” Lawton said about his assertion in the email that O’Brien listens to legislators. “I made it up.”

Under cross examination by defense attorneys, Lawton acknowledged that patronage is a long-held tradition in state government. He talked about when he was a state representative in the late 1970s going to bat for LaFrance when LaFrance was looking to get a job in Probation. (LaFrance, a retired Probation official, testified earlier that Pat Lawton did poorly in his interview.)

“I got a call from Ed LaFrance, his father, and I called the appointing authority” for the Trial Court, Lawton testified.

“Who was that?” asked Stellio Sinnis, O’Brien’s court-appointed federal defender.

“My father, Judge James Lawton,” he replied.

Under both cross examination and redirect, Mark Lawton played down his son’s drug problems. He said it began with prescription painkillers while he was in law school. While working for the Plymouth District Attorney, Mark Lawton said his son had his drug use “under control,” only abusing drugs on weekends. “It didn’t interfere with his everyday functions,” Lawton said.

Lawton insisted he wasn’t aware of his son’s use of narcotics at the time he pushed him for a Probation job, only his abuse of prescription medications. When asked when he first became aware of his son’s use of heroin, Mark Lawton said, “When he was arrested.”

Related: Probation intervention helped Lawton along Noting Mark Lawton’s experience on the bench, Wyshak asked him: “Do you think a person addicted to drugs makes a good probation officer?”

“No,” Lawton responded.

Several times Lawton was asked by prosecution and defense attorneys if he thought he could “tilt the scale” in his son’s favor by calling on his relationships with Murray and other lawmakers as well as his knowledge of how government works.

“You exploited that for your own and your son’s benefit, didn’t you?” Wyshak asked.

“I was trying to,” Lawton testified.

After Mark Lawton ended his testimony, Patrick Lawton took the stand and answered a few questions from Wyshak before the court recessed for the day.

“Is it fair to say you’re a recovering heroin addict?” Wyshak asked.

“Yes, that’s fair,” said Patrick Lawton, who now teaches in an alternative school in Brockton and works with recovering addicts.

Under questioning, Lawton conceded he took and failed the bar exam three times and said that was one of the reasons he left the Plymouth District Attorney’s office because his money-making prospects were diminished without being admitted to the bar. But Wyshak brought up a political email that Lawton sent from an office computer in violation of state ethics law that disparaged his uncle’s former wife, who was running for selectmen in West Bridgewater. When Wyshak asked if the email was the real reason for his resignation, Lawton said, “It happened simultaneously.”

OTHER PROBATION TRIAL NOTES

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

Jurors continued to ask numerous questions, regularly handing up sheets to Young on a variety of issues. Young asked witnesses four juror questions and had at least three others he did not ask. One of the questions to Patrick Lawton concerned the type of drugs he used. “Marijuana, alcohol, heroin,” Lawton told jurors matter-of-factly.

When Mark Lawton was asked who former state senator Jack Hart was, Lawton said, “Jack Hart is the father of five young girls and was briefly a state legislator from South Boston.” Hart, who left the Senate last year, was one of the most powerful lawmakers on Beacon Hill and had been mentioned as a possible successor to Murray when her term as Senate President expires.