Ex-Sen. Hart’s memory nonexistent on Probation

Exasperated prosecutor asks: ‘Do you have memory problems?’

Former state Sen. John (Jack) Hart Jr. testified on Wednesday at the trial of former Probation commissioner John O’Brien that he could recall almost nothing about the work he did as a legislator on behalf of people seeking jobs at the agency or legislation he filed benefiting workers there.

“I’m not trying to be evasive. This is six to seven years ago,” Hart said after failing several times to recall specific events from around 2008, even when confronted by prosecutors with emails and paper documentation of his activities.

Exasperated, Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak finally asked Hart: “Do you have memory problems?” Hart responded that his wife says all the time that he can’t remember what happened last week.

Prosecutors are trying to show that Hart and others in the Legislature placed people in jobs at the Probation Department and in return filed legislation benefitting the agency and its employees. But their efforts were stymied on Wednesday by Hart’s failure to remember anything.

Hart served in the Legislature from 1997 until February 2013, first as a state representative for five years and then 11 years as a senator. When he left the Senate to take jobs at high-powered law firms, he was working as assistant majority leader under Senate President Therese Murray. He is the first person to testify at the trial who has served in the Legislature.

Hart described his relationship with O’Brien as “a professional relationship,” saying he probably met the commissioner at some point at the State House while he was a state rep. He was vague about other meetings, saying only that he would “see him around.”

Shown documents that indicated he had sponsored legislation that would boost the pensions of Probation employees, Hart said he didn’t remember anything about the legislation. He said he couldn’t recall any legislation he had worked on that would have affected the Probation Department. He said he couldn’t recall whether anyone from Probation had ever contacted him about legislation.

Asked by Wyshak if he could remember any legislation he had filed during his entire time in the Legislature, Hart said he remembered a few pieces.

Hart also could not recall any work he had done on behalf of Patrick Lawton, who won a job at Probation in 2008 after receiving recommendations from Hart and Senate President Therese Murray’s office.

Hart was shown an email he received in March 2008 from Mark Lawton, Patrick’s father and a sitting judge at the time, who thanked the senator for helping his son and urging him to contact O’Brien on his son’s behalf. The email from Mark Lawton suggested Hart had a relationship with O’Brien and ended with the closing: “Jackie, you’re the best,” referring to Hart.

In a June 2008 email from Patrick Lawton to Hart, Lawton thanked the senator for his “intervention on my behalf with the commissioner of Probation.”

Yet Hart said he doesn’t remember contacting O’Brien or O’Brien’s legislative liaison. “To the best of my knowledge, I don’t remember having a conversation with Jack O’Brien about jobs in the Probation Department,” he said. Despite his email reference to Hart’s intervention on his behalf with O’Brien, Patrick Lawton testified he didn’t know if Hart actually did anything on his behalf. “I was being kind,” he said.

Hart said he was not friends with Mark Lawton but was friendly with him. He said he did not know Patrick Lawton at all. Patrick Lawton earlier testified that he knew Hart and that they had been at the New England School of Law at the same time. Hart said he read in the newspaper that he and Patrick Lawton had attended the same law school, but he was not aware of it.

Hart did acknowledge writing letters of recommendation for a number of people seeking jobs at Probation, but he couldn’t remember how many. Wyshak said the total was 35. Hart noted he wrote a lot of recommendation letters for people seeking jobs all across state government. “We’re in the business of writing letters of recommendation,” he said of lawmakers.

He said the standard procedure in his office was to only write letters of recommendation if he knew the applicant or if he knew someone who knew the applicant well. “I wanted to be sure I was recommending someone who was worthy,” he said.

OTHER PROBATION NEWS

Patrick Lawton, under cross-examination by defense attorneys on Thursday, said his law degree and his work for the Chilmark Police Department, the Plymouth County district attorney’s office, and the Norfolk County sheriff’s department made him overqualified for the job he held at Probation from 2008 through 2010. He said he used connections to land most of his other jobs. “I believe it’s called networking,” he said.

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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.

In sharp contrast to the testimony of others who said his duties were limited as a Probation officer, Lawton said he had a very heavy caseload. “I was probably the busiest person in the office,” he said. Lawton said his drug use began in college (cocaine “from time to time”) and continued through 2011, with heroin usage starting in 2009. Lawton’s job at the Probation Department was terminated after he was arrested on drug charges in 2010.

The prosecution introduced testimony indicating Lawton survived his second-round job interview for the Probation job only after intervention by the Probation commissioner’s office that resulted in expanding the pool of applicants going on to the final interview from eight to 10. Lawton said he couldn’t remember anything about that final, decisive interview except that it was held in Boston with two people. “I have no recollection of what went on during the interview,” he said.