BOSTON — Jack Hart, a former lawmaker who rose to assistant Senate majority leader, testified Wednesday he didn’t recall filing a budget amendment to boost probation officers’ pensions and didn’t recall “ever” speaking to the former commissioner about hiring decisions.
“I’m not trying to be cute, and I’m not trying to be evasive by any means,” said Hart, who left the Senate in early 2013 to join the government relations practice of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough. Speaking about the budget amendment he said, “I really don’t recall it.”
Hart’s answers drove federal prosecutor Fred Wyshak to ask the South Boston Democrat some basic questions about his job and his mental competency.
“Do you have memory problems, Mr. Hart?” Wyshak asked. After a quip about complaints from his wife, Hart said he does not have medical problems.
Former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and two of his former deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke, are facing fraud charges claiming they skewed the hiring process to give jobs to people with political backing even if they were not the most qualified. While patronage is not illegal, prosecutors say the officials subverted the system and in return won favorable treatment from lawmakers.
“I remember usually all department heads coming to see me and every other member of the Legislature,” said Hart as he was questioned about lobbying by probation officials. Asked if someone on his staff was assigned to help people obtain state government jobs, Hart said, “We’d try to have somebody coordinate that in the office.”
Earlier in the day Wednesday, a soon-to-retire probation official testified on cross examination that he had been caught fabricating his travel logs, and before that Patrick Lawton, a key hire in the prosecution’s case, said he doesn’t “know anything” about actions taken on his behalf, which engendered a gift of flowers and fawning praise to Hart and an aide to the Senate president after he was hired in 2008.
Though the question was stricken from the record, Wyshak asked Hart if it was true he had “refused” to meet with federal prosecutors. On the stand Wednesday, Hart spoke generally about his role as a lawmaker receiving 100 emails a day, said he couldn’t recall the specifics of particular events that took place seven years ago, and said he doesn’t “really” know Patrick Lawton.
“I didn’t recognize him and I didn’t really know him. I know his father,” said Hart, describing a chance meeting with Lawton in a court hallway Tuesday. He said he had “vague” recollections of Mark Lawton, a former judge, saying he was concerned about his son. Emails indicate that Hart was part of the effort to secure employment for the young man who testified he had begun using cocaine and prescription drugs in college, but said he hid his drug use from his parents.
While he said he would delegate letters of recommendation, Hart said his staff would only recommend a candidate with his approval and his signature.
“I wanted to be sure that I was recommending somebody that was worthy,” Hart said, saying he makes recommendations for people to obtain housing, Medicaid, health care, and substance abuse treatment among other services. He said, “We’re in the business of writing letters of recommendation.”
Court broke Wednesday afternoon, for what will be seven-day break, before Wyshak had concluded his examination of the former lawmaker, who is a longtime friend of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and served in the Legislature from 1997 to 2013.
Preceding Hart was disjointed, sometimes confused testimony from a soon-to-retire probation official from the western part of the state who said he felt the hiring process was manipulated, while acknowledging he had recently been caught submitting false travel documents.
“I suspected that the scores were being altered,” said Regional Supervisor Ed Driscoll, who confused the timing of incidents, alternately placing the same events in the 1990s, when probation appointments were made by local judges, or the 2000s, when the commissioner’s office had that authority.
Driscoll said he left a coded scoring system on his interview sheets because he was worried about their integrity and switched from pencil to pen, but Fran Wall, who was a probation official at the time, asked Driscoll to switch back to pencil.
Driscoll, who said he is out on medical leave ahead of his retirement, woke up at 3:30 a.m. to get to court in Boston and takes the anti-anxiety medication Ativan, acknowledged under cross examination by Burke’s attorney John Amabile that he had met with a probation official in March about his falsification of travel documents, which he admitted to doing.
While much of the testimony in the first three weeks of the trial has centered on O’Brien and to a lesser extent Tavares, Burke was the subject of Driscoll’s comments from the witness stand Wednesday.
“I thought something was wrong and we’re going to get in trouble for this,” Driscoll said, describing what he said was a 2006 conversation with Burke. He said, “He said, ‘Everything’s going to be fine. We’re not going to get in any trouble and I wrote the book on this stuff.’”
Both Driscoll and Burke are from the western part of the state, and Driscoll said Burke had ultimate approval over hires in that area. Driscoll said Burke had been his chief probation officer from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s at the Northampton District Court.
A 60-year-old, Driscoll said he had a kidney replaced in January 2010, which resulted in complications, and he said he is retiring from his post “next Friday.”
Driscoll initially testified that he participated in an interview process where the wife of a sheriff had been hired even though “I didn’t think she was qualified,” and “I thought she was fast-tracked.” Later Driscoll acknowledged that he had ranked the woman number 2 out of 18 candidates, and said he couldn’t remember who he thought was most qualified. Driscoll also said that Burke had someone else in mind when Driscoll was elevated to regional supervisor.
“Did you drive yourself here today?” Amabile asked, after quizzing Driscoll about his medications.
“Yes, sir,” Driscoll said.
Before Driscoll’s time on the stand, Wyshak grilled his own witness, 34-year-old Patrick Lawton, a recovering heroin addict whose roughly two-year career as a Brockton family court probation officer ended with a drug arrest in 2010. Lawton allegedly leap-frogged over other, more qualified candidates because of family connections.
“You know the old saying, ‘You know who your friends are’, well I do know who they are and you are a very good friend. I know you expect nothing in return from me but one day I’ll repay you twenty-fold,” Lawton wrote in a June 2008 email right after he was hired, to Francine Gannon, an aide to Senate President Therese Murray. He also gave her flowers.
In a June 5, 2008 email to Hart, Lawton wrote, “I know of your intervention on my behalf with the Commissioner of Probation. I am forever grateful for your invaluable assistance to me. I want you to know that your kindness and generosity will never be forgotten by me. It means so much to my family and me.”
Wyshak asked Lawton why he thanked Hart, who attended the New England Law School with Lawton around the same time.
“I don’t know anything,” Lawton said. Pressed by Wyshak, he said, “The email does indicate that those words are on the screen in front of me.”
Lawton also echoed his father, Mark Lawton, a former state representative and former judge, who was on the stand Tuesday and in court Wednesday for the rest of his son’s testimony.
“I was always brought up to help people and never really accept anything back in return,” Lawton told Wyshak.
“Try to answer my question,” Wyshak responded. Lawton said he doesn’t know what, if anything, Hart did on his behalf.
Later, Lawton told defense attorney Christine DeMaso he had written to Hart and another reference, then-Rep. David Flynn, a Bridgewater Democrat, to be polite.
Lawton was hired to do the “job search” program for people who owed child support at the Plymouth Probate and Family Court, though the presiding judge and chief probation officer at the time said he had a bad interview where he was shaking, sweating and nervous.
Lawton, who is now a teacher at an alternative high school in Brockton, said he received previous employment at W.B. Mason, the Plymouth District Attorney’s Office and the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office because he knew the people in charge of those organizations.
“I believe it’s called networking,” Lawton said. Lawton, whose father said he moved to Bridgewater at the age of 12 and a half, said, “I was just hustling. I was just a poor kid from Brockton.”
Jurors who have been permitted to ask questions through Judge William Young quizzed Lawton about whether Hart or former Brockton Sen. Robert Creedon had inquired about his qualifications. He said they had not.
The trial resumes Thursday, May 29.