Business & Tech

Father of Trump deputy treasury pick at center of family dispute

John J. Donovan, Sr. in a Cambridge courtroom in 2007.
John J. Donovan, Sr. in a Cambridge courtroom in 2007.

James Donovan, a Goldman Sachs banker, is about to take the hot seat as President Trump’s nominee to the number two job at the Treasury Department.

But for more than a decade, the nominee to be deputy treasury secretary has been tackling one of his biggest challenges closer to home: his own father.

The 50-year-old North Shore native, along with his siblings, has been embroiled in a long-running dispute with their father, John Donovan Sr., that involved allegations of attempted murder, a frame-up, and a battle over millions of dollars and acres of waterfront property.


Donovan, who now lives in Virginia, is a reluctant participant in a family drama that has unfolded in courtrooms across Massachusetts and newspaper headlines nationwide.

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In 2005, James Donovan was accused by his father, a charismatic entrepreneur and former MIT professor who amassed a sizable fortune as a technology consultant, of hiring Russian hitmen to shoot him. But police investigators found that the senior Donovan had orchestrated the whole incident, shooting himself in the stomach.

He was eventually convicted of filing a false police report, according to court records and articles at the time in the Globe and other publications.

“I had great sympathy for the family, especially Jim Donovan,” said Martha Coakley, the former Massachusetts attorney general, who as the Middlesex district attorney brought charges against John Donovan.

James Donovan.

“He was able to handle the father’s behavior, which put them in the public eye, with a grace and dignity,” Coakley said.


Trump signaled his intent to nominate Donovan this week. As deputy treasury secretary, Donovan will face a badly split Congress, a divided country, and a stacked policy agenda that includes everything from tax policy to bank regulation.

It’s a job that friends and colleagues say he’s up to.

Donovan helped build Goldman’s private wealth management unit, which manages billions of dollars for clients.

He advised some of the investment bank’s largest corporate and individual clients, including Bain Capital, a private equity firm founded by Mitt Romney.

The business relationship with Romney developed into a friendship. In an interview in a financial trade magazine in 2012, while Romney was running as the Republican nominee for president, Donovan described his role as a trusted adviser to the campaign.


“I’m proud of our friendship,” Donovan said. “Our families became friends and spent time together.”

Romney was unavailable for comment on Wednesday. But Romney tweeted on social media Tuesday, “I’m a fan of proposed Deputy Treasury Secretary Jim Donovan. A qualified person of integrity and a friend for many years.”

The family dispute, though, has often been the background of Donovan’s successes.

The family splintered when the siblings were young. John Donovan Sr. and his first wife, Marilyn, divorced about 1980. James Donovan and his four siblings were raised primarily by their mother in Danvers.

But the rift deepened when one of the daughters said her father had molested her when she was a child,according to an arbitration award filed in Suffolk Superior Court. John Donovan Sr. denied the accusation and no charges were filed.

Family relations soured further when the children tried to take control of property their father had left in trusts for them. James Donovan, his wife, and their three children moved out of Massachusetts more than 10 years ago, concerned for their safety and troubled by the stigma of the very nasty family fight, according to court testimony and friends.

Goldman Sachs at one point launched an internal investigation of Donovan because of a claim by his father that Donovan had laundered $180 million through unlawful trading of restricted stock, according to testimony. James Donovan testified in the court case in 2007 against his father that the company found no wrongdoing.

John Donovan Sr. was ordered to stay away from James and several of the Donovan siblings, as well as their children.

Lawyers and a former federal judge-turned-arbitrator supervised interactions among family members as they untangled their complex finances and made sure restraining orders were obeyed.

James Donovan did not return a request to comment for this article sent to Goldman Sachs.

“It’s fair to say that Jim had many challenges that he had to deal with from some of the activity that his father engaged in,” said Manchester-by-the-Sea resident Steve Dodge, former chairman of American Tower Corp., and a friend. “It was just very difficult.”

After graduating from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s of business administration from the Sloan School of Management, he graduated from Harvard Law School.

He joined Goldman Sachs in 1993 and became a partner in 2000 and soon after became a managing director.

Over the years, the family clashes have continued to resurface, most recently in October.

After James Donovan’s brother, John Donovan Jr., died, their father tried to take sole control of the proceeds from a land deal that were supposed to be split between John Jr. and his father, according to documents filed in the Essex County South Registry of Deeds.

John Donovan Jr. had agreed to sell several hundred acres in Essex County to the Trust for Public Land. But just before the transfer was finalized, John Donovan Sr. filed a series of documents in court to take control of the proceeds himself.

Reached by phone on Wednesday, John Donovan Sr. said he was pleased for his son.

“It’s the top of the career for him,” said John Donovan Sr., who remains estranged from his son.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.