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Family court judge testifies probation officials manipulated hiring process

A state family court judge told a federal jury Thursday that she watched in disappointment as Probation Department officials manipulated a hiring process to favor a politically connected job candidate who had scored poorly with her in an interview.

Catherine Sabaitis, a Plymouth County Probate and Family Court judge, said she had known Patrick Lawton, the job candidate, whose father and grandfather were well known judges from the Brockton area, since he was born and still she opposed his hiring. She ranked him 11th out of 13 applicants.

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“The performance at the interview, quite honestly, was poor; it was dreadful,” Sabaitis told Assistant US Attorney Robert A. Fisher. “There was no training, no work experience in any of the skills that our probation officers have.”

And yet, Sabaitis added, “the instructions from the commissioner’s office were that he was to be a finalist.”

Lawton, who had already been fired by the Plymouth district attorney’s office for using a work computer for political purposes, was ultimately hired. Two years later, he was suspended and later resigned, after he was arrested on charges of possessing heroin.

Sabaitis was the first person who was not employed by the Probation Department to testify of the department’s alleged corrupt hiring practices in the US District Court trial.

The former commissioner, John J. O’Brien and top aides Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III are charged with racketeering and mail fraud in allegedly directing jobs to the friends and family members of state legislators. In exchange, prosecutors alleged, the legislators significantly boosted the department’s budget.

Defense lawyers have argued their clients did nothing illegal, even if it was political patronage. But prosecutors said the defendants went further and committed fraud by creating a rigged hiring process to cover-up their scheme from the judges who oversaw hiring.

On Friday, jurors could hear from an aide to state Senate President Therese Murray, who sponsored Lawton’s hiring.

Late Thursday night, lawyers for O’Brien filed a request to introduce evidence showing that the aide, Francine Gannon, kept lists of job candidates that Murray could sponsor not only for the Probation Department, but also for security positions at state trial courts.

The lawyers argued that the documents will show that Robert Mulligan, the former chief justice of administration and management for the trial courts, engaged in the same type of patronage hiring on behalf of Murray that constituted the fraud charges against O’Brien. Some of the people Murray helped obtain a job include the sister of Norfolk Sheriff Michael Bellotti and the father of Murray’s chief of staff, Rick Musiol.

During cross-examination Thursday, a lawyer for O’Brien sought to show that Sabaitis herself benefited from political patronage: She had asked Lawton’s grandfather and a state senator from the Brockton area to testify in support of her judgeship in 1990.

“You asked powerful people [to help], because powerful people can help more than un-powerful people,” Stellio Sinnis said, arguing that there was nothing illegal about sponsoring a person for a job.

Earlier Thursday, the chief probation officer of Plymouth Probate Court at the time, Michael LaFrance, testified that he served on the hiring panel with Sabaitis, and that they agreed that Lawton was underqualified.

LaFrance told jurors that Lawton did not make a list of eight applicants the hiring panel was supposed to advance to a final round. However, he added, he afterward received a telephone call from Francis Wall, then a deputy commissioner, who was “concerned about why I scored Patrick the way I did in the interview.”

LaFrance and his supervisor, Frank Campbell, then expanded the list to include Lawton

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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