State House News Service
BOSTON -- Former Bristol Probate and Family Court First Justice Elizabeth LaStaiti testified Thursday she learned that a prospective probation officer in her court was the girlfriend of Sen. Mark Montigny on the day of job interviews, and right after she was hired believed that was "her only qualification for the job."
On Thursday, the focus of the ongoing trial of three former Probation Department officials at the Moakley federal courthouse turned to the hiring of Kelly Manchester at the New Bedford court.
"She was very pleasant. She was very young. She was recently graduated from college. She was light on experience. She had no experience that was related to the work we did," LaStaiti said on the stand.
The former judge, called to the stand as a prosecution witness, said she recalled Manchester had a clerical job at the Office of Community Corrections and had worked for the town of Dartmouth, operating a bridge that opens and closes to let sailboats through.
Though LaStaiti said she was concerned after Manchester was hired, the retired judge said Manchester had worked out "beautifully. She was an excellent probation officer."
Former Probation Commissioner John O'Brien and two former deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, are facing federal fraud charges for allegedly operating a patronage system disguised beneath merit-based personnel policies. Prosecutors contend that O'Brien and others in the department installed people with political connections, but not necessarily the best qualifications, at courthouses around the state, to gain "political currency."
Testimony also wrapped Thursday of former Sen. Jack Hart, who later in the day appeared at the Statehouse as a lobbyist on an economic-development bill.
When asked to identify the Senate Ways and Means chairmen who might have directed the state budget process in 2006, Hart said Therese Murray, the current Senate president, and Sen. Stephen Brewer, the current Ways and Means chairman, were the only chairs in a little over a decade. Hart did not include Steven Panagiotakos, now a lobbyist, who chaired the committee from 2007 until 2010 -- between Murray and Brewer. Hart also said many of his former colleagues had received subpoenas for business records.
"I complied, as did a number of members of the Senate and the House as well," Hart said. That subpoena turned up a letter Hart wrote to committee chairmen backing legislation that would increase probation officers' pensions and a fax of O'Brien's 2004 testimony in support of the legislation.
Hart, who recalled few details about his support for the pension legislation when he testified a week ago, said Thursday that after some reflection, he remembered Bernard O'Donnell, a South Boston resident and the longtime chief probation officer at Clinton District Court, had asked him to support legislation boosting pensions for probation officers.
Questioned by O'Brien's attorney William Fick, Hart said some of the bills that would have boosted probation pensions also applied to court officers. He also said he generally supported bills that grant the more favorable pension classification enjoyed by police and firefighters to other public safety workers, including state prosecutors.
The South Boston Democrat did not recall specific budget amendments he had filed when he testified last Thursday, saying he would usually file up to 60 amendments to the annual budget along with a slew of bills. Hart did remember that the pension bump had not become law.
In December 2007, Hart wrote to then Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court Margaret Marshall about a candidate for a probation job, and she replied that she would forward the recommendation to O'Brien.
Hart insisted that all he wanted was "consideration," of candidates that he supported.
"Consideration" was a term in use within the Probation Department's hiring practices, according to James Casey, who was chief probation officer at the Bristol Probate and Family Court from 1976 until his 2009 retirement.
Recalling a conversation about Manchester with then-probation official Frank Campbell, Casey said, "He said that there was an interest in this person from the Office of Commissioner and was to be given some consideration." Casey said he understood that to mean the candidate should be given "a little extra consideration."
A Fairhaven resident who said he knew Montigny for years, Casey said that the New Bedford senator called him and asked "if I could give (Manchester) any consideration."
Manchester was hired as a probation officer at the family court in 2008. Her resume shows she lived in South Dartmouth, graduated from UMass Amherst in 2006 and had worked as an operator on a bridge in the village of Padanaram, monitoring boat traffic and enforcing fishing regulations.
There was some contradictory testimony between LaStaiti and Casey. Casey at first said he learned that Montigny had endorsed Manchester after the hiring process, and later said his conversation with Montigny occurred before the hiring, and he only later learned the senator was dating the young woman.
LaStaiti said Casey told her about the relationship the day of the interview. She was challenged by defense attorney John Amabile about an FBI report based on an interview with LaStaiti that said she "later learned" Manchester was Montigny's girlfriend.
"My memory is somewhat faded," said Casey at one point.
Prosecutor Fred Wyshak said in the trial's opening statement that Montigny's girlfriend was 21, however in a brief interview in a Statehouse hallway, the New Bedford Democrat said earlier this month that Manchester was not 21.
The U.S. Attorney's office declined to confirm Wyshak's assertion or provide additional details about the age of Montigny's then-girlfriend, and the Probation Department also declined to provide that information.
Not all of the people under discussion in the case are able to testify.
Campbell died a little less than a year ago, according to an obituary. LaStaiti described him as "gruff," and Casey said, "I never liked him anyway, so I didn't appreciate his commentary."
Defense attorneys quizzed LaStaiti about appeals she had received from the mother of Laurie Plante to appoint her daughter to the New Bedford court so she could work closer to home. LaStaiti described the mother as a "blue shirt," a sometime court security officer who filled in for the regular court officers.
"Her mother mentioned it to whoever would listen," said LaStaiti. When asked if it was a "coincidence" that Plante was hired to her court around that time, LaStaiti said, "Yes, well it was not based on her mother's love for her daughter."
"As a blue shirt, did Ms. Plante control your budget?" asked prosecutor Robert Fisher, though the question was scrapped with an objection.
O'Brien's defense attorney Stellio Sinnis drew out contrasts between the testimony of LaStaiti and earlier testimony by Plymouth County Probate and Family Court Judge Catherine Sabaitis, who viewed dimly the qualifications of Patrick Lawton, a former summertime Martha's Vineyard police officer who had a law degree when he applied to work at the Brockton family court.
LaStaiti said a law degree and experience as a police officer were both relevant to the work of a family-court probation officer, whose duties include dispute resolution and dealing with families going through divorce and other distress.
After he was hired in 2008, Lawton previously testified he began using heroin and was fired after a drug arrest.