SALEM — The attorney for a former Hamilton multi-millionaire charged with filing forged documents in a failed attempt to steal nearly $5 million from his late son's widow and children told a judge Friday that his client is the victim of a "massive fraud" perpetrated by his estranged children and others.
It's not the first time John Donovan Sr. has claimed that he's been victimized by his children. In 2006, he was found guilty of filing a false police report in which he claimed another son had sent Russian "hitmen" to shoot him outside his Cambridge office.
For a veteran attorney, the latest claims in the four-year-old case seemed almost too much.
"I've been trying to restrain myself," Bruce Singal told a Salem Superior Court judge Friday. He was in court on behalf of Jason Konidaris, a New York financier who was also the best friend of Donovan's late son, John Donovan III of Essex, who died of a rare cancer at the age of 43 in 2015.
Donovan Sr.'s attorney, Robert Strasnick, is seeking access to personal documents and records of Konidaris, who was named as a personal representative of Donovan III's estate. The judge suggested the request sounded like a "fishing expedition."
The prosecutor and the lawyer for Konidaris took a similar view.
Singal told Judge Kathleen McCarthy Neyman about the long legal history of the case, about a retired judge's arbitration ruling that called Donovan Sr.'s actions "flagrant fraud" and his testimony "a tissue of lies," and how Donovan Sr. had betrayed the only one of his children who still spoke with him by trying to steal his son's estate.
"This is the same narrative he tried to foist on an arbitrator," Singal told the judge. "He is now seeking to foist that upon this court. Please do not let Mr. Konidaris become the latest victim of Mr. Donovan's evil designs."
Donovan Sr., 78, is set to stand trial on Nov. 8 on more than a dozen counts that include forgery, making false statements, attempting to commit a crime and witness intimidation.
Prosecutors allege that after his son's death, Donovan Sr. had a series of forged documents, including a purported amendment to his son's will, quitclaim deeds and discharges of loans, created and filed at the Essex South Registry of Deeds — just as his son's estate was about to sell 340 acres of land in Essex and Hamilton to the Trust for Public Lands in 2016.
Title examiners discovered the documents, which would have resulted in the proceeds of the sale going to Donovan Sr., absolved him of debts and served to disparage his children with language alleging embezzlement and extortion. One of the documents was purported to be a "second codicil" to his son's will supposedly written in 2013.
(An actual "second codicil" to the will, prepared just before his death, in fact specifically barred Donovan Sr. from the funeral and requested he have no role in the lives of his grandchildren.)
'Third party' documents
In April, Donovan's current lawyer, Strasnick, filed a motion asking a judge to order that Konidaris produce a sheath of documents relating to his role as the personal representative of Donovan III's estate. Konidaris and Donovan III had been best friends since their days at Yale University in the early 1990s.
Under the law, however, in order to get access to what are considered "third party" documents for use in a criminal trial, a lawyer has to show evidence that there's likely to be some relevant information, usually with a sworn affidavit from a witness who is familiar with their contents. That's to prevent what Neyman repeatedly referred to as a "fishing expedition" by lawyers.
In this case, however, Strasnick filed no affidavit, instead relying on a provision that allows him to file his motion as "verified."
Neyman continued to press Strasnick as to the source of the information. "Is there a person? Do you have specific information?"
Strasnick told the judge he had seen some documents, which lead her to ask why he thought there would be more.
The lawyer said he believes his client was asked by his dying son to investigate Vermont's assisted suicide laws prior to his death, something that would contradict the prosecution's charges that the two were largely estranged. That, in turn, would bolster Donovan Sr.'s contention that his son wanted his estate to go to his father and that he wanted to forgive loans he'd made to the older man.
Even as he contended Konidaris might be in possession of evidence to prove that Donovan's son wanted his father to have his assets, Strasnick also suggested that "someone else is responsible for these documents being recorded."
Prosecutor Jack Dawley told Neyman that he's turned over more than 2,000 documents to Donovan's attorneys while the case has been pending and said he's aware of his obligation to turn over anything that could potentially benefit the defense. He also called the motion a "fishing expedition."
Neyman did not immediately rule on the request.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.