HAMILTON — A Suffolk County Superior Court judge has found that self-styled "business guru" John Donovan Sr. is liable for nearly $3 million in damages, attorney costs and interest for using funds invested in a now-failed startup as his own piggy bank.
Donovan, 77, of Hamilton, was using investor funds to pay personal expenses, including his membership at the Myopia Hunt Club, nearly $28,000 to the Hair Club for Men and his personal property tax bills, and using employees and contractors of the startup to work on Donovan's other ventures and maintain his Wikipedia page, Judge Brian Davis wrote.
"Mr. Donovan's misconduct as the managing director of (Send it Later) was brazen and pervasive," Davis wrote in his decision, which awarded $1.5 million to shareholders, including the Vermont woman who initially filed the suit, Jennifer Brining.
Brining was convinced to invest in Send It Later by the company's founders, friends from Vermont who had turned to a business mentorship program where they connected with Donovan, a former MIT professor.
At the time, she and they were unaware of Donovan's background, which included a 2006 criminal case after he tried to frame his son, James Donovan, by shooting himself in the belly in his car outside his offices at MIT in Cambridge. He was later found guilty in that case.
The company's business plan was to enable people to ensure that their loved ones, such as grandchildren, would continue to receive flowers, cards or gifts on birthdays and other special occasions after their death.
Davis concluded that Donovan had also created fraudulent documents to support his claims that he was entitled to the funds — a finding similar to pending criminal allegations against Donovan in Salem Superior Court, where he's awaiting trial for allegedly forging documents purporting to show his late son transferring Donovan's interest in properties on the North Shore to himself following his son's death.
Investigating and understanding the documents, said Davis, merited the amount of time spent by Brining's attorneys, who were awarded attorneys fees by the judge.
The decision also strips him of shares held by a company he controls.
Michael Gilleran, Brining's attorney, said his client is "thrilled" with the judge's order, which was docketed on Tuesday in Suffolk Superior Court.
"It's been a long, hard effort," said Gilleran.
He credits Brining for sticking with the case through several years of litigation and repeated changes of counsel by Donovan, which delayed the trial.
Robert Strasnick, who represents Donovan, said his client will appeal.
"It's unfortunate that the judge either did not understand or accept the fact that Send It Later money was not used," said Strasnick. Instead, Strasnick and Donovan say the funds paid to Donovan and his company, Securenet, were for legitimate invoices for services provided and reimbursements.
"Not a single SIL check was used to pay for those things," said Strasnick.
Strasnick also represents Donovan in the pending trial involving allegations of forged documents filed at the Essex Registry of Deeds. That trial had been set to start on Wednesday but courts remain closed due to the pandemic.
Among those documents was one that he showed to Brining to convince her that he owned property in Hamilton that could serve as security.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.