12 years later, looking for a shot at redemption
By Al Giordano
Twelve years after his political campaign was destroyed by revelations that he's lied about his background, John Lakian is back on the campaign trail, brandishing his charm, his considerable wealth, and his intellect in a bid for Teddy Kennedy's US Senate seat.
He has spoken of this campaign as, in part, a shot at redemption. And some of the state's leading Republicans say privately that redemption is the best he can hope for given his past problems.
In 1982, when he ran for governor, Lakian was the only millionaire in the field. This time, he must get past two other millionaires – fellow Republican challenger Mitt Romney and Kennedy. And Lakian must also run against another millionaire in the race, aman who has destroyed Lakian's political ambitions once already.
The opponent is himself.
It was the summer of 1985, and Lakian's $100 million libel trial against the Boston Globe wasn't going well. His 1982 campaign had been ruined by a Globe story by reporter (now Metro editor) Walter Robinson, who found that many of Lakian's public proclamations about his background were untrue. Among his falsehoods: his claims that his "father died as a result of injuries received in World War II," that Lakian himself had received a "battlefield promotion" in Vietnam, that Lakian had "successfully completed his bachelor of arts degree in two and one-half years" at Boston University, that Lakian owned the downtown office building that housed his investment firm, and that Lakian had attended graduate school at Harvard.
Lakian, then of Westwood (he now lives in Woods Hole), sought vindication in Norfolk Superior Court , suing for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. But he ended up bringing even more grief upon himself.
The Globe's lawyers – Francis Fox and John Albano of Bingham, Dana, & Gould- discovered that throughout Lakian's business career he had lied about his attendance at Harvard, and they entered those revelations into the record.
They unearthed transcripts of depositions Lakian had given under oath in the 1970s in which he falsely claimed to have attended or graduated from Harvard Business School.
They produced copies of Lakian's 1969 wedding and engagement announcements, which clamed the groom had "attended Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration."
And they discovered a letter Lakian sent to US Senator Ted Kennedy in 1968 in which Lakian falsely claimed to have a graduate degree. That letter was found in the archives of the Kennedy Library.
Lakian's attorner, Roy Grutman, of New York, came up with a startling explanation for Lakian's false Crimson claims: Lakian was not a liar, he said, becaue he believed his own lies.
"John Lakian made a mistake because of his lifelong fantasy and romance he had through the age of 38 with Harvard." Grutman said in his closing statement. "It was an ego support. It was a crutch to bolster himself with. He foolishly fantasized himself as having a deeper connection to Harvard than the facts are supported."
Grutman compared his client ot Ted Kennedy, who was suspended from Harvard in the 1950s after another student was caught taking an exam for him. Lakian, said Grutman, "isn't the first person in the commonwealth that did that. There is a senator form Washington who had some embarrassment with Harvard. But that didn't make that person an inveterate liar any more than the mistake John Lakian made&ldots;has anything to do with what the facts were."
As Lakian launches his campaign, the risk is that even one new embellishment or blunder could plunge his candidacy and his reputation under the political waters forever. And his willingness to take that risk does demonstrate, as Lakian's 1982 campaign slogan had it, 'uncommon courage.' It may not be courage born of wisdom, but even to subject himself ot the process again requires a stubborn kind of gutsiness.
Whereas the other Republicans – Romney, Janet Jeghelian, Gary Todd, and perhaps fringe candidates George Darwin Carter and Mildred Jefferson – have the option of running against Kennedy's character, Lakian must take a different approach. According to one campaign adviser, Lakian is prepared to spend up to $6 million to repeal not just Kennedy but Camelot itself.
Back in 1982, Lakian was worth $5 million to $10 million, and had outlined an ideology he called "progressive Republicanism." Today, Lakian is richer (his assets, according to the same campaign adviser, are worth $20 million to $30 million), and his poltical philosophy is clearer, more polished, and better articulated than it was a dozen years ago.
Lakian wants to make this year's race against Kennedy a referendum on what he calls the Democrats' philosophy of collectivism.
"Collectivism," explains Lakian, "is the socialization of society to the degredation of society." His wedge issues are healthcare, welfare, taxes, and the decline of the urban American family, which he blames on Democratic policies championed by Kennedy for the past three decades.
But Lakian must overcome lingering doubts about his own honesty and credibility.
"I have to deal with these issues from the 1982 campaign," Lakian acknowledges, "to confront them by confronting that mistakes were made. Nobody's at fault but myself. And one has to apologize for making mistakes, to the public at large, and say, 'This is what they were. They were painful.' One's sorry for them, obviously. But one learns from that kind of pain. Public pain like this is highly unusual. That is still part of my being. It always will be."
Nonetheless, John Lakian risks suffering that pain. During a 90-minute interview in his seventh-floor campaign office in downtown Boston, overlooking the Boston Tea Party ship and the city skyline, Lakian spoke openly about his background and philosophies, saying, "If you know hwere somebody came from, you have some idea where they want to go."
He was born John Robin Tepeguezian, on December 13, 1942, son a of working-class Worcester family. A common misperception, perhaps based on Lakian's reputation for rewriting history, is that the candidate changed his own name to Lakian. But according to an unpublished July 1982 interview on file in the Lakian v. Globe lawsuit, Lakian said it was his late father – while overseas in the military – who changed both their names shortly after young John Robin was born.
"My father changed it right when he was in the service," said Lakian, who apparently thought his original surname began with a "P," as in Pepeguezin." Said Lakian, "I'm not too sure I can spell it correctly for you, because I've never used it.
"The only story I know is, my mother said he was in England. He like 'Larkin,' but he wanted to continue to have some ethnic identification with Armenians, and made it Lakian, because the I-A-N is an Armenian ending."
How much or how little Lakian knew of the truth about his father's life and death may offer some insight into why he felt the need to embellish his own biography during the 1982 campaign – why he needed that "ego support," cited by his attorney, for "his lifelong fantasy."
Though his 1982 campaign literature claimed his father "died from war injuries," Lowell Sun reporter Frank Phillips – now the Globe's State House Bureau Chief – reported that July that Lakian's father, in fact, died in 1945 when the truck he was driving collided with a streetcar on the corner of Main and Clement Streets in Worcester. A 1945 Worcester Telegram story about the accident stated that Lakian Sr. had been awarded a Bronze Star in World War II, but contained no mention of any Purple Heart, the award given to soldiers wounded in battle.
Lakian's mother, the late Alyce Yarumian, testified in 1985 that she had kept the truth from her son for 37 years. The implication was that Lakian didn't lie, but rather stated the falsehood because he believed it to be true. His understanding of his father's death was the only issue about which Lakian declined to speak with the Phoenix. But Lakian did talk candidly about his relaitnoship with his mother.
"My mother remarried when I was seven or eight," says Lakian. "But my mother raised me, kind of isolated me and raised me as a person. The man she married was her husband but not my father. So that wsa a psychological isolation. I don't know why, I don't know if she felt she was protecting her first husband by that. but I always felt my mother and I were a single unit.
"I grew up in a three-decker, in Worcester," says Lakian, whose family moved twice within the city when he was a boy. "Coming from an Armenian background, there was always an emphasis on education and the church. In fact, the church I went to, wsa the first Armenian church in American."
"This was long before divorce was accepted, long before a lot of people were born out of wedlock and there were single mothers or single fathers," says Lakian. "In the Boy Scout troop I was in, I would be the only Boy Scout in that troop without a father. So if they had a father-and-son day, I don't want to sound sentimental or silly, but I was the 10-year-old at the end of the line without a father. And that leaves certain emotional scars.
"Maybe that's part of my drive. I don't know. I've asked myself, 'Why are you driven?' Maybe it's to fulfill some of that, I don't know, or whatever that emptiness is to fulfill. I think it's why I consider my own family so important to me, why I find it so dear. I like to have all the kids aroundme all the time. I think that comes from the singleness as a boy, to be honest with you."
Lakian attended Worcester public schools, and then graduated Boston University, from which he graduated after three years and one summer term. "At 21, I gothired by Kidder Peabody because the guy I was interviewed by was a graduate of BU," says Lakian.
In 1965 or '66, Lakian joined the Army as a private, hoping to attend officers' school. In October 1967 he was sent to Vietnam, where he remained for about a year.
Lakian returned form Vietnam to Kidder Peaboy in late 1968. He was married to his first wife, Carol, in 1969, and two year later they had a son, John Stuart. Lakin became involved in Massachusetts politics in 1970, as campaign treasurer for State Representative Charlie Mann (R-Hanson), who had launched a bid for state senator; Mann lost, and later regained his house seat.
Lakian founded the Fort Hill Investors Management Corporation in 1972, and within 10 years he was a wealthy man. He divorced and, in 1977, married Andrea Ogle. They have three children: Christopher Robin, Robin Ogle, and Alice Penn.
The 1980 Republican National Convention, in Detroit, was a landmark for Lakian. Although he wasn't a delegate, he threw a lavish party for Massachusetts delegates at the Detroit Boat Club, an event that helped launch his political career. And he met the late conservative Republican activist Gordon Nelson, who would become Lakian's political mentor.
"I felt at the time there was a vacuum in the Republican Party," says Lakian. "A lot of the things that were really reactionary wree coming from the left. And a lot of things that were progressive wree coming from the right. But no Republican would stand up and say that and have substance behind the ideas intellectually. I felt that the Republicans should capture the spirit of progressiveness within the Republican ideals."
Lakian's stance as a "progressive Republican" – and his willingness to spend his wealth on the campaign trail – made him an instant player in the 1982 race for governor. In a way, his profile presaged the politics of Governor Bill Weld: Lakian was a hard-line economic supply-sider who was pro-choice, pro-death penalty, and a millionaire.
His biographical problems aside, Lakian displayed uncanny political instincts in the early months of that campaign. At his right hand was Gordon Nelson, and at his left was Roger Woodworth, a prominent liberal Republican who had worked for US Senator Ed Brooke and US Representative Maragaret Heckler (Woodworth now works on the staff of another Republican, Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees, who's also supporting Lakian). Although the Reagan-era purge of moderate and liberal Republicans was under way, Lakian made a conscious effort to build a coalition that crossed ideological boundaries.
Six years before GOP national chairman Lee Atwater preached the need for a "big tent," Lakian had erected one. Two years before Gary Hart popularized the phrase, Lakian's campaign literature had boasted of "new ideas" and high-tech solution to economic problems. A full decade before the political rise of Ross Perot, Lakian's campaign materials proclaimed, "Change is needed. A cleansing, constructive change. Change which only a Republican Governor who comes from outside the 'system' can mobilize."
Early press reports were positive. "He is good, very good," reported the Boston Herald-American. The Boston Globe wrote that Lakian had "the leader's position among Republicans running for governor."
After Lakian won the GOP convention that March, conservative Boston Herald columnist Warren Brooks, an Ed King partisan, wrote that Lakian "has allowed himself to become the unwitting tool of the King-baiting Boston Globe."
But that suspicion evaporated when Walter Robinson's expose of Lakian's distortions appeared on August 18. "Nauseous" is how Lakian described his own reaction. "I looked at the article and realized in my head that it was fatal politically&ldots;I think you get nausesous when you get struck from the blind side and realize you can't react to it."
Lakian sued the Globe eight days later, and lost the GOP nomination to John Sears, who was in turn defeated by Mike Dukakis, the Democratic-primary victor over King. Lakian would testify three years later that "I felt my life coming apart" as a result of Robinson's story.
Both Lakian and Robinsons were Vietnam veterans, which added extra punch to Robinson's exposure of Lakian's false claims of a battlefield promotion. Robinson knew from his own experience that the Army doesn't give such promotions.
During the 1985 trial, Robinson spent five days on the witness stand being grilled by Lakian attorney Roy Grutman, who told jurors the reporter had a "corroded heart." Every sentence, every verb and noun he had written about Lakian, was analyzed and debated, as were the notes and files he used to prepare the story. The 55-paragraph report was taken one paragraph at a time, and jurors were asked to determine whether each \one was accurate or defamatory.
In the end, the jurors found that the gist of the story was true, but that three paragraphs – all dealing with the same subject- were false and defamatory. At issue was Robinson's contention that Lakian had falsely claimed his investment firm's annual fees were between $4 million and $5 million, but had later conceded those fees "may not have been under $3 million."
The jury ruled that the Globe's report of Lakian's lies about Harvard, about BU, about his and his father's military records, about owning his downtown office building, was accurate. In 1987, the state's Supreme Judicial Court denied Lakian's appeal. One footnote from the SJC decision stated, "The jury found that the demonstration of Lakian's embellishment of the truth in other respects mad the defamatory false statements of no effect on Lakian's reputation among readers of the article."
After the 1985 libel trial, Lakian hailed the verdict as a victory (although his attorneys appealed the zero-dollar judgment, asking for one dollar, or alternately, "one peppercorn," to no avail). The Boston Herald story on the verdict, in a competitive cheap shot, was headlined, JURY FINDS FOR LAKIAN IN ELECTION LIBEL CASE.
Jurors reacted angrily to Lakian's spin on the verdict. "We all agreed from the beginning that Lakian was a liar," jury foreman Daniel Masse told the Phoenix after the trial.
Another juror, who declined to be named, remarked, "I still think John's a liar, and I don't think he should be claiming victory in any way. I was so angry I wanted to call Channel 5 and say, 'He's doing it again. He's standing there and lying again.'"
In the years since the trial, Lakian has had his ups and downs. Although he expanded his wealth, he also experienced some setbacks. Lakian became chairman and CEO of Merchants Capital Corporation in 1987, controlling Merchants Cooperative Bank. But in 1990, the FDIC slapped the padlocks on the doors and foreclosed the business.
"There's no embarrassment on my part about the Merchants bank," says Lakian. "I lost a lot of money in it. They investors lost a lot of money in it. The bank got caught up in the real-estate decline of 1989 and 1990 in Massachusetts. And it was a real-estate lender, by the way, since its origin, and boom, before you know it we're out of business.
"Americans as a whole make a mistake thinking that money success is a one-way street," says Lakian. "Part of risk-taking is the ability to have the right to rail."
Lakian began chartering his political comeback last year. In the spring on '93, Lakian bought two tables at the annual dinner of Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT), shelling elected Lakian as its new vice-chairman, replacing Gordon Nelson, who died on July 22, 1993. "I don't know him all that well," says CLT director Barbara Anderson, "but he's always great fun to talk to because he's always excited about something and that's endearing."
Anderson, who is also supportive of Republican Senate hopefuls Janet Jaghelian and Mitt Romney, says of Lakian, "I'm always surprised to realize that he's my age. He's very youthful, vital, and involved in things. I think that's probably why he got in trouble in the first place."
"I met John around the beginning of '93," recalls Dorothea Vitrac, who heads Limits II, the organization working for a term-limits ballot question next fall. "I thnk it was Gordon Nelson who introduced us. He knew we needed to raise money, and knew he could help us financially.
"John gave a contribution of $25,000," says Vitrac, whose organization named Lakian its vice-chairman last year. "Every time I have asked John to do something, he has done it. He has always come through. There are a lot of people I've come across who pay lip service and say, yes, then do nothing. He's kept his word."
And Lakian's interests extend beyond politics and money. "John has a summer home just down the street," says John Burris, director of the Marine Biological Laboratory, in Woods Hole, an organization with 200 year-round employees and a $20 million annual budget. In February 1992, Lakian donated $500,000 to the lab to fund research. "He funded two summer fellowships, and one year-round fellowship, and hasn't put any restrctions on the money," Burris says.
Burris adds that Lakian has a profound interest in oceanography- and his support for the lab was rewarded last year when the senior investigator, Mitch Sogin, a molecular evolutionist, made scientific history by reporting that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. "I've gotten to know John as a neighbor who spends almost the entire summer down here," Burris says. "He's a very bright individual. I find him very outgoing, easy to talk with, a very pleasant fellow."
Now this very pleasant fellow is back on the campaign trail. And Barbara Anderson, for one, hopes voters will take another looks at him. "He seems to be open about his mistakes," she says, "so it's not hard to deal with him on those things. I like him more than I expected to given how I always feel about people who life. I feel he deserves another chance, both as a person and politician."