Saturday, April 9, 2016

Attorney calls for sanctions against Passaic County Superior Court judge

An attorney for a state judicial ethics committee on Wednesday called for sanctions against Passaic County Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Portelli, saying the judge made insulting and sexual remarks to attorneys and witnesses who regularly appeared in his courtroom.

An emotional Portelli and his attorney, meanwhile, asked the committee to dismiss the ethics charges against the judge, arguing that the accusations do not withstand the truth test.

The arguments were made at a formal hearing in Lawrenceville before the state’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, which filed a disciplinary complaint against Portelli last September.

The hearing was to determine whether Portelli engaged in wrongdoing. If the committee reaches that finding, it will recommend to the state Supreme Court to impose penalties, which range from reprimand to removal from the bench.

“Judge Portelli is here today remorseful and apologetic,” his attorney, Ralph Lamparello said. “He may not be a perfect judge, but the fact of the matter is, he is a very good judge with a terrific record.”

The hearing Wednesday was briefly interrupted at one point when Portelli burst into tears and stepped outside covering his face with tissue, accompanied by his wife and his attorney. The committee members stopped the hearing for a few minutes until Portelli collected himself and returned to the hearing room. Portelli later testified before the committee and repeatedly broke into tears again.

Portelli also said during the hearing that the ethics complaint against him might be related to his ruling in the case of two Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission officials. The officials, Anthony Ardis and Paul Bazela, were prosecuted by the state Attorney General’s Office and were convicted in a trial of using employees to make repairs at their homes while they were on commission time.

But defense attorneys requested a new trial, arguing that Ardis and Bazela should have been tried separately. Portelli agreed and issued a decision in August 2014 granting a new trial to Ardis and Bazela.

“I knew they were very upset with my decision,” Portelli said Wednesday of the state Attorney General’s Office. “Their complaint to the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct was made a month and a half after my decision. Maybe it’s coincidence.”

Portelli is accused of three counts in the complaint. The complaint also accuses the judge of making comments that he felt child guardianship cases were “long and boring.”

Maureen Bauman, disciplinary counsel for the committee, said the judge’s conduct was worthy of penalties and called several witnesses to support the allegations.

In one count, two attorneys with the state Attorney General’s Office, which represents the state in child guardianship and parental termination cases, testified that Portelli invited them to his chambers and complimented one of them by saying that she does a good job. The judge also used a vulgar term to describe how that attorney, Patricia O’Dowd, deals with her opposing counsels.

O’Dowd’s supervisor, Peter Alvino, testified at the hearing that he was shocked by the judge’s remarks.

“That was clearly out of bounds,” Alvino said.

O’Dowd also testified that she felt the comment was inappropriate.

Lamparello, Portelli’s attorney, said that Portelli had earlier admonished O’Dowd for grimacing and shaking her head while the judge was making a ruling. The judge later invited O’Dowd and her supervisor into his chambers and complimented O’Dowd because he felt bad about admonishing her earlier in front of her supervisor.

“He was trying to diffuse the situation,” Lamparello said.

Lamparello also said that Portelli’s exact words were that O’Dowd “really sticks it to her adversaries when she has to.”

Both Alvino and O’Dowd testified that the complaint against Portelli had nothing to do with his involvement in the case of Ardis and Bazela.

In another count, Jessica Checo, an adoption worker, testified that Portelli complimented her looks and her nails while she was on the stand. But Lamparello pointed out during cross-examination that Checo was not sure if Portelli complimented her during her testimony or in an informal setting during ordinary exchange of pleasantries.

Lamparello also pointed out that Checo was not consistent in her account of how Portelli complimented her. Checo said at the hearing Wednesday that Portelli wrote his compliments on a legal pad and held it up for her to see, but Lamparello said Checo had said in an earlier statement that the judge had used a Post-It.

Portelli testified that he verbally complimented Checo about her looks and her manicure and denied that he wrote anything on a pad or a Post-It. He said he did not say it in a sexual manner but admitted that in hindsight, he believed his comments were still inappropriate.

In testimony regarding a third count, Kathryn Kolodziej, a deputy attorney general who frequently appeared in Portelli’s courtroom, said the judge told to her, “No you cannot sit on my lap.” But she added that the comment was never made in a sexual manner.

“I never thought that that was the judge’s intention,” she said. “He said it in a casual, lighthearted, jokey kind of way, just to lighten the mood. I didn’t think twice about it.”

Portelli denied that his remarks were sexual.

“I certainly meant nothing sexually implicit,” he said. “I admit it, I should not have said that. It was just a stupid remark.”

Lamparello submitted 61 letters from attorneys and former prosecutors that were written in support of Portelli’s character. He also called as a witness one attorney who appeared regularly before Portelli and described him as “the Mary Poppins of [Children in Courts] because he was firm and fair and that children liked him.”  (Continue Reading)

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Attorney calls for sanctions against Passaic County Superior Court judge

1 comment:

Rachel said...

I am glad to see an attorney stepping up!