Almost Zero Quality Control of Judges
Cases are fixed. Select people get rich.
Others lose everything and go to jail based on corrupt practices, not legitimate reasons. How much worse does it have to get, before Americans are so outraged they take action in numbers?
Richard "Rick" Guliani was the probate judge in Portland from 1991 to 2006.
Private Shingle On A Public Court
By KIM MARTINEAU | Courant Staff Writer
March 1, 2008
PORTLAND [Connecticut] — - On paper, it looked like Richard Guliani was running a legitimate law practice from his home. But when clients called the number on his letterhead, the phone rang at town hall, inside the probate court where he was also judge.
By hanging his shingle outside the Probate Court in Portland, Guliani cut overhead costs like lights and phones, letting taxpayers foot the bill. The court also served as an intake point for his law firm. Anyone stumbling into town hall with an inheritance question was a potential client.
The judge stepped down last year, after 16 years in office, but only now are his conflicting roles coming to light. The Statewide Grievance Committee suspended Guliani's law license last year for representing clients who appeared in his courtroom. This week, the Council on Probate Judicial Conduct voted to censure him, the harshest punishment possible short of impeachment.
His law career tarnished, Guliani, 55, has taken refuge on the stage. While the probate council listened to testimony about his misconduct this week, the former judge was in New York City, acting. He has sung and acted in many community theater productions, even directing the jury-room drama, "12 Angry Men."
Despite dozens of formal complaints, Guliani managed to win four elections and run circles around three probate administrators who tried to make him follow the rules. He also weathered two reprimands from the probate council, which disciplines judges. The two entities charged with making sure judges perform their jobs fairly and competently — the probate administrator and the probate council — failed to catch up with Guliani while it still mattered.
Ultimately, it's the electorate that holds probate judges in Connecticut accountable. But many of the people aggrieved by Guliani's conduct did not live in town and had no right to vote.
"He was just so ornery and nasty and negative," said Catherine Tierney, a physical therapist in Kingston, R.I., who handled her mother's estate in Portland. "You couldn't get any answers. You couldn't get anything done. It was a very tough time, and he made it a lot tougher."
Several messages left for Guliani seeking comment for this story were unanswered.
"He's no longer at this number"
The court that the new judge, Stephen Kinsella, inherited looks different today. House plants brighten the room and oil portraits of past judges, hauled out of storage, hang on the walls. When Kinsella took office, he found that problems were more widespread and troubling than anyone thought.
Kinsella says he found 320 unfinished cases in the piles of paper Guliani left behind.The court files held another surprise: Tucked inside were Guliani's legal records.
On Guliani's private letterhead, Kinsella noticed, the judge had listed a home address, as well as a town e-mail account and the probate court's phone and fax numbers. It became clear he was representing clients appearing in his courtroom.
In one case, "attorney" Guliani drew up a will for Terry Supple, a state public works manager. When Supple killed herself during the corruption investigation of former Gov. John G. Rowand, "Judge" Guliani admitted her will to court and apparently approved a $650 legal fee for himself.
Kinsella forwarded the Supple file and two others to the probate administrator, who filed a complaint with the probate council. At a hearing last summer, Kinsella warned the council there was more.
"I didn't bring everything to your attention," he testified. "But if someone wanted to spend a week in my court and look through these records, it's all over the place. It's blatant. It's everywhere where he was wearing both hats."
As the council debated whether it had jurisdiction over a judge no longer in office, the grievance committee, in November, suspended Guliani's law license for six months.
Today, Guliani's clients still wander into court looking for their legal files. Title-search requests arrive regularly by fax. On a recent afternoon, the clerk could be heard in the next room apologizing: "He's no longer at this number."
"A walking and living probate scandal"
In Connecticut, where probate judges are allowed to hold outside jobs, there is a long, if informal, tradition of judges mingling their public and private roles, especially if they are lawyers in private practice. Guliani drew a strict ethical line when he took office, in 1991, after walking into court and finding the town attorney — who was also his former law partner — on his phone.
In a letter, Guliani asked Joseph Lynch, a past probate judge, to stay out of his court, worried about the perception of favoritism. After bemoaning the loss of collegiality, Lynch agreed to move his "message" box to the first selectman's office.
Despite the high moral note he struck at the start, Guliani allowed his ethical standards to slip over time. A picture of his decline is contained in several accordion files of complaints at the probate administrator's office in West Hartford.
Catherine Tierney, grieving the loss of both parents and her husband, filed a complaint against Guliani in 1994 after he failed to recuse himself from ruling on her mother's estate. She had asked for approval to sell her mother's house, but when she learned Guliani was also representing the buyers, she complained. Guliani agreed to let another judge step in.
Two years later, Stephen Ottone, a disgruntled client with a complaint pending before the grievance committee, alerted probate administration that he had met with Guliani several times, in court, to discuss private business. The office repeatedly asked Guliani to respond to the allegation, but he didn't, and the matter was dropped. A similar complaint would surface again, in 2003.
In a recent interview, Ottone, a contractor in Sandwich, N.H., said he had hired Guliani to work on his aunt's estate. His aunt had Parkinson's disease and was in a convalescent home.
Ottone says Guliani left important paperwork unfinished and paid himself her last $3,000. "I never got a bill for any services — he just took the money," he said.
The grievance committee found Ottone's complaint credible, but the outcome of the case has been sealed. Ottone says Guliani later repaid the money. There were other complaints. The court was often closed for days and consistently cited for a backlog of cases. As a judge and in his private practice, Guliani was slow to return calls. One of his court clerks quit after going a full month without pay.
His procrastination extended to the trivial. The probate administrator repeatedly nagged Guliani to return a long overdue video, "Judicial Ethics and the Administration of Justice."
Three different probate administrators tried and failed to resolve the problems. "He is a walking and living probate scandal ready to explode," administrator Paul Kurmay wrote in 1999.
The buck stops nowhere
The probate council listened with dismay on Monday as Kinsella described the chaos he found on entering office. By their questions, the council seemed to blame James Lawlor, the probate administrator, for not catching the red flags.
But Lawlor, in an interview this week, says the scope of the problems also surprised him, despite audits done by his office citing Guliani for a backlog of cases.
He says he discussed Guliani's problems with Portland's previous first selectman as well as Kinsella, the former chairman of the Democratic town committee, who twice endorsed Guliani for judge.
Until last year, Lawlor says, he had no power to reassign cases — a tool the legislature gave him with Guliani in mind. "Beyond persuasion, I had no other authority," he said.
The probate council, Lawlor says, should have been more aggressive. The council, which operates in near-secrecy to protect the rights of judges, admonished Guliani in 2002 and 2003 for filing late financial reports and repeatedly overpaying himself.
Janet Wildman, a council member and retired Washington probate judge, says the council is limited to investigating complaints it receives, while the probate administrator has broad oversight. "The probate administrator sends an attorney into these courts every year," she said.
The probate council last censured a judge in 1983, after Hartford Judge James Kinsella was accused of steering control of a widow's $35 million estate to his friends. Kinsella resigned under the threat of impeachment but was never charged with a crime.
Coincidentally, it is now Kinsella's nephew, Stephen, who has assumed control of a court tainted by scandal. Stephen Kinsella, a former attorney for the city of Hartford, was elected in 2006, despite an old news article about his uncle circulated anonymously before the election.
Kinsella says he had heard rumors — but had no proof — when he endorsed his predecessor. That decision has come back to haunt him as he waits, with half-hearted hope, for Guliani to turn over financial records from his last year in office. Guliani paid himself before leaving, but no one knows how much.
"There are still days we come in," said Kinsella, "and we deal with the problems he left us all day long."
Contact Kim Martineau at email@example.com.
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