Saturday, September 24, 2016

Ethics charges brought against South Amboy attorney who counsels two local housing authorities.

On August 26, 2016, the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics filed a formal complaint against a South Amboy attorney who allegedly held onto $249,621.60 from a September 27, 2013 real estate sale until finally releasing it to his client on March 24, 2015.  According to the same lawyer's April 11, 2016 Financial Disclosure Statement, he serves as counsel to the Middlesex County Board of Social Services, the Old Bridge Housing & Redevelopment Authority and the South Amboy Housing Authority.

According to the complaint, Thomas E. Downs, IV, who maintains an office at 415 Main Street in South Amboy, was retained to distribute the assets of the estate of Joseph Makara who passed away on March 5, 2013.  One of Makara's assets was real estate in the Parlin section of Sayreville that was sold on September 27, 2013.  Downs deposited the $252,051.93 in sale proceeds into his trust account and, in a series of checks written between September 27, 2013 and February 13, 2014, paid himself $11,250 in legal fees out of those proceeds.. 

According to the ethics complaint, there was little contact between Letitia Makara, the decedent's sister and executrix of his estate, and Downs during the Spring and Summer of 2014 because of Downs' "busy trial schedule."  Ms. Makara's numerous requests to Downs for an account of the estate's funds were allegedly unanswered.  Ms. Makara hired another attorney, Avram Segall, to get an accounting from Downs.  According to the complaint, Downs failed to respond to two letters that Segall had sent him.

It was only after Ms. Makara filed an ethics grievance on February 18, 2015 that Downs finally responded.  According to the complaint, Downs sent Segall $249,621.60 which included the $11,250 in fees that Downs had previously paid to himself.  $1,485 of the difference between the amount Downs received and distributed was spent for the internment of Mr. Makara's ashes.

The ethics complaint, signed by Office of Attorney Ethics Director Charles Centinaro, charges Downs with gross neglect, lack of diligence and failure to communicate with his client.

This isn't Downs' first brush with the attorney disciplinary system.  On March 26, 2016, he was censured for having failed to promptly return $2,500 to a client and for failing to cooperate with ethics authorities.  On April 19, 2013, Downs was admonished for failing to communicate with his client and refusing to cooperate with ethics authorities. 

This is only a summary of the complaint and readers who want more information and context are directed to the filed documents which are on-line at the links above. None of the allegations against Downs have been proven. The charges will be tried before an ethics panel and the burden is on the ethics authorities to prove their allegations.

At the time of this writing, Downs had not yet filed an answer to the complaint.  He has been invited to submit a copy of his answer and if he provides it, his answer will be included in this article.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to the Office of Attorney Ethics in care of Barbara Cristofaro via fax to 609-530-5238.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Rumson Police Sergeant files whistleblower lawsuit.

On June 20, 2016, a 20-year veteran with the Rumson Police Department, who has been a sergeant for eleven years, filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Borough of Rumson (Monmouth County).  Unfortunately, the lawsuit is short on details about the allegedly criminal or unethical acts that the sergeant said that he observed at the police department on May 31, 2015

In his lawsuit, Sergeant Peter Koenig, represented by Richard P. Flaum of Warren, said that he witnessed some events at the police department on May 31, 2015 "that he reasonably and objectively believed were in violation of law, may have been criminal acts or unethical, were a violation of the public policy of the State of New Jersey, and placed the health and safety of members of the public in danger."  After he reported what he witnessed to "to a governmental agency" that was not the Borough of Rumson, he began to suffer discriminatory and retaliatory treatment including being required to take a sham fit-for-duty examination, being stripped of administrative duties and functions and being wrongly investigated and disciplined by the Internal Affairs unit.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Sussex Corrections Lieutenant forfeits pension over steroid charges.

At its March 14, 2016 meeting, the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) Board of Trustees voted to totally forfeit a former Sussex County Corrections Lieutenant's pension benefits because of his "egregious misconduct" of "purchas[ing] illegal steroids for personal use on multiple occasions, and allowing the ongoing sale of such substances on the premises of Sussex County Jail."

The story of steroid use at the Keogh-Dwyer Correctional Facility was first reported by the New Jersey Herald's Bruce A. Scruton in his July 8, 2015 article "Corrections officer suspended after steroid use."  That article, covered the March 2015 arrest of Kevin Cole on steroid and hypodermic needle possession charges.  The article indicated that two other corrections officers were under investigation, but County officials declined to name those officials at that time.

The PFRS minutes, however, show that one of the other officers was Lieutenant Christopher Lynch.  According to the minutes, Lynch "purchased steroids for his personal use from the other officer, and at least once purchased the drugs on the Correctional Facility property." 

The minutes reference an August 10, 2015 settlement agreement between Lynch and the Sussex County Sheriff's Office.  According to the agreement, Lynch tested positive for steroids, was suspended without pay and agreed to be barred from future law enforcement employment in New Jersey.  Lynch also agreed to cooperate in the investigation of charges against other Sheriff's Office employees.

In his response to an Open Public Record Act request, Undersheriff Lee Liddy wrote that Lynch's salary was $109,591 and that he worked for the County from November 15, 1999 until his termination on August 10, 2015.  The PFRS minutes indicate that Lynch was suspended without pay on April 10, 2015.  No criminal charges were brought against Lynch.

Liddy declined to identify the second officer who was, according to Scruton's article, under investigation for steroid use or possession.  In his August 31, 2016 OPRA response, he wrote "there was no separation for the second officer suspended therefore N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10 does not apply, and their Personnel Record is otherwise exempt under N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10.  Therefore, I must deny the request regarding the second officer’s records."

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

South Jersey prison guard suffers partial pension forfeiture after guilty plea that resolved sex offense charges.

At its July 11, 2016 meeting, the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) Board of Trustees voted to label a little more than three years of a correction officer's service time as "dishonorable."  This resulted in the officer, who had entered into a 2015 plea deal that resolved charges that he had committed sex offenses against two fourteen year old girls, being denied a service requirement.  The Board, however, found that the officer is still entitled to deferred retirement benefits when he turns 55 in March 2020.

According to an April 10, 2015 plea agreement, former South Woods Prison Senior Corrections Officer Alfred Vargas received a one year term of probation and was required to "undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation" to resolve charges arising out of his interactions with two fourteen year-old girls.  A January 13, 2015 written decision by Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Robert G. Malestein stated that the two girls had reported to police that Vargas had twice placed his penis in their hands while they slept.  The girls said that one incident occurred when they were 14 and the other occurred when they were 16.  One of the girls said that Vargas "had exposed himself to her several times" between the two incidents.  Judge Malestein's January 13, 2015 decision affirmed the Cumberland County Prosecutor's denial of Vargas' bid to enter into the Pretrial Intervention (PTI) program.

According to the PFRS minutes, Vargas was suspended without pay within days after his December 19, 2013 arrest and was ordered to forfeit his public office.  Judge Mary C. Jacobson's November 5, 2015 Order in State v. Vargas, Docket No. MER-L-1777-15, ordered the forfeiture.

Vargas was represented by Robert J. Luther who is "of counsel" to the Haddon Heights law firm of Helmer Conley & Kasselman, PA.  Both Luther and Yaron Helmer, a named partner in the firm, previously served as First Assistant County Prosecutor in the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office.  Helmer is also facing ethics charges for allegedly working to persuade the Cumberland County Prosecutor's office to threaten criminal charges against two men whose company owed money to Helmer's client.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Woodbridge lawyer accused by ethics authorities of dragging his feet on client's malpractice claim.

On July 25, 2016, the District VIII Ethics Committee filed a formal complaint alleging that a Woodbridge attorney dragged his feet and was grossly negligent in the handling his client's medical malpractice claim.

The complaint--District VIII Ethics Committee v. Ronald Wm. Spevack, Esq., Docket No. VIII-2015-0053--alleges that Ronald Wm. Spevack, who began practicing law in 1964, did not diligently pursue client Charles Logan's medical malpractice claim.  According to the complaint, Logan suffered an alleged instance of malpractice on September 9, 2013 and consulted Spevack about the matter on June 17, 2014.  Spevack recommended that a medical expert--Wendy Weiss of Second Opinion--review Logan's file and Logan paid Second Opinion $1,350 as a retainer for that service.  Spevack reportedly sent Weiss "a portion of [Logan's] medical records and a Wikipedia article" which Weiss, in a July 8, 2014 letter, said were "insufficient" and told Spevack that she needed "complete certified records of Mr. Logan's" September 9, 2013 medical procedure in order to properly evaluate the matter.

According to the ethics complaint, Spevack did nothing further on the case (except issue two unanswered subpoenas to Robert Wood Johnson hospital) until July of 2015 when Logan visited his office and asked for the status of his case.  A week later, Spevack wrote Logan a letter declining to take the case because "the issues of [the doctor's] deviation and negligence are not clear."  But, the ethics complaint noted that at the time Spevack told Logan that the doctor's negligence was unclear, he had yet "provided a full set of medical records for Second Opinion to review" resulting in Spevack apparently having no basis for his statement.

Since the September 8, 2015 deadline for filing the lawsuit was soon approaching, Logan allegedly threatened Spevack with an ethics grievance if he did not file a lawsuit.  Spevack reportedly filed the lawsuit, but listed Logan as a pro se (i.e. appearing without an attorney).  Logan, upon learning that he would need to engage the court and his adversaries without a lawyer, told Spevack "that he would not be able to proceed on that basis."

In mid-October 2015, Weiss, who had finally secured the medical records she needed, found that there was "no foundation for the case."  Logan's lawsuit was eventually dismissed for his failure to file affidavits of merit and to abide by the Tort Claims Act.

In his answer, Spevack claimed that he diligently attempted to get Logan's medical records from Robert Wood Johnson hospital and even paid the hospital's $215 bill for disclosure of the records.  Despite this and several phone calls, the hospital did not promptly release the records.  He also claimed that his pro se filing protected Mr. Logan from losing his right to sue and gave him several more months to secure an affidavit of merit so that the case could continue.  And, since the case was ultimately found to not be viable, Logan suffered no loss even if Spevack's manner of handling the case was subpar.

This is only a summary of the complaint and answer and readers who want more information and context are directed to the filed documents which are on-line at the link above. None of the allegations against Spevack have been proven. The charges will be tried before an ethics panel and the burden is on the ethics authorities to prove their allegations.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to District VIII Ethics Committee Secretary Barry J. Muller via fax to 609-896-1469.

Lawyer, formerly of Scotch Plains, charged by ethics authorities with $40,000 escrow violation.

On July 6, 2016, the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) filed a formal complaint alleging that an attorney who formerly practiced in Scotch Plains improperly disbursed $40,000 that she was holding in escrow for a real estate purchaser and then "misrepresented that she was still in possession of the $40,000 when, in fact, the money had already been disbursed to others." 

The complaint is against Annette P. Alfano, who ran a one-woman law office at 1812 Front Street in Scotch Plains at the time she held the escrowed funds. In March 2010, Alfano allegedly disbursed $40,000 she was safeguarding for real estate purchaser Jaswans Masson without Masson's permission.  She allegedly disbursed Masson's $40,000 at the direction of her client, Kerry Gillon, who operated The Community Group, a for-profit company that bought, rehabilitated and sold buildings.  When Masson's lawyer, Alan J. Gottlieb of East Brunswick, demanded that the $40,000 be returned, Alfano allegedly told him that the money was still in her trust account even though she knew that it had already been disbursed. The complaint and Alfano's answer are online here: Office of Attorney Ethics v. Annette P. Alfano, Esq., Docket No. XIV-2015-0373E.

In her answer, Alfano admits to nearly all of the complaint's factual allegations.  She claimed that she "believed she had authority to disburse the funds" and that even if she did act improperly, "it was only minor misconduct."  Alfano's defense also noted that she had fully cooperated with ethics authorities, that she did not financially benefit from the $40,000 disbursement and that she "no longer maintains personal office business and trust accounts" because she is now employed by the Branchburg-based Law Office of Peter N. Laub, Jr. & Associates, LLC

This is only a summary of the complaint and answer and readers who want more information and context are directed to the filed documents which are on-line at the link above. None of the allegations against Alfano have been proven. The charges will be tried before an ethics panel and the burden is on the ethics authorities to prove their allegations.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to the OAE in care of Barbara Cristofaro via fax to 609-530-5238. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Because of EEOC taking 19 years to resolve complaint, woman is still in litigation with state lottery officials for reneging on 1994 job promise.

On November 8, 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) finally concluded its investigation into a Bradley Beach woman's 1995 administrative discrimination complaint alleging that the New Jersey Lottery Commission refused to hire her because she was a blonde.  The EEOC's November 8, 2013 letter is known as a "right to sue" letter and instructs complainants that they have 90 days within which to file a lawsuit.

The woman, Lorraine Scocozza, did file her lawsuit on February 7, 2014--within the 90 day window. According to the federal lawsuit, Scocozza was promised a position collecting lottery receipts from agents who hadn't turned in their sales receipts.  According to the lawsuit, her job was "primarily . . . to convince the agent to agree to cooperate in payment to avoid a visit by the State Police."  In December 1994, lottery officials allegedly reneged on their job promise and Scocozza said that one official told her that "Well, the high ups at the Lottery had a big problem with a blonde woman like you going into Newark."

Discover is now wrapping up and, according to an August 22, 2016 scheduling order, Magistrate Judge Douglas E. Arpert will conduct a status conference on September 28, 2016.