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Ex-Judge Charged With Drunkenness in Court, Disorderly Conduct in PublicRichard Sasso, formerly a judge in four New Jersey towns, faces a seven-count ethics complaint charging that he showed up drunk in court, bullied lawyers and litigants from the bench, acted disorderly in a go-go bar and committed other violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct and court rules. Sasso resigned his posts in January amid litigation and ethics grievances over his conduct. He cited health problems and the demands of private practice.
New Jersey Law Journal2008-03-19 12:00:00 AM
Richard Sasso, formerly a judge in four Somerset County, N.J., towns, faces a seven-count ethics complaint charging he showed up drunk in court, bullied lawyers and litigants from the bench, acted disorderly in a go-go bar and committed other violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct and court rules.
Sasso resigned his posts in Bound Brook, Bridgewater, Warren and Watchung in January amid litigation and ethics grievances over his conduct as a judge. He cited health problems and the demands of private practice.
Some of the alleged misconduct is central to a former Warren municipal prosecutor's sexual harassment and whistleblower suit against former Acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco's law firm, claiming she was fired for making public complaints about Sasso.
The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct's complaint, filed March 13, accuses Sasso of presiding over court sessions while under the influence of drugs or alcohol on Dec. 6, 2006, in Bridgewater and April 17, 2007, in Watchung, and of being so impaired that he had to be driven home afterward.
On the Dec. 6 date, his inebriation allegedly resulted in the cancellation of the evening court session in Bound Brook.
Drinking was also allegedly involved in a disorderly persons incident at Torpedo's Go-Go Bar in Bound Brook, on Nov. 29, 2007, around 1:30 a.m. The bar's Web site describes it as a "NY Style Gentlemen's Club" and on St. Patrick's Day, when the complaint was issued, it advertised "100 Hot Irish Ladies."
The ACJC alleges that Sasso refused to comply with the bartender's request to present his driver's license before he could start running a tab. When the bartender insisted, Sasso invoked his position to intimidate the bartender and manager, asking "Do you know who I am? I'm the Bound Brook judge." He added that he had left the bar alone for three years, and when the bartender called the manager, Sasso said, "Do you know who I am? I can make problems for you," according to the complaint.
The Bound Brook police were called and Sasso was forcibly removed from the premises, ripping off part of the bar's ledge as he exited. He was taken to the Bound Brook police station with an unidentified companion where he called Watchung Police Chief Russell Leffert for a ride home, the complaint says.
Several counts of the complaint concern Sasso's treatment of people in his courtroom.
One alleged object of his wrath was Patricia Bombelyn, of Perez & Bombelyn in New Brunswick. The complaint describes at length an Aug. 8, 2007, incident in Bound Brook Municipal Court where Sasso accused her "in a hostile tone" of having given his staff a hard time during a telephone call earlier that day.
In the face of Bombelyn's denials and attempts to explain, Sasso became "increasingly belligerent" to the point where he hit her with $500 in contempt sanctions, which were to increase if not paid within two days, says the complaint. The sanctions were overturned on appeal.
The complaint also alleges two similar incidents in which Sasso's "hostile manner" with defendants violated Canon 3A(3), which requires judges to be patient, dignified and courteous.
The complaint says he repeatedly misused R. 1:2-4 to sanction attorneys and litigants for being a few minutes late, though the rule is meant to apply to failure to appear rather than mere lateness.
In one case, Sasso issued an arrest warrant after Lisa Brown arrived about eight minutes late and missed the initial call in Watchung on July 12, 2007. When she tried to explain that the delay was the result of bringing her child to a babysitter, he imposed a $500 sanction with a threat of jail if she did not pay, the ACJC says.
Contrary to the harsh treatment allegedly meted out to some lawyers and litigants, Sasso gave preferential treatment to high school students by lowering their fines -- what he called the "Warrior Discount," referring to a school mascot. He allegedly conditioned the discount on the students, rather than their parents, paying the fines.
The final count alleges that by acting as attorney for the Watchung Volunteer Fire Company, while he was also the town's judge, Sasso violated R. 1:15-1(b), which prohibits such a dual role.
Sasso, who has not retained a lawyer, says of the charges, "I'm looking forward to a hearing."
"I don't know how the committee attorneys think giving high school kids a break on fines when the vast majority of them aren't working constitutes some kind of improper treatment," he says. "Or that volunteering your time for a volunteer fire department -- that I've worked for since I was 15 years old -- constitutes some type of violation."
He adds that he had back surgery last month and is scheduled for another procedure in April.
RELATED HARASSMENT SUIT
In a pending harassment and whistleblower suit, Michele D'Onofrio alleges that her complaints about Sasso to the ACJC, the township administrator and the Somerset County presiding municipal judge led to her discharge by her firm, DiFrancesco, Bateman, Coley, Yospin, Kunzman, Davis & Lehrer in Warren, where she was a nonequity partner.
D'Onofrio alleges that Sasso was a "political ally, friend and crony" of the firm and that a partner, Sen. Christopher Bateman, R-Somerset, who is also a Bridgewater municipal prosecutor, advised her not to file a grievance.
Bateman, who was present in Sasso's courtroom as prosecutor when Bombelyn was sanctioned, is listed as a reference on Sasso's résumé, posted online at www.sassolaw.com/rsassoresume.htm. Bateman could not be reached for comment.
D'Onofrio declines to comment but her lawyer, Nancy Erika Smith, says the drunkenness charges originated in D'Onofrio's grievance to the ACJC.
Smith, of Smith Mullin in Montclair, also brought the go-go bar incident to the ACJC's attention. She says a person she declines to identify called her and told her Sasso was drunk and throwing his weight around in the bar and she relayed the information to the ACJC, which conducted its own investigation.
Smith says that sometime next month, D'Onofrio will file a whistleblower complaint against Watchung, alleging the town fired her as prosecutor because she complained about Sasso.
According to the Asbury Park Press Web site, Sasso's judgeships drew 2006 salaries of $62,172 in Bridgewater, $48,092 in Warren, $41,669 in Bound Brook and $35,095 in Watchung, for a total of $187,028.