A 31-year veteran of the Elmira City Court bench has agreed to retire rather than face sanctions for alleged misconduct, including directing his court attorney to perform private legal tasks for him for free and ordering defendants to contribute to local charities.
The state Commission on Judicial Conduct announced yesterday that Thomas Ramich (See Profile) has agreed in a stipulation to step down effective May 1 and never to seek judicial office again.
Ramich, 62, an attorney, was a part-time judge from 1982 to 1996, when his job became full time. His latest term was to have expired on Dec. 31, 2016.
The commission said Ramich ordered his part-time court attorney, Frederick Cerio, to represent Ramich’s brother-in-law, his daughter and his girlfriend in traffic cases between 2003 and 2009. Cerio was never compensated for his work, the commission noted.
The panel said Ramich directed Cerio to represent him in the 2008 sale of Ramich’s home and in completing a 2009 lease agreement with a local company in a building owned by the Ramich family corporation, again without compensation.
In addition, the commission detailed a series of personal errands Cerio performed for Ramich, including arranging health insurance coverage for Ramich’s college-age daughter and retrieving a package containing a Christmas present for the daughter at a local FedEx office.
When Cerio said he couldn’t locate the package at the FedEx office, Ramich shouted at him, "No, you idiot, it’s at the holding dock"—or "words to that effect," according to the commission.
Cerio told the commission he began working in 1997 as part-time court attorney doing work for the two Elmira City Court judges, Ramich and Steven Forrest (See Profile).
Cerio said he made about $22,000 a year to start and had about doubled his salary by 2012, when he testified against Ramich before the commission.
Cerio testified about his deteriorating relationship with Ramich and between the judge and other members of his staff.
For his part, Ramich told the commission that he believed Cerio was handling legal matters for Ramich and his family members out of Cerio’s private office and not chambers at city court. The judge called the breakdown in the relationship "very painful."
The commission documented 25 occasions between October 2008 and November 2009 where Ramich ordered defendants to make donations of up to $350 to local charities, often groups supporting the humane treatment for animals, as a condition of receiving adjournments in contemplation of dismissal or conditional discharges.
The panel also detailed an April 26, 2009, speech by Ramich to a police union group at which the panel said the judge told an off-color joke about Forrest. According to the commission, Ramich was not on speaking terms with Forrest except when the two had official matters to discuss.
The punch line of Ramich’s joke, according to the commission, concerned Ramich’s characterization of Forrest as a "small" claims judge, referring to Forrest’s penis.
Forrest, who was at the event, told the commission he felt humiliated and heard about the joke from people for months afterward.
Forrest said through an aide yesterday that he would not comment.
Finally, the commission faulted Ramich for allowing another daughter to serve as a juror in a 2010 case over which he presided that resulted in the defendant’s conviction for resisting arrest. Neither the prosecutor nor the defense attorney objected to seating Ramich’s daughter on the panel, according to the commission.
The panel said Ramich had frequent contact with his daughter in the six weeks between when the defendant was convicted and when Ramich sentenced him and occasionally discussed the case with her.
The commission’s staff recommended that Ramich be disciplined for violating a series of judicial ethics canons, including §100.2(B) of Rules of the Chief Administrator of the Courts Governing Judicial Conduct, which prohibits family relationships from influencing a judge’s conduct and judgment.
The commission said he also violated §100.2(A) of the judicial rules, the failure to avoid the appearance of impropriety and to act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.
In entering into the stipulation, Ramich, who earned $133,000 a year, did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.
The commission’s administrator, Robert Tembeckjian, said an admission of guilt is not routinely required in stipulations with judges.
"The result we seek is the result we got here, which is to have the judge leave," Tembeckjian said in an interview yesterday.
He said the investigation was launched after five individuals came forward with complaints about various aspects of Ramich’s performance.
‘Better Part of Valor’
As part of the stipulation, the commission released the transcript of the three-day October 2012 hearing held before the commission-appointed referee, Rochester attorney Gary Muldoon, in Watkins Glen.
Ramich’s attorney, Thomas Reilly of Elmira, said Ramich "built up a list of enemies" in the Elmira area over his long career on the bench.
Reilly said Ramich abandoned a challenge to the commission’s disciplinary proceeding because he got the sense that allegations against him would continue to pile up and he would have to continue to shuttle to Rochester, where the commission has a regional office, to defend himself.
"The judge got to the point where we were going to be involved in going to Rochester for hearings and new charges and on and on and on and, discretion being the better part of valor, we just thought it was time to retire," Reilly said yesterday. "It just wasn’t going to stop. You make enemies when you are a judge for that long. They just don’t go away."
As to the specific charges against him, Reilly said Ramich did not believe he erred by allowing his daughter to be seated on a jury in a case he presided over.
"He advised the lawyers and if they wanted to use a peremptory challenge, they could," Reilly said. "No one had any objections and they all wanted his daughter to sit. He wasn’t aware that there was one case out there where it was inappropriate."
Reilly said the judge thought he was helping Cerio’s legal career by giving him legal work.
Requiring defendants to make contributions to charities as a condition of the dismissal or conditional discharge of their cases was "wrong" and Ramich stopped doing it when he realized as much, Reilly said.
The lawyer said Ramich meant no harm by the off-color joke about Forrest.
"It was a bad, tasteless joke," Reilly said. "He acknowledges that. He should never have done it."
Reilly said he was unsure what Ramich would do next.
In a retirement letter dated March 12 to Governor Andrew Cuomo and Elmira Mayor Sue Skidmore, Ramich wrote that he has "tried to help maintain a good quality of life in Elmira" and "helped some people and wish I could have helped more." He said he was retiring for "personal reasons," but did not refer to the disciplinary proceeding.
Ramich also had been censured by the commission in 2003 for failing to fully disclose income from his legal practice and having ex parte contacts with police in pending cases.
Town Court Case
Separately yesterday, the commission announced that John Bartlett, a justice in Lebanon Town Court, Madison County, had signed a stipulation agreeing to resign as of March 1 and not hold judicial office again.
The commission said Bartlett was under investigation for failing to make timely reports to the state comptroller’s office about his handling of fines and other court funds between January 2011, when he initially took office, and January 2012.
Bartlett, who is not a lawyer, also "failed to cooperate" with the commission as it looked into his record-keeping deficiencies, the panel said.
The commission said there was no evidence Bartlett used court funds to enrich himself personally.
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