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The state Supreme Court, exhibiting zero tolerance for jurists who lend the prestige of their office to friends in trouble, disciplined three municipal judges Monday for interceding in cases unethically.

The Court reprimanded E. Ronald Wright of New Brunswick and Lawson McElroy of Trenton for trying to help traffic-court defendants in other towns. And the justices censured William Kohlhepp Jr. for butting into a drug investigation in Hillsborough while he was the municipal judge there.

The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct had the option of reprimanding or cautioning the judges in private, as occurs secretly about 20 times a year. Wright’s lawyer argued for such a sanction, saying the offense was minimal.

But the Court made the punishment public in all three cases, triggering the release of ACJC presentments that are sure to be used as teaching tools in the annual ethics classes the Administrative Office of the Courts holds for judges.

Wright, one of two part-time New Brunswick judges, got in trouble because he couldn’t say no to his secretary.

The secretary’s nephew, Joseph Maimone, was given a summons in Montgomery Township in 2001 for throwing a cigarette from his vehicle, the ACJC presentment recites. The township prosecutor at the time was Assemblyman Christopher Bateman, R-Somerset. It was Bateman’s last day on the job and when Maimone pleaded not guilty he suggested that the defendant come back when the ticketing officer was available and seek an amendment of the charge to an ordinance violation that carried a lesser penalty.

Enter Sandra Romankow, Maimone’s aunt and secretary to Wright in his private practice in New Brunswick.

On Jan. 29, 2002, in response to Romankow’s repeated requests, Wright called the new prosecutor, Kim Otis, left a message on an answering machine identifying himself as a judge who was Maimone’s family lawyer and asked Otis to “extend any consideration to Mr. Maimone,” the presentment said.

What happened next is the subject of a disagreement. Otis says he called Wright back and that Wright repeated his suggestion that a downgrade was in order. Wright and Romankow, on the other hand, say the secretary was the one who fielded the call and talked to Otis.

Either way, Wright did wrong and violated canons and rules of judicial conduct requiring judges to uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary, avoid impropriety and avoid conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, the Supreme Court said.

The ACJC found that Wright violated rules against conveying or permitting others to convey the impression they are in a special position of influence.

The presentment quoted Wright as saying at a hearing that he probably knew he should not have made the call but “I was asked once too often” and got involved to placate his secretary.

“However understandable was the motivation, in the process of communicating with the prosecutor in a pending matter, he violated his ethical responsibilities,” the ACJC said.

Wright did not return a call last week, but his lawyer, Anthony Vignuolo of North Brunswick’s Borrus, Goldin, Foley, Vignuolo, Hyman & Stahl, says he thinks the factual dispute over who took Otis’ call makes a difference.

“All he did was leave a message on his answering machine saying he’s a client of mine, do whatever you can do,” Vignuolo says. Wright did not ask for any specific action and “the ticket was issued and the ticket was paid,” he says.

Vignuolo says the situation got complicated because it was Otis’ first night on the job and Maimone’s mother did not like the way the prosecution was handled. She complained to the mayor, bringing Wright’s involvement to light.

Vignuolo asked the ACJC to issue a private reprimand for what he believes is a de minimus violation. “What if I were the judge in the next community and you are the prosecutor and I see you on the street and you say my cousin is coming in next week, do what you can do?”

“You know you are not going to do anything inappropriate in the conversation, but apparently the conversation is enough,” Vignuolo says. “To me they drew the bright line below an acceptable standard.”

The ACJC has the power to keep discipline for minor infractions private under Rule 2:15-10(c)(1), which permits private censure, reprimand, admonition, caution or guidance concerning the conduct in question. Many of these private rebukes follow complaints against judges for making mildly intemperate remarks on the bench.

The secretary to the ACJC, Patrick Monahan Jr., says about 20 of the 275 grievances the ACJC receives each year result in such private action, but since they are private he has no further comment.

Otis, meanwhile, says that although he believes Wright is “very professional and a good a judge,” his action in the case was improper and a reprimand is deserved. “He made a small mistake but it was a mistake,” Otis concludes.

Wright, who has practiced law for more than 30 years, is a member of the Supreme Court’s Commission on the Rules of Professional Conduct, chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Stewart Pollock. Their work during the past three years has led to sweeping changes in rules governing the practice of law.

Wright also figured in one of the profession’s most important ethics cases in recent years, albeit as an innocent bystander. When he was a part-time municipal prosecutor in New Brunswick he represented Robert Clark, a criminal defendant convicted in Middlesex County Superior Court.

Clark appealed on grounds that the longstanding practice of prosecutors like Wright representing criminal defendants in other courts in their counties was unethical. The Supreme Court agreed, creating the widely known Clark rule that limits prosecutors’ defense representations to courts outside their counties. The case has caused large numbers of criminal defense lawyers to give up part-time prosecutor jobs.

Card Dropping

In another case of a judge with a friend in need, the Court reprimanded Trenton magistrate McElroy for helping an acquaintance with a speeding ticket she got in Lawrence Township in April 2002.

The ACJC presentment stated that when the friend, Yvonne Adams of Pennington, asked McElroy to represent her he begged off, citing ethical constraints on judges. But he did tell Adams she could ask the prosecutor to downgrade the charge. When she inquired further, he took out an attorney business card and wrote on the back: “Please consider an amendment from N.J.S.A. 39:4-98 to N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.2 Unsafe Driving. Re: Yvonne Adams. Thanks Lawson McElroy.”

On the return date, Adams gave the card to prosecutor Robert Rubenstein, saying McElroy could not appear because he was a judge. Rubenstein told the Lawrenceville judge, who reported the incident.

The panel did not buy Adams’ and McElroy’s assertion the note was intended solely for Adams, not for presentation to a prosecutor. If so, McElroy wouldn’t have included the words “please consider,” “Re: Yvonne Adams” and “thanks” in the note. “In short, the note has all the appearances of a communication intended for someone other than Ms. Adams, and particularly for someone in the position of a municipal prosecutor,” the ACJC said.

McElroy violated the rule against judges practicing in quasi-criminal matters and violated canons against prejudicing justice, bringing judicial offices in disrepute and undermining the integrity of the judiciary, the ACJC said, and the Supreme Court agreed.

McElroy did not return a call, and his lawyer, Joshua Markowitz of Lawrenceville’s Markowitz, Gravelle & Schwimmer, declined to comment.

Another Friend in Need

The Court gave Kohlhepp a slightly more elevated penalty, a censure, but it has less effect because he is no longer a judge. The ACJC presentment said that on July 16, 2002, he received a call from a longtime friend and sometime client, Michael Coscia, whose son had been brought to the Hillsborough police station for suspected marijuana possession.

Kohlhepp went to the station and asked whether he could observe the interview of the friend’s son, but left when an officer said such action would be inappropriate.

A few months later, at the request of the father of another young man in the drug bust that night, Kohlhepp sent the police a letter saying he did not notice that the young man’s eyes had been bloodshot. The purpose of the letter apparently was to get the police to drop the charges against the young man, the ACJC reasoned.

Both actions violated the canons of judicial conduct, the ACJC found, saying he had subordinated his ethical responsibility to please a friend and sometime client and, in the case of the letter, to influence a case.

“He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he did it nonetheless because it was more important to him to please Coscia than it was to live up to his ethical responsibilities,” the ACJC said.

In an interview last week, Kohlhepp said, “there certainly was no attempt to use any influence. I was there for 10 minutes or so, one of the police officers said he was uncomfortable, I appreciated his comments and I left.”

As for the letter, he says he wrote it as an individual not a judge and for no other reason than to satisfy a request for a factual comment on something he saw.

“I was hoping it would be a private reprimand,” Kohlhepp. “When you look back on it, it wasn’t the right thing to do but hey, we make mistakes.”

“I put a lot of effort into my work in Hillsborough,” Kohlhepp says. The town, which had been controlled by Republicans for about 20 years, hired Kohlhepp for a three-year term when the Democrats won in the early 2000s, but he was replaced in January 2003 when the Republicans regained control.

“I tried to be fair with my decisions and sometimes it ruffled the chief who didn’t agree with me,” a reference to Robert Gazaway, who has been chief of police since 1995.

Gazaway brushes aside talk about politics and bad relations. “This whole incident came about because of the judge’s actions,” he said on Friday.

Kohlhepp concludes that although the public nature of the censure bothers him, “in retrospect it was wrong, I’m not going to deny it.”

“People are doing the job and they’re trying to send a message,” he says of the ethics authorities. “I got the message.”

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