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It was a generous offer — charcoal-broiled trout, coffee with flamed brandy and other authentic Italian treats on an island in beautiful Lake Como, in honor of Stamford Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Leonard S. Paoletta’s upcoming 70th birthday. Paoletta promised workers’ comp lawyers who try cases before him that he would pick up the lunch tab. They would have to foot the rest of their vacation costs themselves. As it turns out, however, the real cost greeting Paoletta on his return to work Oct. 6 was an appearance of impropriety. Fellow Stamford Workers’ Comp Commissioner James J. Metro was part of the group of 16 friends to dine in Italy with Paoletta, so was Kevin J. Maher, name partner in Fairfield’s Maher & Williams, one of the state’s top three workers’ comp firms representing employers. Already it has forced Paoletta to recuse himself from a case. More significantly, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has referred the matter to the state Office of Labor Relations for a fact-finding inquiry, Commission Chairman John A. Mastropietro confirmed last week. Mastropietro, who works in Hartford, said he notified the governor’s office about the trip Sept. 28, shortly after being interviewed by the Law Tribune. Lawyers on both sides of the workers’ comp bar said they are disturbed by the chummy behavior. “The workers’ comp system is kind of a good-old-boy network, and this is an example of that,” said one lawyer who represents employers. Another, who represents employees, said the matter with Paoletta “smells.” IMMEDIATE DISCLOSURE Maher, questioned Oct. 6 about the trip, repeatedly declined comment. Metro, interviewed Oct. 5 upon his return from Italy, said the Sept. 25 luncheon honoring Paoletta was open to all: “Put it this way, if you wanted to pay your way, you could have come,” he told a reporter. Paoletta said he disclosed the fact of the trip to the first group of lawyers appearing before him after his Oct. 6 return to work. The group included Maureen E. Driscoll, from Maher’s office. Driscoll’s opposing counsel, Daniel P. Hunsberger of the Law Offices of Elisabeth Seieroe Maurer in Ridgefield, Conn., consulted with his client when Paoletta revealed he’d traveled in Italy for three days with Maher, and his client took Paoletta up on his offer to recuse himself from the client’s formal hearing in a serious mercury poisoning case. “It upset her that she would have to question [Paoletta], but she wanted peace of mind,” Hunsberger said of his client. “She said I’d rather, at the end of the case, not have any doubts.” Hunsberger emphasized he has a high regard for Paoletta and no doubt of his ability to be impartial. “I think it was exceptional of Commissioner Paoletta to inform us,” he added. “I think he may have gone above and beyond what he needed to do.” Paoletta acknowledged that Maher or lawyers from his office appear before him about three days a week. Ten workers’ comp lawyers, in both claimants’ and respondents’ practices, were interviewed for this story, and several who appear regularly before Metro or Paoletta said they’d heard nothing about the trip, and had not been invited. Mastropietro said that, if bias is suspected, a lawyer can always ask for a commissioner’s recusal. “It happens the same as the judiciary, and the commissioner is eligible to recuse himself or herself, whenever he or she feels there’s a reason to not sit.” Paoletta, a former mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., has been a workers’ compensation commissioner for five years. He said the idea for the trip came from years of urging his “breakfast club” friends, none of whom are lawyers, to visit his favorite places in Italy. “They said, someday, but someday never comes,” said Paoletta. As an incentive, he said he’d treat them to lunch if they went, and repeated the offer frequently at work. Although several lawyers said they might go, only Maher joined him for the memorable luncheon on Sept. 25. The weather was gorgeous and the view of Lake Como was magnificent, said Paoletta. He picked up the tab at La Locanda dell’Isola Comacina, which, he said, was a fixed price of 50 euros, or $60, for the five-course meal. When it was over and the 16 guests had toasted him, Paoletta said, “I told them they were all crazy. You come here and spend four or five thousand dollars — for a free meal? It comes down to something a friend does with or for a friend.” Mastropietro noted the nature of workers’ compensation practice puts less distance between lawyers and commissioners, who are administrative law judges. They sit at the same table with the lawyers, and try as many as 25 to 30 matters a day, on informal hearing days, frequently with the same lawyers for long stretches of time. Mastropietro said he has cautioned commissioners “to put yourself in the place of a pro se claimant, someone not represented by counsel, who is not familiar with the system, but who’s in front of us. Conduct yourself in a way that would not let them believe that they are at a disadvantage because you are more familiar with someone else.” The code of ethics for workers’ comp commissioners states that their conduct “should be free from even the appearance of impropriety” and that they must not “convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a position to influence the Commissioner.”

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