Conduct by a New Jersey prosecutor and a defense attorney who allegedly maneuvered to remove a judge from an arson case after he rejected a plea deal is under investigation.
Superior Court Judge Edward Gannon, of the Morris/Sussex vicinage, asked the state Attorney General’s Office to look into the actions of Assistant Morris County Prosecutor Brian DiGiacomo and defense counsel Jeffrey Patti of Sparta, saying they possibly committed obstruction of justice by going over his head to complain.
Gannon says the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office advised him on Oct. 22 that Assistant Attorney General Philip Aronow had referred his complaint to the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office to remove any appearance of conflict. Morris County was allegedly instructed to have no further involvement.
Peter Aseltine, of the Attorney General’s Office, confirms that the matter was referred to Somerset County for “review” but declines further comment.
The Morris County Prosecutor’s Office declines comment, as does Patti, except to say he has not been contacted yet by Somerset County.
Neither Somerset County nor DiGiacomo returned a call.
The arson case, against former Morris County Sheriff’s Officer and volunteer firefighter Jason Campbell, was reassigned to another judge in what Gannon calls “the rankest form of judge shopping I’ve ever come across.”
He says the lawyers were not truthful in telling him that proving arson would be problematic as justification for dropping those charges in return for a guilty plea to lesser offenses.
Campbell is charged with two arsons, possession of oxycodone pills, an attempt to avoid charges by flashing his badge after he was found with the drugs during a traffic stop, and child neglect.
Under a plea deal presented to Gannon on June 20, Campbell would have admitted to official misconduct and drug possession, with a recommended sentence of five years in prison, followed by five years of parole.
The arson and child neglect charges would have been dropped and Campbell could have applied for drug court.
Gannon withheld approval, saying his “judicial integrity” was at stake.
Anthony Rizzolo, an 18-year-old who had been mentored by Campbell as part of a sheriff’s program, had confessed to helping him burn an empty garage behind Campbell’s mother’s home in 2008. The other fire, in 2010, was set next door to Campbell’s sister’s house, and a neighbor said he saw Campbell knocking on his sister’s door that morning. Both fires were started near electrical outlets in vacant buildings.
Gannon did not see the arson cases as weak, especially since his dismissal of the 2010 charge had been reversed on appeal just three months earlier. He also objected to the drug court option on the ground that Campbell’s misconduct conviction would render him ineligible.
On June 21, DiGiacomo and Patti jointly asked the presiding criminal judge for a conference, saying they believed Gannon’s reasons for denying the plea were “in contravention of prevailing law and drug court procedure.”
On July 16, the case was transferred to Passaic County and assigned to Judge Greta Gooden-Brown. It was reassigned to Judge Raymond Reddin after Gannon wrote to Gooden-Brown, claiming the case was improperly taken from him.
The letter, anonymously leaked to the press, accused Morris/Sussex Assignment Judge Thomas Weisenbeck of overstepping his authority and undermining judicial independence by removing him from the Campbell case.
There is “no other case they can point to where a sitting judge in a criminal case was taken off of the case for a decision made while the case was pending trial,” Gannon says.
Judiciary spokeswoman Winnie Comfort says there is no way to confirm or refute that assertion, but she says cases are routinely reassigned for a variety of reasons.
Meanwhile, Campbell on Monday refused a revised plea deal lacking the drug court option and counter-offered to plead guilty just to the drug charges so he could apply to drug court, but DiGiacomo would not agree.
The case appears headed for trial, although Reddin indicated the date might be distant given his crowded docket.
Gannon notes that he had set a July trial date and the case would now be over if it had not been transferred and that the five-year statute of limitations for charging Rizzolo over his part in the 2008 blaze expired in September.