Harold Cook
Harold Cook (Nick Messina)

Longtime Municipal Court Judge Harold P. Cook III, who once sat in four Passaic County, N.J., municipalities—Haledon, North Haledon, Ringwood and Wanaque—was censured by the N.J. Supreme Court on July 18 and permanently banned from the bench.

The court acted on a May 1 presentment from the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, which found “egregious misconduct that seriously weakens the public’s confidence in the integrity and independence of the judiciary, and demonstrates a disturbing lack of good judgment.”

Cook’s judicial career, which began in 1988 when he was named to the North Haledon court, came to an end primarily because of his efforts to evade liability for business losses that led to 43 lawsuits against him and various limited liability companies in which he had an interest and whose debts he had personally guaranteed, according to court documents.

In one case, he was found to have fraudulently transferred his beach house to his wife and daughter to keep it out of the reach of a creditor. In another, he was found to have breached his fiduciary duty to two plaintiff investors by failing to disclose the poor financial condition of a loan company.

At the time, Cook’s judicial wages were garnished and his failure to obey a court order to comply with an information subpoena led to the issuance of an order for his arrest, though it was never executed.

“The record consists of uncontested evidence demonstrating that [Cook] was consistently uncooperative with opposing counsel in many of the 43 lawsuits…by failing to file answers, failing to return telephone calls, ignoring discovery requests, failing to appear for scheduled depositions and failing to produce discovery,” ACJC Chairman Alan Handler, a retired Supreme Court justice now with Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer in Woodbridge, N.J., said.

Cook, who accepted the ACJC findings and waived a hearing, filed a certification with the ACJC acknowledging that, in retrospect, he “should not have made the transfers in light of the economic circumstances I faced notwithstanding my belief at the time that these transfers did not constitute violations of any law.”

He claimed he did not think the plaintiff, John Kleinert, would be adversely affected because the Beach Haven house had two mortgages on it. Nevertheless, he admitted it was a mistake.

In his certification, Cook also referred to his decision to have his own law firm defend the lawsuits as a “serious mistake” because it deprived him of “the benefit of an objective valuation of the entire situation.”

He also admitted to a related charge: that he did not report his involvement in the lawsuits to court administrators as required by a 1981 directive. But Cook said in his certification that he was under the impression that he only had to tell them about family-related litigation.

The ethics proceeding was the result of a grievance filed by developer Joseph F. Spiezio III, Cook’s onetime business partner in a Yonkers redevelopment project known as the Trolley Barn, according to court documents. The partners fell out and spent years litigating against each other.

Looking into Spiezio’s allegations led the ACJC to also uncover improper campaign contributions and improper provision of legal services, for which Cook was also found to have violated judicial canons, court documents said.

Cook stipulated that, during the time he was a judge, he and Joseph Perconti, then his partner in the North Haledon firm of Perconti & Cook, wrote checks on the firm’s business account to a state senator’s election fund and the Passaic County Regular Republican Club.

Two entities partly owned by Cook made additional contributions totaling thousands of dollars to several state, county and local political figures, according to court documents.

Cook claimed he did now know at the time that the contributions were prohibited.

The improper legal services involved the representation of Paterson police officers by Joseph Frega, a Perconti & Cook associate. Frega repeatedly appeared in Paterson municipal court on citizen complaints against the officers, even though the firm should have been disqualified because Cook was a judge in the same county, court documents said.

Cook said in his certification that he was unaware of the representation but that, once Frega brought it to his attention, he told him it should cease.

The ACJC found all the charges against Cook met the clear and convincing burden of proof standard.

It gave conclusive effect to determinations by judges in the civil suits that Cook violated New Jersey’s Uniform Fraudulent Conveyance Act and breached his fiduciary duty.

Cook contended his violations were unintentional, but the ACJC said that did not excuse his misconduct, which it labeled “egregious” and deserving of “severe public discipline.”

A censure is the most serious penalty for a judge short of suspension or removal.

The ACJC said that, absent Cook’s consent to being disqualified from being a judge, “a recommendation for removal would be warranted.”

Cook has not been on the bench since shortly after the ethics complaint was filed in May 2011.

He took a voluntary leave of absence from all four positions in June 2011. Haledon and Ringwood did not reappoint him and he resigned from North Haledon and Wanaque, effective Oct. 22, 2013.

Cook, who now heads a firm in North Haledon, did not return a call, but his attorney, Bloomfield, N.J.-based solo Salvatore Alfano, supplied a statement.

Alfano said Cook “has always enjoyed an excellent reputation as a lawyer and a judge,” did not intend to violate judicial ethics rules, is “extremely sorry for what occurred” and took responsibility for his actions by resigning and not contesting the ACJC’s recommendation.

Kleinert’s lawyer, Peter Ragan of Ragan & Ragan in Wall, N.J., declined comment on the outcome of the ethics matter but claimed that Cook still owes his client money.

Ragan, who garnished Cook’s judicial pay back when he was still receiving it, added that his efforts to collect from Cook are “ongoing.”

Online court records show about 20 judgment liens entered against Cook, totaling millions of dollars.

The largest are held by TD Bank, for $1.3 million, and by Heritage Community Bank, for $1 million.

Contact the reporter at mgallagher@alm.com.