SARANAC LAKE - Howard Riley's resignation as a town of Harrietstown justice earlier this month resolved misconduct allegations brought against him by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the commission announced Wednesday.
Riley has denied the charges and says his decision to resign was not related to the allegations brought by the commission.
Riley, who had been a town justice since 2008 and is also an Enterprise columnist on local history, was served a written complaint on Feb. 26 charging him with misconduct in handling of cases between January 2010 and December 2011, according to a press release from the commission. He was accused of the following:
(Enterprise file photo)
-Engaging in inappropriate conversations with unrepresented defendants, primarily people who had been issued vehicle and traffic tickets, during court appearances and allowing them to make potentially incriminating statements;
-Dismissing or reducing charges against defendants without notice to or consent of the district attorney, as required by law;
-Making statements that appeared to coerce defendants to enter guilty pleas;
-Directing a defendant in a small claims action to present his defense first, before the claimant presented his case.
Robert Tembeckjian, the judicial conduct commission's administrator, said Tuesday he couldn't provide any more specifics on the allegations because the proceedings are confidential and because Riley only waived confidentiality as to the settlement of the case, not the written complaint he was served with.
Riley, who represented himself in the matter, refuted the accusations in an April 4 filing with the commission. But there was no hearing on the complaint because Riley submitted his letter of resignation to town Supervisor Bob Bevilacqua on June 1, saying he would step down by Aug. 1.
Less than a month later, on June 26, Riley signed a stipulation with the commission affirming that he would resign by Aug. 1, that he would not seek judicial office again and that he was waiving confidentiality regarding the stipulation, agreeing to make the document public.
"I would not have accepted a stipulation in which he left without it coming out that he left under disciplinary charges," Tembeckjian said. "I think it's to the judge's credit that he recognized that it was a serious matter and that he chose to leave the bench."
In a lengthy statement emailed to the Enterprise Tuesday, however, Riley said his decision to step down "was in no way related to the formal complaint filed by the commission.
"This decision was, in fact, made by me one year ago, as I had discussed with some of my colleagues, based upon the anticipated merger of the town and village courts, as well as the impending retirement of my valued court clerk," Riley wrote.
Riley said calling his actions misconduct "is so misleading it is like a comparison of lighting one firecracker to that of a Fourth of July celebration.
"I was always fair and just on behalf of the people and the defendants," he wrote. "Any informality that may be an extension of my personality has never impacted the results of any case."
Riley said the investigation was prompted by a small claims dispute between two brothers. He said he let the defendant speak first because the brother who brought the claim was yelling, abusive and "carried on so before the case opened it seemed like he had already presented his case." Riley said he ultimately ruled in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff then complained to the commission, Riley said.
As for the "inappropriate conversations" he was accused of having with defendants, including his alleged coercing of defendants to enter guilty pleas, Riley said they came from him "explaining to defendants what will take place if they plead guilty or not guilty."
He admits he dismissed cases or reduced charges without notifying the DA, but only for minor vehicle and traffic infractions. He noted that the district attorney is rarely in town court because the DA's office has so many courts to cover in the county.
Riley said he decided to sign the stipulation "to finally stop the hearings" which he said would have gone "on and on" if he didn't. He said there's an "incredible disconnect" between the commission and town and village courts throughout the state.
"The commission does not have a clue as to how these courts operate," Riley wrote.
Riley, 83, was in the middle of his second four-year term when he stepped down. His position will be on the ballot in the November election.
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.