Friday, October 2, 2009

Court Stenographer Testimony Before Judicial Conduct Board

In today's Times Leader Terri Morgan-Besecker reports that a court stenographer in the center of a pay dispute was identified as the woman who accompanied Attorney John H. Kennedy to the Florida condo in Jupiter.

A court reporter who received a controversial promotion and $21,000 raise in the days before former president judge Mark Ciavarella left office was among the guests who went on the June 2005 trip to former judge Michael Conahan’s condominium in Florida.

Ciavarella, who along with his wife co-owned the condominium, promoted Sallemi to chief stenographer in January and increased her salary from $57,000 to $78,000.

The move was among a series of controversial hires/transfers Ciavarella, who served as president judge, made in the weeks prior to his arrest on Jan. 26 on corruption charges.

Commissioner Chairwoman Maryanne Petrilla railed against the increase, which was pushed through as commissioners were in the midst of laying off dozens of county employees due to the county’s poor financial condition.

Sallemi’s salary was later reduced by $10,850, to $67,150, as part of $2.8 million in budget cuts the county’s remaining judges put together following Ciavarella’s arrest.

Her salary was reduced as part of a restructuring and cost cutting moves by the Luzerne County Court system.

The part of the story left out here is Ms. Sallemi's testimony before the Judicial Conduct Board in its case against former Judge Ann Lokuta. In this press release by the Judicial Conduct Board dated October 30, 2008 her testimony is part of allegations of "Conduct In (The) Courtroom."

Angela Sallemi, court reporter in Luzerne County for 23 years, testified that between 2004 and 2006:

A. I was made to feel very uncomfortable in her courtroom. The reason for that is because I never knew when I was going to be embarrassed or put on the spot.

The one particular or a couple particular occasions when I was swearing a witness in Judge Lokuta's courtroom, just as I was sworn in here, I asked the witness to spell her name, and it's just something that I routinely do in other courtrooms. And when I finished, the Judge looked down at me glaringly and in a harsh tone said I swear the witnesses in my courtroom, and I mean I was embarrassed momentarily for myself and also for the Judge because when things like this occur, there are other people in the courtroom, and you can kind of see like little snickers and rolls of the eyes like, okay, it's that kind of day.

Q. Can you tell the Court about these moods? What do you mean by that, these moods that you've referenced?

A. Well, the randomness of her moods, you know, there will be times in the courtroom when she is very kind and solicitous to witnesses and attorneys. And then in a moment's time, her moods become demeaning, demanding, and that's what I mean by her moodiness.

Q. Are there things that precipitate that mood change?

A. It could be anything or it could be nothing. It could be as little as --you know, there may be lawyers or litigants in the back of the courtroom making too much noise or looking at her in a way that she thinks is not appropriate or it could be something that we can't even determine. The other difficulty --did you want me to go on about the difficulties? (N.T. 714-16).

It was reported recently by Michael Sisak of the Citizen's Voice that the Judicial Conduct Board argued against Lokuta's efforts seeking a new trial. In March, 2009 the Board's counsel called her actions "desparate."

Francis J. Puskas, deputy chief counsel for the JCB, says Lokuta has failed to demonstrate how the federal investigations have any relationship to her claims that dozens of witnesses conspired to provide false testimony against her at her misconduct trial. To suggest so is “absurd and has no foundation in reality.”

Mr. Puskas, we respectfully disagree. Did you investigate whether there was any correlation between the testimony and the pay raise?

Contrast your Opinion with this editorial written for the Legal Intelligencer, Lokuta's Case Is a Potential Bomb for the Supreme Court By Hank Grezlak.

Sources routinely tell me that the county is going to implode and that "we're not done with the 'Holy shit!' moments."

The people who run the state's judicial disciplinary system need to understand that. They need to view Lokuta's case in that context. They need to understand that many judges believe that Lokuta was a victim. If judges and the public come to believe in the end that Lokuta was set up by corrupt judges and crushed by a disciplinary system that didn't take time to examine her accusers, then the system will lose credibility.

The justices, the board and the Court of Judicial Discipline are not helpless in this. The Court of Judicial Discipline can give Lokuta a fair hearing and consider a new trial. A new trial is probably the only way to guarantee an outcome that is viewed by all as fair and untainted. If she's tried again and still removed, it would eliminate any doubt and validate the fairness of the process and the judicial disciplinary system.

The board, instead of simply pushing hard to prove its existing case, should consider, in light of all the evidence that has surfaced, checking their case for holes. The board should consider interviewing courthouse employees and lawyers who didn't testify against Lokuta last time and see what they have to say. Ask those people what they think of her conspiracy theories. Maybe those folks will validate and strengthen the board's case. Or perhaps, if they tell you what many have told me, the board will rethink its case and reconsider whether it, like so many others, was the victim of corruption.

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