The race for City Court judge has turned negative on the eve of crucial party primaries.
Over the past week, a local publication has printed several letters to the editor questioning the credentials of two of the three candidates seeking the seat. The letters have referenced a disciplinary hearing against candidate Traci DiMezza and a lawsuit against candidate Matthew Trainor.
DiMezza and Trainor are running against John Clo in the Sept. 13 Republican primary. Clo, a former city attorney, was appointed City Court judge in December by Mayor Dayton King, following Vincent DeSantis’ retirement.
PERSONAL: Age 50; married with two children
POLITICAL PARTY: Republican; unsuccessfully ran for Family Court judge three years ago against Edward Skoda
EDUCATION: Law degree from Albany Law School in 1992; bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York Regents College; associate degree from Onondaga Community College in Syracuse
EXPERIENCE: Gloversville city attorney 2004 to 2009; assistant district attorney for Montgomery County 1996 to 2011; counsel for the state Assembly’s Small Business Committee from 1994 to 1996; private practice attorney 1993 until being appointed City Court judge; law guardian and child advocate for 18 years
THIRD PARTY LINE: Truth and Honor
The letters, in turn, prompted questions about Clo’s acceptance of leave time buy-backs from the city, which came under criticism from the state Comptroller’s Office.
PERSONAL: Age, 43; married with two children
POLITICAL PARTY: Republican
EDUCATION: Law degree from Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden, Conn., in 1995; bachelor’s degree in political science at Siena College, Loudonville; associate’s degree from Fulton-Montgomery Community College
EXPERIENCE: Private practice attorney making first bid for public office. Has served as a Fulton County law guardian for children
THIRD PARTY LINE: Justice Party
None of the judicial candidates directly made the attacks against their opponents. Clo said he had no prior knowledge of the letters attacking his opponents, but linked to them on his Facebook page. The attack against Clo is a repeat of a prior campaign issue.
PERSONAL: Age, 42; married with two children
POLITICAL PARTY: Republican; unsuccessfully ran against City Court Judge Vincent DeSantis in the Republican primary in 2005.
EDUCATION: Law degree Albany Law School in May 2000; bachelor of science degree from Union College in biology
EXPERIENCE: Gloversville city attorney, 2010; assistant district attorney in Fulton County 2001-2008; private practice attorney since 2008.
THIRD PARTY LINE: Law & Order
All three candidates decried the attacks, saying they are hurtful to themselves and to their families and could affect the integrity of City Court.
While common in general political races, mud-slinging is unusual in a judgeship race, said Len Cutler, a professor and pre-law advisor at Siena College. “We as voters do not pay attention to judicial races for all intents and purposes” because they are so low key, he said.
“In a normal judicial race, like what we are having in most of our state Supreme Court and county races, if you ask an average voter if they know who the candidates were, they don’t and that is tough,” Cutler said. “So how can they get their message out? They can distribute fliers and they can campaign, but the campaigns are not high profile.”
Judicial candidates operate under tighter guidelines than candidates for other positions. Candidates for any position have limits on the amount they can spend on campaigns and on how they raise money, but judicial candidates cannot solicit campaign funds or endorsements or discuss legal issues or state a position on disputed legal or political issues. This is because judges represent the law, not constituents, according to the state Bar Association.
Judicial candidates, like any candidate, can criticize opponents but run the risk of being accused of a fib or misstatement, Cutler said.
“There are fair campaign guidelines in any kind of race. If a candidate is [misstating] the record, that person has every right to respond accordingly,” he said.
In his final assessment, Cutler said actions that occurred in a candidate’s past should not necessarily mean the person is not qualified to be a judge.
“We have sitting judges who are excellent sitting judges, and the record will show they have been reprimanded and they remain excellent sitting judges.”
Ultimately, voters will decide a candidate’s qualifications to be a judge, Cutler said.
“It is up us as the public to determine whether the person should sit on bench,” he said.
Clo, DiMezza and Trainor are all seeking the Republican line in the Sept. 13 primary. They are also seeking the Conservative Party line in a separate primary that day. There are 3,144 Republicans and 81 Conservatives in the city eligible to vote in the primary.
All three have established independent third-party lines, which will appear on the general election ballot. This means each candidate could continue the race regardless of the outcome of the primaries.
There are no Democratic candidates for the post, which carries a 10-year term and pays $127,400 annually.
The attack on DiMezza brings up her public censure in 1999 by the Grievance Committee for the Ninth Judicial District. DiMezza at the time was going by her maiden name, Traci Kwiatkowski.
The committee confirmed a report by a special referee upholding 68 charges of professional misconduct against her. The censure is the mildest rebuke, absent acquittal, offered by the committee.
The charges stemmed from her involvement in 1996, when she was 27 and straight out of law school, with Steven Friedman’s law firm in Westchester County. At the time, she said, she did not know Friedman was not admitted to practice in New York state and had been disbarred in Connecticut for defrauding clients.
During the nine months she worked with him, he controlled the firm and its escrow account. When she discovered he was not admitted to practice in New York, she left to open a new office in Amsterdam. She later learned Friedman had not dissolved their partnership and faced criminal charges in Westchester County for converting client settlement funds.
DiMezza said a review of seized records determined she wrote checks on accounts with insufficient funds. “Unbeknownst to me, he was mishandling his escrow funds. After I left the firm, I was alerted to discrepancies and we seized accounts,” she said.
She said when she was with the firm, she handled real estate closings.
“When I was writing checks, he manipulated accounts. They [the grievance committee] held me responsible, and I was. I made a grave error in judgment, and I am fully responsible,” she said.
DiMezza said all parties involved were made whole for losses from the checks.
“I absolutely neglected my duty, and I did not supervise him, but he was my boss, and I did not have control of the accounts,” she said, adding she was never charged with a criminal matter.
“It was a technical violation of the rule,” she said.
DiMezza said for her, the campaign is “about the issues facing Gloversville. We have a huge issue with an increase in crime. City Court needs to send a message and accept its role in deterring crime. We need to make it difficult for repeat offenders and stop being lenient to multiple offenders.”
DiMezza also said City Court “should be run in a more cost-efficient and effective way. We should be making strides to ensure we are spending our money in a most cost-effective way.”
The attacks on Trainor deal with federal and state civil lawsuits against him and Fulton County, filed by a woman who alleges she was falsely arrested and imprisoned as a material witness in a March 2007 domestic violence trial in Fulton County Court. A material witness is someone whose testimony is crucial to the prosecution. In the end, Trainor said he won the case with the help of the witness and the perpetrator was sentenced to the maximum for violating an order of protection.
Trainor said his actions in the case were proper and legally sound.
“This is not something where there is a gray area at all. I am convinced I acted properly,” he said.
He said he acknowledges his responsibility in making the decision to hold the woman as a material witness, but said he cleared the decision first with his superior, Fulton County District Attorney Louise Sira.
“We obviously discussed it in advance. It is not something you would do without discussing it with the DA. It is a small office, and we all handled all our own cases, but it is important to keep the DA informed,” he said.
The county is fighting the allegations because “it believes my actions were proper at the time. My attorney is talking to the plaintiffs about withdrawing one or more of remaining claims to avoid costs of motions to dismiss,” Trainor said.
Should the case go to trial and a jury determines Trainor and the county are liable, he said the decision would not affect his role as a judge.
“I don’t see it happening that way. It is not an issue as a judge,” he said. “This is not something hanging over my head because it does not apply to my sitting as a judge.”
The only way if could affect him is if he were disbarred, which would prevent him from sitting as a judge.
“There is not a remote possibility of being disbarred,” Trainor added.
He said he has not been charged with any ethics violations in connection with the lawsuits.
“There has not been any ethics complaints filed against me by anyone. Each and every count [in the lawsuits] violates ethical obligations against an attorney. Had I been publicly censured or admonished, that would help their lawsuit,” he said.
To Trainor, the race is about putting his “talents and skills at service to the people of Gloversville.”
The attack against Clo deals with an audit by the state Comptroller’s Office of Gloversville’s finances between Jan. 1, 2008, and Jan. 31, 2010. The audit criticized the city for paying elected officials and employees for leave time they were not entitled to and did not always earn according to their city-authorized benefits. Clo received more than $5,200 as a former city attorney during 2008 under this practice, since discontinued by the city.
According to the report, the city allowed Clo to sell back leave accruals to which he was not entitled. In addition, the city attorney did not maintain time records, which “made it impossible to determine how he could have earned any leave, had it been authorized,” the report said.
City officials could not find any records to support the buyout paid in 2008, the report said. Clo did not receive any buyout payments in 2009.
In all, the city paid out nearly $800,000 in buyouts for 2008-09 to all eligible employees before discontinuing the practice. City officials have since said the practice was not illegal.
Clo refused to address in detail the Comptroller’s report. His response was: “My employer came to me and offered me a benefit and I accepted it.”
Clo did say that the issue has followed him through the years and has affected him and his family.
“When you run for office and you put yourself out there, you should expect this. But when people put out personal attacks it affects me and my family,” he said.
For Clo, being a judge is about “treating every person before me with respect and dignity. My goal is that every person who comes into Gloversville City Court has their day in court and knows what’s going on.”
He called being a City Court judge “the best job in the world. This job fits me like a hand in the glove. It is an amazing job. It is something I enjoy tremendously. It is something I am doing well at, and I enjoy serving my fellow citizens in this capacity.”
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