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The Rhode Island Traffic Court Mess

Rampant, Institutionalized Rhode Island Legal Misconduct

  • An audit in 1999 by KPMG found there were so few controls on traffic-court records that employees could steal the court's money, cancel unpaid tickets, change ticket values, all without detection. But the audit also said the lack of controls made it "virtually impossible to detect those activities in a systematic and efficient fashion."
  • Chief Justice Frank J. Williams rejects calls from watchdog groups for a fraud audit to determine what happened to the $31 million saying, "Independent reviews by 2 accounting firms indicated that there was no evidence of fraud to warrant a costly forensic audit, and that there was no missing money!"

Following is a complaint dated 2-26-98 addressed to Judge Alice Gibney at the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline from Operation Clean Government and former attorney general and talk show host Arlene Violet.  The response from the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline follows. 

I am writing on behalf of Operation Clean Government   (an organization of approximately 1,000 Rhode Island members and taxpayers) and myself to lodge a disciplinary complaint against Chief Judge Vincent Pallozzi, Judge Lillian Almeida, Judge Benedetto A. Cirelli, Judge Albert Ciullo, Judge John F. Lallo and Judge Edward Parker.  As indicated below, if evidence shows that Judge Marjorie Yashar also signed appellate decisions without reviewing the transcript of the trial hearing, then the complaint applies to her also as to that charge.

We submit this complaint, seeking a full investigation of the alleged facts in the recent Providence Journal series regarding the activities of the Traffic Court.  We believe that the following conduct, if substantiated, constitutes violations of the Canons of Judicial Ethics.

Six Rhode Island judges take a four-day weekend.  Reports of the newspaper indicate that only on one out of three days do the judges sit until 4:00 P.M.  The newspaper also reports extended vacation periods.  If true, this activity violates the Canon of Ethics requirement that judges work full time (Canon 28).  While we are cognizant of the fact that, to our knowledge, no statute or regulation sets out a 35 hour work week as the full-time requirement, we think that the historical practice of State workers and the Judiciary set that past practices standard. Statewide provisions also exist as to the vacation periods allowable for State workers.

In addition, if this Committee finds a violation of this Canon, we request that you also refer this matter to Personnel and the Retirement Board, since it is our position that the judges are not entitled to the contributions made by the taxpayers to their pensions if they do not work full time.  We argue also that such a referral should be made since their medical coverage is predicated on full service or at least 20 hours a week.  If the Providence Journal story is true, but the judges insist that they work full time, we request your Committee to seek affidavits similar to those sought from members of the Board of Elections.  Finally, on this issue, we request the Committee to scrutinize the explanation of these judges who say they work at home.  Given the nature of the Court which handles moving violations and the allegation that boilerplate decisions were rendered without review, there is little or no work a judge could or should be doing at home.

The next issue which we believe would violate the Judicial Canons is the allegation by the Providence Journal that the Court engages in "suspension runs," wherein letters are sent out ordering drivers to pay outstanding fines or their licenses would be suspended.  These "runs" are done despite the right of the licensee to wait to pay until a hearing.  The law allows the motorist to have such a hearing.  The sanctioning of this practice by Chief Judge Pallozzi violates Canon 3, since it is the duty of all judges to support the Federal and State Constitutions and the guarantees and limitations contained therein.  Any Traffic Court judge who countenanced such a practice should also be disciplined since this kind of activity totally guts due process of law.  Any judge who had knowledge of or sanctioned Administrator Leo Skenyon's direction that they had to pay and then appeal for an additional $25 fee should also be disciplined.  This activity, if true, also violates Canons 1, 2 and 18.

The most egregious violation of the Canon aforesaid is the practice of rendering the denial of appeals and the falsity of the decisions emanating from the Appeals Panel.  "Making up" facts and violating due process rights of motorists is reprehensible.  This violation, if true, is particularly reprehensible since the Supreme Court has been warning these judges since 1993 to stop the practice.  The Canons of Ethics requires a judge to apply the General Law to particular circumstances, since ours is a government of laws, not of men (Canon 18).  The canon also requires the judge to act in office with a due regard for the integrity of the system, remembering that the judge is not a repository of power, but a jurist acting under the sanction of law.  On this violation alone, Operation Clean Government and I believe that the judges should be dismissed for cause from their jobs.  Nothing violates the integrity of the judicial system more than a practice of rendering a decision where no oral arguments, in fact, were made, nor were there any proceedings below to review, yet the decision asserts same.  The fact that this Court normally has middle class and poor people appearing before it, whose licenses are critical to their jobs, all the more makes this practice arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of power, if substantiated.  Further, the Chief Judge's report that he would issue "four-page boilerplate decisions," if made, shows an utter contempt for the rights of the public, and an intransigence which should result in his removal from the bench.

We believe that any one of the charges, if substantiated, warrants dismissal for cause.  If the Committee feels it does not have the authority to dismiss, we request that you refer this matter to the General Assembly in accordance with the constitutional provision on impeachment.  We await the action of the Committee.  We further request a prompt investigation, rather than have this matter take its turn on the roster of investigations, since the accusations are of a systemic nature and, if true, a cancer on the entire system.

We await your reply as to when the investigation will commence.  While we do not have independent knowledge to verify the above, we believe the statewide dissemination of these reports and the harm to the judiciary requires a thorough investigation.  Thank you.  Sincerely yours, Arlene Violet.

Caught has received an unconfirmed report Ms. Violet received a request for a formal complaint from Judge Alice Gibney at the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline.  For more on the RI Traffic court mess, see complaint filed by Myrth York, candidate for Governor.

Following is a response received from the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline

December 22, 1998

Attorney Arlene Violet
35 Highland Avenue, Rt. 6
East Providence, RI 02914

Re: Our Files No. 98-108, 98-109, 98-110, 98-112

Dear Attorney Violet:
The Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline has been investigating a complaint filed by you against Judge Lillian Almeida, Judge Benedetto Cirelli, Judge Albert Ciullo and Judge Edward C. Parker of the Administrative Adjudication Court. Following an investigation, the Commission has determined that insufficient evidence exists at this time to justify disciplinary action under the Cannons of Judicial Ethics against the aforementioned judges. Accordingly, your complaint against these judges has been dismissed.
Very truly yours,
Alice B. Gibney
Chairperson

Note: see the page on the Commission We are awaiting the response regarding the remaining Judges

Apparently it was the practice at the traffic court to not have money counted until after it was taken to the bank.  Also the following, in part, was reported in the Providence Journal on Sunday March 14, 1999:
The judiciary, while acknowledging problems at the traffic court, has sometimes characterized them as overblown.  Also, the judiciary has fought attempts by The Providence Journal to conduct a comprehensive review of its records.  Citing a proprietary interest and state law that requires the sale of individual driver "abstracts" to insurance companies, court officials have demanded that the newspaper pay at least $9.6 million to gain access to its computer tapes.  The Journal has filed a Superior Court lawsuit.   Having stated the above, read what the $180,000 audit report by KPMG Peat Marwick commissioned by Chief Justice Weisberger stated:

  • Court records are so woeful that they invite fraud, theft and ticket fixing. 
  • The computerized records and piles of paper lack such basic controls that the auditors said they couldn't even determine if wrongdoing had occurred.
  • The abysmal records also made it impossible for auditors to pinpoint how much the state is owed in outstanding fines.
  • The court's computers list $39 million in "uncollected" fines but the auditors could not verify whether the $39 million truly represents unpaid tickets, or if some money was lost or stolen.

Judge DeRobbio of the District Court has been handed the responsibility of straightening out the traffic court mess.  Judge DeRobbio is paid $125,000 a year and wants to be paid about $7,000 more as well as raises for another District Court judge because of this added responsibility.  Judge DeRobbio has hinted he will walk away from this reform project if he doesn't get what he says he needs.  The audit also describes huge management obstacles that will test Judge DeRobbio's reputation as a fixer of broken systems.  Some of these obstacles include:

  • Court cash registers, installed for the first time only recently, are not linked to computers; most court work is done the old-fashioned way -- by hand.  Attempts to bring the electronic systems up to date are nearly a year behind their original schedule.
  • Virtually every procedure in the court must be changed, the auditors said, because "the nature of the environment itself is indicative of one where inappropriate activities could occur and not be detected."
  • The court has allowed 4,000 motorists to pay their fines over time, but it has not kept track of payments and has no way of keeping tabs on motorists who benefited from this practice.
  • One of the court's biggest failings has been its inability to track the state's worst drivers because the exchange of information between towns and the state is so bad.

Judge DeRobbio ordered that cases be postponed only for "good cause."  Too often, he said, judges granted postponements, causing the backlog to increase. 

The Journal reported last year that numerous motorists complained that the court never mailed notices of hearing dates for tickets that they planned to fight.  Months, sometimes years later, police would stop drivers on the road and inform them they were driving on suspended licenses because they had failed to attend court hearings. 

Also, even though the National Center for State Courts said last year that the court might not need seven people hearing cases, Judge DeRobbio wants to fill the vacancies with lesser-paid magistrates.   Judge DeRobbio also stated, "He's been very loyal," when referring to the administrator of the traffic court, Leo Skenyon,


In January 1999 the state police arrested Nancy Luna, a clerk in the court appeals office.  She was accused of changing court records to make it appear as though two drivers had paid thousands of dollars in fines they hadn't paid.  Four felony charges are pending against her.   Note:  On 7-12-01 the Providence Journal reported Ms. Luna was sentenced to serve 3 years after pleading no contest to charges.  Jeffrey Luna and Leonidas Medina also have charges pending in this matter.


On 3-26-99 The Providence Journal reported Chief District Court Judge DeRobbio "put a positive spin" on negative traffic reports by saying the millions of missing dollars were due to uncollected fines; not wrongdoing by traffic court personnel. 


Court  clerk accused of stealing checks

3-2001  The state police arrested a  former Traffic Court clerk yesterday and charged her with stealing $1,802  from checks motorists had sent in to pay their traffic fines.  The state police say Barbara DiCarlo, of Providence, took money submitted by motorists to pay their traffic fines. Barbara DiCarlo, 37, of Providence, had worked at the Traffic Court for  almost nine years before she resigned last month in the midst of the investigation, the police said.

She is charged with  stealing the money between Dec. 1 and Jan. 12. She faces four counts of  embezzlement, four counts of forgery, four counts of wrongful conversion by a  state employee and three counts of accessing a computer for fraudulent   purposes.  DiCarlo was arraigned on the 15 felony counts yesterday  and released on personal recognizance. DiCarlo worked in the  court's mail room. Part of her duties included recording the checks and  money orders from motorists paying their fines.  A state police  affidavit outlined the case against her this way:

An investigation  began early last month when a motorist went to the Registry of Motor  Vehicles to have his license reinstated. The registry required him to show   proof he had paid $675 in fines.  The motorist produced two money  orders that originally had been made payable to the Rhode Island Traffic  Court. However, the money orders had been altered to be made payable to  DiCarlo. The alterations raised suspicions and after checking the date when  the money orders were cashed, the police reviewed photographs from a  bank camera. The photographs showed DiCarlo cashing the money orders at  a Fleet Bank on Atwells Avenue on Jan. 12.

A check of the Traffic  Court's computer also showed that two days earlier, the motorist's fine  had been adjusted to show no amount due. The computer listed the reason for  the change as an error.  When confronted by Traffic Court  officials, DiCarlo allegedly admitted to cashing a $600 check made payable to  the Traffic Court and reimbursed the court for that amount. 
"When she was confronted she did make restitution and made it sound like  this was the only one," said Chief District Court Judge Albert E. DeRobbio,  who also heads the Traffic Court. "She said, 'I'm sorry,' bang, bang,  and resigned.   But the investigation was still ongoing and we had found some other evidence of other potential takings."  DeRobbio said that even without the motorist's help,  DiCarlo would have been exposed because of "the safeguards in the records  and the computer printouts."  "My concern was, was there a virus?  Did it extend beyond her? And my position is, from what I understand, is,  at least at this point, no other person was involved in her  activity," he said.
The  court fell under scrutiny in 1998 when The Journal uncovered  deficiencies that ranged from millions of dollars in uncollected fines to years-long  delays for people awaiting hearing of traffic tickets.

$31 million in traffic fines still a mystery!

Aug 10, 2001 as reported in the Providence Journal:  While $8 million has been accounted for, Chief Justice Frank J. Williams rejects calls from watchdog groups for a fraud audit to determine what happened to the $31 million.

State court officials said yesterday that they will never be able to explain a $31-million gap in traffic-ticket revenues from 1974 to 1998. They don't think the money was stolen, but they can't be certain. An audit at the time found that the traffic court had $39 million in either unpaid or unrecorded fines from 261,783 tickets.

RI Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank Williams said the court has collected nearly $8 million of those fines in the last two years, and it is trying to collect the rest. Williams said he didn't think any of the remaining $31 million in fines was embezzled because two outside audits, staff reviews and cross-checks of records and newly paid tickets did not turn up wrongdoing. But he said court officials could never be sure. "It's a judgment call, and we admit that," he said. Still, the chief justice rejected calls from watchdog groups for a fraud audit, saying the examination was too costly and could not conclusively say whether wrongdoing occurred. "We're stuck on the horns of a dilemma with some people thinking this is so-called missing money when in fact it may be uncollectable," Williams said.

But Lee Blais, a certified fraud examiner and Operation Clean Government member who reviewed traffic court records, said a fraud audit would clear things up by looking at each ticket. "We're dealing with what is now $31 million" in tickets, he added. "That's a lot of money, and the people of the state need to know what happened with it." Blais looked at 1,500 pages of records from more than 700 motorists who were billed for traffic fines that they had already paid. "When you have 700 instances of money paid but no record of that money being deposited into state coffers, you have a potential fraud problem," Blais said. District Court Chief Judge Albert E. DeRobbio, said the court had double-billed some motorists by mistake, not fraud.  "There has been no showing . . . to say that there was any type of fraud on a wholesale basis," DeRobbio said. But Blais said the court needed to conduct a fraud examination to determine whether there was wrongdoing. "We really have to applaud Judge DeRobbio's collecting $8 million -- that's excellent work," Blais said. "The question that has to be raised is what is the nature of the other $31 million? And frankly, no one has looked in any depth."

Mismanagement at the traffic court burst into public view in 1998, when The Journal published a series of articles showing that the court couldn't identify the state's worst drivers, had a massive backlog as well-paid judges worked just three days a week and had millions of dollars in uncollected fines.

An audit in 1999 by KPMG found there were so few controls on traffic-court records that employees could steal the court's money, cancel unpaid tickets, change ticket values, all without detection. But the audit also said the lack of controls made it "virtually impossible to detect those activities in a systematic and efficient fashion."   The Providence Journal had to file suit for access to traffic court records and Justice Williams announced the settlement and would turn over remaining records shortly.

Following is a letter to the Editor of the Providence Journal. It appeared in the Editorial Section on Sunday March 7, 1999.   Following that is the press release regarding the dismissal of the RI Supreme Court appeal.

`Justice' in Rhode Island Judicial tenure panel: A law unto itself

A front page article in the February issue of the Operation Clean Government newsletter criticizes the way in which the Commission on Judicial Tenure conducts its investigations into complaints of wrongdoing by traffic court judges, revealing that in the dismissal of the formal complaint made on behalf of OCG against four out of the six judges, the commission chairwoman, Judge Alice B. Gibney, refused to elaborate on the grounds for such action.

According to Chief Justice Joseph Weisberger, secrecy is necessary to protect judges "from frivolous complaints by disappointed litigants." Evidently, the chief justice and those of his cloth think that the public cannot distinguish between blatant misconduct and sour grapes. This is nothing more than the supreme arrogance that the laws regarding the judiciary in Rhode Island have encouraged over the years. It was Justice Weisberger who wrung his hands in despair over the traffic-court revelations, insisting he had no power to act; that prompted OCG to come up with two or three statutes that would allow him to intervene.

The fact is that the Commission on Judicial Tenure has refused to discipline the judges on the traffic court, who not only abused the duties of their offices by coming to work at their convenience, serving as little as 12 hours a week, but who also showed cavalier disregard for the civil rights of the litigants in their courtroom by issuing boilerplate decisions, misinforming citizens about their rights, and failing to supervise the day-to-day operations of the court itself.

These judges deserve to be openly investigated and possibly prosecuted for criminal actions. It is unthinkable that they should be allowed to serve in the same capacity on any new traffic court to be devised by their superiors, or that they should be allowed to retire and collect their pensions with such a blot on their conduct.

It is obvious that the whole purpose of creating judgeships for the traffic court, which was formerly administered by adjudicators, was to create political plums for the well-connected, and to ensure that the salaries were commensurate with District and Superior Court judgeships. This was a sham conducted by the leaders of the General Assembly and voted on by their minions, who are elected to serve their constituents but instead are easily co-opted into supporting such self-serving legislation.

The chaos that ensued has exposed a systemic weakness in the Rhode Island judiciary. Scandals that unseated former Chief Justice Thomas Fay for dabbling in a slush fund (a fund that Justice Weisberger supported in a letter requested by Fay himself); a former Superior Court justice, Antonio Almeida, for soliciting bribes; and former Judge John Fuyat of the Family Court for requesting "loans" from lawyers arguing before him, only heightened people's awareness of the self-serving nature of judicial appointments made by the General Assembly.

These posts were awarded not on the basis of qualifications, but on the willingness to do favors and play politics. Many of the appointees were former members of the House or Senate and had demonstrated their loyalty to the leadership. Surely, Victoria Lederberg's part-time service as a municipal court judge did not qualify her for the Rhode Island Supreme Court, but she had served in the Senate and was chosen over the highly qualified Superior Court Judge John Bourcier, who has since been elevated to the high court.

To appease the public's growing unease about the judiciary, a fairer and "unbiased" selection system was introduced. Unfortunately, this fell victim as well to insider politics. When a selection committee chose Margaret Curran to fill a seat on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, a candidate whose qualifications came from the highest level of service in the U.S. attorney's office and with a list of recommendations that included some of the most respected attorneys and officeholders, including Governor Almond, she was summarily rejected because a majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee felt she "did not know Rhode Island law."

Instead, with evident relief, they hurriedly confirmed Maureen McKenna Goldberg, who on more than one occasion had demonstrated her knowledge of Rhode Island law. For it was Judge Goldberg who expunged the records of two men convicted of sexual molestation, one of whom was later found to be working in the Chariho school system by a Journal reporter who just happened to make the connection. And it was also Judge Goldberg who expunged the record of the son of former state Auditor Anthony Piccirilli, allowing him to continue on the state payroll by transferring to the attorney general's office. And if not for her ruling, former state court administrator Matthew Smith might have lost his pension, for it was she who dismissed felony charges against him rather than let a jury decide. Obviously, Meg Curran must have looked like an amateur in this kind of company.

The fact of the matter is that the General Assembly has covered all the bases. It is no accident that the Commission on Judicial Tenure is composed of members of the legal community, judges as well as lawyers, many of the latter serving in the General Assembly and appearing before these same judges on behalf of clients. Allegedly, the commission was established to rule on matters affecting the ability of individual judges to carry out their duties with integrity and fairness. The word "tenure" would seem to indicate that depending on the severity and veracity of the charges, a judge could be removed from the bench.

However, this commission is veiled in secrecy, unlike the courtroom where these members must publicly act on charges against the ordinary citizen. The public is not allowed to be privy to the inner workings of the commission or how and why such verdicts of dismissal are reached.

This must change, the first step being to reconstitute the commission to include citizens from other professions, as well as merchants and businessmen. The most important change must be to publish the rules of procedure for the commission, including the point at which these procedures are open to the public. Finally, the complainant must not only be notified of the commission's final ruling, but of the procedures that were followed in reaching it and the reasons behind it. In addition, the complainant should be informed of the right and the procedure for appeal of the decision.

In addition, lifetime tenure must be withdrawn as an incentive to judicial appointments. It is obvious that such an inducement creates a climate for complacency and disdain. When District Court Judge John Cappelli was asked by Atty. Gen. Jeffrey Pine to recuse himself from a case because of an apparent conflict of interest, he initially refused. His remarks to a reporter were: "That's why the legislature gave us lifetime tenure -- so we could tell the attorney general to go to hell."

What is needed is periodic judicial review, an idea introduced by Rep. Robert Weygand when he served as lieutenant governor. A review board should be established to set up a five-year assessment for each judge in the system, at which time there would be an overview of the judge's performance and recommendations for certification of further service. It is time to bring the judicial system into the real world, where people are expected to be accountable to those who pay their salaries. The citizens and taxpayers of Rhode Island must be assured that they will be treated with fairness and respect if ever they appear in the halls of justice.

There is grave doubt that the present system, without the necessary checks and balances, can ever measure up to this expectation.

Stephanie Rivera, of West Kingston, is a businesswoman and a member of Operation Clean Government.


Traffic Court Appeal Dismissed

Secrecy Of The Commission's Disciplinary Proceedings Involving The Traffic Court Judges Upheld! Operation Clean Government's Petition Dismissed By The Rhode Island Supreme Court!

In an opinion dated November 19, 1999 the Rhode Island Supreme Court, without the benefit of full briefing or oral argument, has ruled on an Operation Clean Government petition which had requested that the Supreme Court review the Commission on Judicial Tenure & Discipline's decision not to discipline the Traffic Court Judges, and to issue Chief Judge Pallozzi a private reprimand. The Rhode Island Supreme Court summarily held that the request for review was without merit. Chairman of Operation Clean Government Robert P. Arruda said: "We are disappointed in the Rhode Island Supreme Court. We had hoped that the Supreme Court would review the proceedings of the Commission on Judicial Tenure & Discipline because the Traffic Court scandal caused the public to lose confidence in the Rhode Island Courts. We had hoped that a thorough review by the Supreme Court would explain to the public exactly what happened in the Rhode Island Traffic Court, but instead the records are permanently sealed."

Operation Clean Government had filed the petition in response to a letter by Chief Justice Joseph Weisberger to Robert Arruda. The Chief Justice gave procedural advice to OCG in this letter as how to seek an extraordinary remedy through the Supreme Court. Arruda goes on to say "it is incomprehensible that on the one hand the Chief Justice gives OCG advice on how to seek a remedy through the Supreme Court, and on the other hand, rules that OCG has no standing to question the Commission on Judicial Tenure & Discipline in the RI Supreme Court. This opinion, if rendered at the outset, would have saved both the Supreme Court and OCG much valuable time."

Operation Clean Government Board member Lee Blais said: "Operation Clean Government finds it odd that the high court never mentions in its decision the nature of the public allegations made against the Traffic Court Judges. Reading the Supreme Court's Opinion one might think that Operation Clean Government was asking the Court to review the Commission's decision regarding a frivolous or an unfounded complaint. Operation Clean Government's complaint focused on the allegations contained in the Providence Journal expose on the Traffic Court. Those articles showed the traffic court to be rife with cronyism and patronage, a system so out of control that Judges worked part-time for full time pay, and where Judges issued judicial decisions that had no basis in fact or law. While the Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled that OCG's request to the Court 'borders upon the frivolous,' OCG respectfully disagrees. OCG does not think that anything about this matter of extreme public importance is frivolous."

Vice Chair Beverly Clay said of the Decision: "It is a sad day in Rhode Island history when the State's highest Court rules that the public has no right to know how an appointed Commission that oversees the integrity of the judiciary has reached its conclusion in a matter of significant public importance. To some members of our organization, and perhaps to some members of the public, this will appear to be a whitewash. Reforms which will end the secrecy that surrounds Commission proceedings must be enacted at once."

The Chair of Operation Clean Government, Mr. Arruda said: "The Supreme Court, without a hearing, has ruled that a citizens' group advocating clean government has no standing to question the Commission on Judicial Tenure & Discipline in the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Reforms that will increase public participation in the Commission and which will allow citizen groups to seek review of Commission proceedings are desperately needed. We will urge the General Assembly to enact such reforms during its upcoming session. We hope the citizenry joins us in these efforts."

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