Press-Republican

August 15, 2013

Harrietstown justice retires under cloud

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

---- — HARRIETSTOWN — Town Justice Howard Riley retired as part of an agreement signed with the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Riley, elected to the Harrietstown bench in 2008, vacated his office after the commission began following up on formal written complaints filed against him last winter.

The judge’s last day was Aug. 1, according to a decision and order released Wednesday by the commission.

The nature of the complaints stemmed from court proceedings between Jan. 2010 and Dec. 2011, the commission said, and were based on procedural matters.

Allegations in the formal written complaints, according to commission documents, say Riley, in numerous cases, “engaged in inappropriate conversations with unrepresented defendants at their arraignments, allowing them to make potentially incriminating statements.”

The allegations also suggest Riley dismissed “or reduced charges against defendants without notice to or consent of the district attorney as required by law,” and that, in several cases, he “made statements that appeared to coerce defendants to enter guilty pleas.”

DENIED ALLEGATIONS

In the decision and order, allegations further say that during small-claims action, Riley “directed the defendant to present his defense first, before the claimant presented his case.”

Commission documents show that on April 24 Riley denied all allegations of misconduct.

In an interview with the Press-Republican, the former town justice said he had prepared to retire more than a year ago, as the courts in Harrietstown and Saranac Lake were merging.

“I thought it was misleading in there that as soon as the complaint was filed, I retired,” Riley said.

“I had an investigative interview in November of 2012. And it was all procedural stuff.

“I got the formal complaint at the end of Feb. 2013. The commission using the word ‘misconduct’ to describe my actions as a town justice is so misleading, it’s like comparing lighting one firecracker to a Fourth of July celebration.”

SOME DETAILS CONFIDENTIAL

Robert H. Tembeckjian, administrator and counsel to the commission based in New York City, said Riley’s actions did not alter the course of any court cases.

“If they had changed the course of a case, it would have been charged against him. He was not charged with that. Therefore, the stipulation did not say that.”

Tembeckjian could not elaborate further on the nature of complaints filed against Riley.

“I’m not at liberty to get into details of the cases because there is a confidentiality statute that governs the proceedings,” he said in a phone interview. 

“Judge Riley waived confidentiality with regard to the stipulation and to the decision and order that were made public today, Tembeckjian said on Wednesday. “In general, had there been some interruption of court proceedings, there would have been reference to it (in the announcement). 

“That would have been made public.”

The commission stipulated that, should Riley run for judicial office again, the proceedings would be revived, and the matter would go to a hearing before a court referee.

‘INCREDIBLE DISCONNECT’

Riley defended his work on the bench, despite the commission’s findings.

“No one suffered from any decision I made while serving the court in the Town of Harrietstown. In every case in my court, I was fair-minded and impartial and inspired confidence in the integrity of the judicial system,” he read from a statement. “I acted at all times to safeguard the rights of the public and the defendants appearing before me.”

He remained critical of the state’s review.

There are more than 1,300 town and village courts in New York, Riley said.

“There’s an incredible disconnect between the (Judicial Conduct) Commission and the town and village courts in New York state. They do not have a clue how these courts operate. 

“That became evident to me when one of their attorneys asked me, ‘What do you do when the district attorney is not there?’ The DA is almost never there because they have more than 20 courts to cover in Franklin County. 

“They do a good job, but we adjourn cases until the DA appears at our court, which is one day a month.”

FORMER MAYOR

Riley announced his retirement in a June 1 letter sent to Harrietstown Supervisor Bob Bevilacqua, which was Exhibit 1 among Judicial Conduct Commission documents.

He wrote that he was retiring, effective Aug. 1, saying it coincided with the departure of the court clerk.

And, Riley wrote, “that leaves ample time for those interested in running for my two-year, unexpired term to file for the November election.

“It has been my great pleasure to serve the Town of Harrietstown for four years on the Town Council and nearly six years as town justice. 

“I appreciate the support and cooperation I have received from the Town Board.”

Riley, at 83, is a lifelong resident of the region. He is a former mayor of Saranac Lake and past Harrietstown Town councilman and has served on many civic boards of directors.

He is also a local historian, an editor, former publisher and frequent local history contributor to area newspapers.

Harrietstown has one remaining justice, Kenneth McLaughlin, holding office.

Email Kim Smith Dedam: kdedam@pressrepublican.com