Injustice experienced by Donna Parris In Rhode Island
Injustice experienced by Donna Parris In Rhode Island

The "knowingly and willfully" Line Of Crap!

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This ethics complaint was brought last summer by Donna Parris, the foster mother of a North Kingstown teenager, who objected to [Judge] Jeremiah's handling of the boy's case. At the center of the complaint was an office building Judge Jeremiah owns at 995 Park Ave. The issues of the complaint are:

In August 1996, the Rhode Island Juvenile Officers Association, a non-profit group of current and retired juvenile police officers who fight juvenile crime and delinquency, began leasing space in the building owned by Judge Jeremiah. Originally, the group sublet its first-floor quarters to William F. Holt, a lawyer who leased the two-story office building from Jeremiah and had an office there. When Holt later moved out, the association began paying rent directly to Judge Jeremiah.

In January 1997, Judge Jeremiah and 13 other member of an advisory panel to the Governor's Justice Commission voted unanimously to give a $56,000.00 federal grant to the association. Judge Jeremiah seconded the vote.

Tammelleo [the ethics commission prosecutor] said in her 64 pages of findings and exhibits that Judge Jeremiah voted even though the association's grant proposal "clearly indicated" it occupied part of his building and the grant included a $6,000.00 line item for rent in 1997.

In addition, Tammelleo said, the Governor's Justice Commission had previously gotten an opinion from the Ethics Commission advising members to recuse themselves from matters involving business associates.

From March 1997, when the Juvenile Officers Association began receiving the one-year grant, to July of last year, the group paid Judge Jeremiah about $10,000.00 in rent, according to the head of the association, John J. Reis.

Last July, in response to an inquiry by The Providence Journal, Judge Jeremiah exclaimed, "Holy mackerel!" and said his vote for the federal grant was an obvious conflict of interest that should have occurred to him. "I never thought I was going to benefit from it [the grant]," he said. "It is an oversight. But it is stupid, too." He immediately sent a certified letter to the association, saying it had to move out by the end of August. The association complied.

Tammelleo, the commission prosecutor, contended that Judge Jeremiah also violated the ethics code when he signed restraining orders sought by Holt [the lawyer who rented from Judge Jeremiah] in two Family Court divorce cases. Judge Jeremiah signed both orders in 1997 when Att. Holt was still his tenant. Att. Holt says the orders were routine "ministerial" matters and that he never tried a case or had a hearing before Judge Jeremiah. He added that Judge Jeremiah was the only Family Court judge available to sign the orders.

RI State Ethics CommissionIn March of 1999, the state Ethics Commission cleared Chief Family Court Judge Jeremiah S. Jeremiah, Jr. of alleged ethics violations involving his office building. The commission found insufficient evidence that Jeremiah "knowingly and willfully" violated the state Code of Ethics by helping obtain a $56,000.00 grant for a group that used some of it to pay him rent.

The commission also concluded that Jeremiah did not violate the code by signing court orders in two divorce cases in which parties were represented by another tenant of the judge. "The statute requires that in order for there to be a valid complaint, there has to be probable cause that someone willfully and knowingly committed the violation." Melvin L. Zurier, the vice-chairman of the commission said later, "The evidence does not show that."

Martin F. Healey, the executive director of the commission and head of its enforcement arm, emerged from the meeting looking chagrined. "We disagree with the commission's decision for the reason set forth in our investigation report," he said and declined further comment.

In dismissing the entire ethics complaint, DeRobbio said, the commission relied on the same standard it used last year when it threw out ethics charges against former Central Falls Mayor Thomas Lazieh. Lazieh had been accused of improperly awarding himself $17,000.00 in vacation pay before leaving office in 1996. The commission ruled that Lazieh did indeed draft a policy in his last year in office that allowed him to receive the money. But the commissioners said he was not "knowingly and willfully" seeking personal gain when he wrote the policy, and thus hadn't violated conflict-of-interest laws.


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