The Syracuse Post-Standard by John O'Brien - April 29, 2011
Judge James Tormey denies asking Bobette Morin to spy on Judge David Klim for political gain and believes a trial would have proven that.
Syracuse, NY -- Onondaga County’s former family court clerk will get $600,000 from New York state under a proposed settlement of her lawsuit against the area’s top administrative judge and three other court officials. Bobette Morin’s settlement was reached Thursday afternoon in federal court five days before a trial was to begin. She claims state Supreme Court Justice James Tormey and his aide tried to get her to spy on another judge for political reasons. For two hours, lawyers moved from room to room on the third floor of the federal courthouse in Utica to hash out the settlement. By 3 p.m., it was Family Court Judge Bryan Hedges and none of the other defendants who agreed to settle – ending Tormey’s expressed hope to publicly defend himself in a trial. The settlement halted the prospect of a courtroom spectacle: the area’s highest-ranking state judge on the other side of the bench, on the defensive and likely on the witness stand against claims he violated a subordinate’s constitutional rights. A lengthy trial might have exposed the behind-the-scenes operations of local courts, probed the intersection of politics and justice, and examined the personal agenda of some of the county’s top public servants.
Bobette Morin - Morin, 56, claimed she faced years of retaliation for not doing Tormey’s political bidding. The retribution included having her office moved to an anteroom with no heating or air-conditioning for three years, she claimed. The state attorney general’s office agreed to the settlement over the objections of Tormey and two of the three other defendants. Once Hedges agreed to settle, Morin agreed to drop her claims against all four. Hedges, a family court judge for 27 years, said he wanted to avoid a long trial that would likely have aired years of personnel disputes and run up far more in legal fees than the $600,000 settlement will cost taxpayers. The state was paying each defendant’s lawyer, and a trial of four to six weeks followed by two years of appeals would likely have cost taxpayers at least $1 million, according to court observers. Hedges was at the courthouse for the settlement, as was one of the other defendants, Hedges’ law clerk, William Dowling. Tormey and the fourth defendant, his former executive assistant, John Voninski, were not there.
Judge Bryan Hedges - Hedges shook Morin’s hand after the settlement was spelled out in court before U.S. District Judge David Hurd. Tormey’s lawyer, Robert Smith, said Tormey had been looking forward to the trial to prove Morin wrong. The evidence would’ve shown she was never asked to spy on Family Court Judge David Klim, a Democrat, and that her lawsuit was in retaliation for an independent state agency’s finding that she should be removed as clerk because of shoddy work, Smith said. Tormey, a Republican, has been the administrative judge for the six-county 5th Judicial District for 11 years. He could not be reached for comment. “I want to make it clear my client didn’t have any interest in settling this case,” Smith said. “She had no basis to her claim, and that would’ve been proven. We’re sad we didn’t get our day in court.” The case was all about money and attorney’s fees, Smith said. “They got what they were looking for,” he said.
John Voninski - Hedges said he had told Dowling but not Tormey or Voninski that he planned to settle.
“I do know they wanted their day in court, that they’d been sullied in the papers,” Hedges said. “So I knew I was taking away their forum. But I don’t mind taking the heat for this. I can well defend it as a good approach and a good settlement for everyone.” Hedges said that to some extent his move may have protected Tormey, 60. “We could’ve expended a lot of time in court, a lot of difficult things might have been said about a number of people, and I don’t think that’s productive,” Hedges said. Hedges, 64, would be eligible for a fourth 10-year-term in 2014. But because he could only serve three years before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, he said, he probably will not run. The proposed settlement will likely become final today after lawyers for the state submit paperwork saying the state will pay on Hedges’ behalf.
William Dowling - Hedges appeared to be the least culpable of the four defendants in Morin’s court papers. She accused him of putting Dowling in charge of all family court operations, including her authority as chief clerk. Hedges wanted to settle partly because the lawsuit had divided family court personnel, said his lawyer, Robert Julian. Morin, through lawyer William Frumkin of White Plains, declined to comment. She claimed Tormey and Voninski tried to persuade her to spy on Klim in 2002 so they would have dirt to use against him in his bid for a state Supreme Court seat. After she refused, Tormey became enraged and threw her out of his office, the lawsuit said. After that, Tormey, Voninski and Dowling retaliated against her for years, the suit said. She was assigned to jobs in far-flung courts in Lowville and Rome, threatened with a basement office, and ordered to report in to Voninski at the start and end of each day, the suit said.
Judge David Klim - Tormey and Voninski deny ever pressuring Morin to spy on Klim, who died in 2006. Tormey did talk to her in 2001 about keeping tabs on Klim because he was always falling behind on his caseload, Smith said. Morin never filed a complaint about the alleged attempt at political espionage, Smith said. It wasn’t until the state Office of Court Administration’s Inspector General’s Office recommended her removal in 2007 that she decided to sue, he said. OCA made similar findings that Morin had created a hostile and intimidating work environment in 1996, Smith said. Morin didn’t sue until 2007, after Tormey moved her out of her job as family court clerk into her current position as a court-appointed referee in Oswego County family court – a job that last year paid $117,284, about $1,000 less than her clerk job.
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