New Leb justice alleges a conspiracy against her court
NEW LEBANON–The long-simmering battle in the town’s justice court–hinted at in board minutes, overheard in conversations, recognized in an ethics committee report–went public last week when the junior justice, Darcy Poppey, filed a civil action in state Supreme Court alleging a “conspiracy” aimed at her court by the whole Town Board and other officials.
The officials call the charges “baseless,” and one official named in the suit says she fears for her safety.
Justice Poppey’s suit, which names Supervisor Margaret Robertson, Town Clerk Colleen Teal, Town Attorney Jason Shaw, and Councilmen Allen Livermore, Bruce Baldwin, Karl B. Chittenden and Monte Wasch, asks the state court to prohibit the board from “changing the hours and status” of Deputy Court Clerk Diane Brown. It also seeks to award Ms. Brown back pay, as well as “all fees and costs” to Ms. Poppey, who is representing herself.
In a return salvo, the town court’s senior justice, Shaun McHugh, and Court Clerk Marianne Renfro, represented by Attorney Jay B. Renfro, have asked the court to dismiss the suit and to be able to “intervene” in the matter.
Ms. Poppey served as deputy court clerk under Clerk Louise Waters, then as clerk after Ms. Waters left. She interviewed and recommended Ms. Renfro for her deputy. Two years ago Ms. Poppey ran for town justice against incumbent Justice Jack Nevers and won election to a term that began in January 2008. She selected Ms. Brown to serve as deputy clerk immediately after her election. Affidavits filed by Justice McHugh and Ms. Renfro refer to Ms. Brown as Ms. Poppey’s “campaign manager and best friend.”
Justice Poppey alleges that last October, she and Justice McHugh agreed to “divide the courts,” with each justice having a separate clerk. In minutes from an October 22 special meeting filed with her suit, the Town Board “tentatively adjusted the clerk rates to 26 hours each.” But at the November meeting, the board appointed Ms. Renfro full-time clerk and Ms. Brown deputy. Justice Poppey alleges that action eliminated Ms. Brown’s position without Justice Poppey’s consent.
Mr. Shaw, the town attorney, says the town code specifies that the court will have a court clerk and a deputy court clerk, with the deputy in a subordinate position. He described Ms. Poppey’s suit as “utterly without merit.” That town law “was there when she was elected, and she should know that as a judge,” said Mr. Shaw.
He, too, is seeking dismissal of Ms. Poppey’s suit, pointing out that, among other things, the statute of limitations for her action has expired, since she has known since November that the Town board was not going to increase the hours of the deputy clerk to equal those of the clerk. “I have tried to work with her, and her position is that she wants to do it her way,” Mr. Shaw said.
Justice Poppey’s suit also charges that the court clerk is not doing her job with documents prepared by the justice–445 pages of them by Town Clerk Colleen Teal’s count–alleging errors and a lack of follow-up by the clerk.
Ms. Poppey said in her pleading that she “terminated” the court clerk “for cause on October 3, 2008,” the pleading says. It also acknowledges that Ms. Poppey is under investigation by the Office of Judicial Conduct.
Although Justice Poppey’s 454-page court filing removes information identifying individuals on some pages, other exhibits reveal names, offenses, contact numbers and at least one Social Security number–a fact Supervisor Robertson finds ironic, since Ms. Poppey had refused to submit her monthly court report to the supervisor, citing concerns about confidentiality.
Justice Poppey’s suit also charges that Mr. McHugh was not available for arraignments and was “out” for many of his scheduled court dates and that there was “conspiracy” and “collusion” between the board and Attorney Shaw to allow “the malfeasance, incompetence and insubordination, and misuse of government funds that is occurring in the court.” Justice Poppey said she installed a security camera in court.
The response from Justice McHugh and Ms. Renfro response calls the charges “unfounded and baseless.”
Ms. Renfro goes further, saying that she has concerns for the safety of herself, her family and town officials because Ms. Poppey “was arrested only a few years prior to her election for property damage and other violent acts.”
Justice Poppey said that she was “not able to publicly comment” on the suit other than to say, “I am impaired at this point.”
Ms. Brown, the deputy clerk who works with Justice Poppey, is married to Philip Brown, an official with the State Police. In January, Mr. Brown filed an ethics complaint with the Town Board, alleging “falsifying business records, official misconduct and obstructing governmental administration” on the part of town officials.
The final recommendation of the Ethics Committee report, which can be seen on the town’s website, townofnewlebanon.com, is to close the court if the situation there doesn’t change. “The current operation is in an uncontrollable state and does not appear that it can continue to function with the existing employees,” the report concluded.
Mr. Brown’s father, Leonard Brown, is the chairman of the Town Democratic Committee, which did not endorse Mr. McHugh for re-election. The committee also declined to endorse Ms. Teal, although the party has endorsed her in previous elections.
Mr. Shaw describes the situation as “very unfortunate.” It is, he says, “a personnel issue.” He serves as the town attorney for five municipalities and says, “I’ve never seen a situation like this, where a town judge has sued a town board for something like this–or for anything, for that matter.”
To contact Gail Heinsohn email gheinsohn@ColumbiaPaper.com