Criminal Judge Says Arson Case Was Illegally Wrested From Him
A criminal judge from Sussex County has accused his boss of yanking a case from him for political reasons after lawyers complained about a rejected plea deal.
Edward Gannon claims Assignment Judge Thomas Weisenbeck overstepped his authority, undermining judicial independence and enabling judge-shopping.
The case transfer was "not a legitimate exercise of the power conferred on the Assignment Judge under Rule 1:33-4," Gannon wrote to Judge Greta Gooden-Brown in Passaic County, who replaced him on the case.
Weisenbeck acted "improvidently, precipitously and unlawfully," Gannon added in his Sept. 4 letter [see full text here].
"My educated guess after almost 22 years on the bench is that there are other political influences at work which have intruded upon the Independence of the Judiciary in this case," wrote Gannon.
The letter also said he did not intend to file a complaint against Weisenbeck, whom he described as "for the most part a good person to work for."
He said "filing a complaint will accomplish nothing in a Judiciary which time and time again has circled the wagons to protect the power structure and thrown the trial Judge under the bus."
He also wrote, "in the final analysis, you either have to take a stand or you stand for nothing in these matters. I have never been accused of being a bystander, a potted plant or a sycophant."
The letter was in response to an inquiry from Gooden-Brown's law clerk about why the case was moved.
It has since been reassigned again, to Passaic County Judge Raymond Reddin, following news reports about Gannon's letter after it was anonymously leaked to the press earlier this month.
Gannon denies knowing who disclosed the letter to the media but acknowledges authorship.
The plea deal in question was offered to former Morris County Sheriff's Officer and volunteer firefighter Jason Campbell, who is accused of two arsons, official misconduct, drug possession and child neglect.
Under the spurned plea, Campbell would have admitted to second-degree official misconduct and third-degree drug possession, with a recommended sentence of five years in prison, followed by five years of parole.
Charges for two incidents of arson and child neglect would have been dropped.
The misconduct charge was based on Campbell allegedly flashing his sheriff's badge in an attempt to avoid drug charges after he was found with oxycodone in a 2012 traffic stop.
At the time, Campbell was under suspension on account of the arson charges.
Gannon said in his letter and in an interview that he does not believe the lawyers — Assistant Morris County Prosecutor Brian DiGiacomo and defense counsel Jeffrey Patti of Sparta — were truthful when they told him during the June 20 plea hearing that proving the arson would be problematic.
He wrote that he thought they were "trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the Court" and "I am not sure they realized I had previously read the Grand Jury testimony and all the police reports."
In fact, Gannon had dismissed charges on one of the arsons for insufficient evidence but was reversed by the Appellate Division on March 1.
The dismissed arson concerned a fire set at a vacant house in Parsippany in June 2010. Campbell, then acting chief of a Parsippany-Troy Hills fire company, helped put it out.
The evidence against Campbell was all circumstantial but the same was not true of the other arson, a 2008 blaze in which his alleged accomplice, Anthony Rizzolo, a teenager Campbell mentored as part of a sheriff's office program, confessed to helping him burn an empty garage.
In reinstating the 2010 arson charge, the appeals court cited the similarities between the two fires.
Both were started with flares near electrical outlets in unused buildings within a few doors of homes occupied by Campbell's mother, in one instance, and his sister in the other.
Combined with such circumstantial evidence as Campbell's suspicious absence from a company fire drill around the time the fire was set, there was sufficient basis for the indictment.
In Gannon's view, if the lawyers were unhappy with his rejection of the proposed plea, they should have appealed or moved for his recusal.
Instead, Patti and DiGiacomo jointly wrote the next day to Morris/Sussex Presiding Criminal Judge Stuart Minkowitz asking for a conference to discuss Gannon's rejection of the plea, "for reasons we believe to be in contravention of prevailing law and drug court procedure."
An order signed by Weisenbeck and Passaic Assignment Judge Donald Volkert Jr. on July 16 transferred the case to Passaic for "good cause."
Gannon says Weisenbeck first told him manpower was the reason but later said it was because of reports in the press about statements Gannon made at the plea hearing, though Weisenbeck admitted he had not seen a transcript.
On learning of the letter to Minkowitz, Gannon asked for a copy but Weisenbeck first denied having seen it, then refused to give it to him, though Gannon ended up getting it through an Open Public Records Act request, he says.
He has filed a complaint against DiGiacomo and Patti with the Attorney General's Office, which confirms receipt through spokesman Peter Aseltine, who says it is under review.
Weisenbeck and Volkert referred a request for comment to judiciary spokeswoman Winnie Comfort, who would not address Gannon's accusations other than to say that reassigning a case is common and "to suggest this is beyond an AJ's authority would be a mistake."
Patti says "Judge Gannon has accused me of lying to him, which I still don't understand, but I have never in my entire career misrepresented anything to a judge."
DiGiacomo referred a request for comment to First Assistant Morris County Prosecutor Thomas Zelante, who referred it to Aseltine.
On Monday, the same plea deal was presented to Reddin, who deferred decision.
Gannon says he has no intention of communicating with Reddin about the case, adding "I have every confidence that Judge Reddin will do the right thing."
The 61-year-old Gannon, a former municipal prosecutor and private practitioner, was appointed to the Morris County bench in 1991 by Gov. James Florio and won tenure in 1998.
He was moved to Passaic County in 1995, and then to Sussex in 2005, where he is currently assigned to Civil Part.