On August 26, 2016, the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics filed a formal complaint against a South Amboy attorney who allegedly held onto $249,621.60 from a September 27, 2013 real estate sale until finally releasing it to his client on March 24, 2015.  According to the same lawyer’s April 11, 2016 Financial Disclosure Statement, he serves as counsel to the Middlesex County Board of Social Services, the Old Bridge Housing & Redevelopment Authority and the South Amboy Housing Authority.

According to the complaint, Thomas E. Downs, IV, who maintains an office at 415 Main Street in South Amboy, was retained to distribute the assets of the estate of Joseph Makara who passed away on March 5, 2013.  One of Makara’s assets was real estate in the Parlin section of Sayreville that was sold on September 27, 2013.  Downs deposited the $252,051.93 in sale proceeds into his trust account and, in a series of checks written between September 27, 2013 and February 13, 2014, paid himself $11,250 in legal fees out of those proceeds.. 

According to the ethics complaint, there was little contact between Letitia Makara, the decedent’s sister and executrix of his estate, and Downs during the Spring and Summer of 2014 because of Downs’ “busy trial schedule.”  Ms. Makara’s numerous requests to Downs for an account of the estate’s funds were allegedly unanswered.  Ms. Makara hired another attorney, Avram Segall, to get an accounting from Downs.  According to the complaint, Downs failed to respond to two letters that Segall had sent him.

It was only after Ms. Makara filed an ethics grievance on February 18, 2015 that Downs finally responded.  According to the complaint, Downs sent Segall $249,621.60 which included the $11,250 in fees that Downs had previously paid to himself.  $1,485 of the difference between the amount Downs received and distributed was spent for the internment of Mr. Makara’s ashes.

The ethics complaint, signed by Office of Attorney Ethics Director Charles Centinaro, charges Downs with gross neglect, lack of diligence and failure to communicate with his client.

This isn’t Downs’ first brush with the attorney disciplinary system.  On March 26, 2016, he was censured for having failed to promptly return $2,500 to a client and for failing to cooperate with ethics authorities.  On April 19, 2013, Downs was admonished for failing to communicate with his client and refusing to cooperate with ethics authorities. 

This is only a summary of the complaint and readers who want more information and context are directed to the filed documents which are on-line at the links above. None of the allegations against Downs have been proven. The charges will be tried before an ethics panel and the burden is on the ethics authorities to prove their allegations.

At the time of this writing, Downs had not yet filed an answer to the complaint.  He has been invited to submit a copy of his answer and if he provides it, his answer will be included in this article.

Since 1995, attorney disciplinary hearings have been open to the public.  Anyone who is interested in being notified in advance of any hearings on this matter may complete and send a hearing request form to the Office of Attorney Ethics in care of Barbara Cristofaro via fax to 609-530-5238.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]