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Random Notes on NJ Government

After twenty-six months of foot-dragging, attorney disciplinary system finally files complaint against former South Jersey mayor.

On November 30, 2017, I filed an ethics grievance with the District I Ethics Committee against an elected Franklin Township (Gloucester County) Committeewoman. My grievance provided evidence that the Committeewoman, a lawyer with a Vineland office address, had served as Franklin’s public defender during a nearly two-year period spanning 2011 through 2013 during which the Supreme Court had ruled her ineligible to practice law.

For reasons unknown, the District I Ethics Committee, which oversees lawyers practicing in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem Counties, refused, despite my several attempts at following up, to process or even acknowledge my grievance. Finally, on January 24, 2020, within a month after the former mayor resigned from the Township Committee and was appointed as Franklin’s municipal prosecutor, the District IV Ethics Committee (to which the matter was transferred) filed a formal complaint against her. The lawyer at issue is former Franklin Township Mayor Leah A. Vassallo who maintains her law office address at 120 N 8th Street, Vineland.

After some investigation and inquiry, I had received an October 27, 2017 letter from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Account (IOLTA) Fund, an agency of the New Jersey Supreme Court, stating that Vassallo was ineligible to practice law between October 21, 2011 and July 23, 2013 because she had failed to comply with the IOLTA filing requirements. At around the same time, I obtained Franklin Township resolutions showing that that Vassallo had served as Franklin’s public defender during 2011, 2012 and 2013. Since practicing law during a period of ineligibility violates the Rules of Professional Conduct, I filed a November 30, 2017 ethics grievance against Vassallo with Jacqueline Hawkins Stiles, the then secretary of the District I Ethics Committee. At the time, Vassallo was in the third year of a three-year Committee term that began on January 1, 2015.

After not hearing back from Stiles for several months, I e-mailed Statewide Ethics Coordinator Isabel McGinty and District I Ethics Committee Chairman David S. Weese on March 5, 2018. (Note: My e-mail referred not only to Vassallo’s ethics matter but also to one against another that has since been dismissed. I have redacted identifying information regarding the lawyer against whom the dismissed matter was filed.) According to Franklin’s January 1, 2008 reorganization meeting minutes, Vassallo, who had just won reelection to another three-year term, was then sworn in as mayor.

My next follow-up e-mail was sent to McGinty on May 7, 2018. On May 14, 2018, McGinty left me a voicemail. By letter of June 25, 2018, I again wrote to McGinty expressing that “I am distressed that cannot get anyone’s attention in District I.” I pointed out in my June 25, 2018 letter that Vassallo was the sitting mayor of Franklin Township.

On August 7, 2018, I left a voicemail and sent a follow-up e-mail to McGinty. In the e-mail, I asked “Is this the way District I works–that people who want to file grievances are made to follow up several times just to be ignored?”

On September 25, 2018, I learned that Jacqueline Hawkins Stiles was no longer the District I Ethics Committee secretary having been replaced by Christopher C. Fallon. On that day, I e-mailed another copy of my grievance against Vassallo to Fallon with a copy to McGinty.

After a month went by with no response from Fallon, I sent an October 30, 2018 e-mail to Office of Attorney Ethics Director Charles Centinaro that included the entire case file and appealed to him to have District I take some sort of action on the Vassallo matter.

By letter dated April 25, 2019, I was finally advised that my grievance against Vassallo had been transferred from District I to Investigator Anne E. Walters of the District IV Ethics Committee. It was only at this point that my matter gained traction and proceeded in accordance with a reasonable timeline. By this time, according to the Township’s January 1, 2019 reorganization meeting minutes, Vassallo was no longer Franklin’s mayor but began serving the second year of her three-year Township Committee term.

According to the minutes of the December 30, 2019 Franklin Township Committee meeting, Vassallo resigned her Township Committee seat. According to the January 1, 2020 reorganization minutes, the Committee unanimously passed Motion R-9-20 which appointed Vassallo to serve as Franklin’s municipal prosecutor during 2020.

Finally, on January 24, 2020, less than a month after Vassallo resigned from elected office, Walters filed a formal ethics complaint against Vassallo. In addition to my grievance’s charge that Vassallo violated the Rules of Professional Conduct for serving as Franklin’s public defender during her October 21, 2011 through July 23, 2013 period of ineligibility, Walters also noted in her complaint that Vassallo, who was admitted to the bar in 2006, failed to pay her mandatory, annual Client Protection Fund assessments. These failures resulted in Vassallo being ruled administratively ineligible to practice law between September 28, 2009 and September 15, 2010, between September 26, 2011 and October 12, 2012 and between September 12, 2016 and September 15, 2016.

Vassallo was first served with the ethics complaint by letter of January 30, 2020. Since then, she has been sent two more letters, dated April 6, 2020 and April 28, 2020, threatening her with additional ethics charges if she does not timely file a verified answer to the charges.

The complaint against Vassallo contains allegations only. Vassallo, like all lawyers charged with violating the Rules of Professional Conduct, enjoys a presumption of innocence unless and until a violation is proven to an ethics hearing panel and confirmed by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

By John Paff

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project