Ethics Complaint Says NJ Judge Improperly Helped Relatives

A New Jersey judge is facing ethics charges for allegedly misusing his office and authority to help his relatives in a dispute they were having with a home renovation contractor.

The state Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct filed a formal complaint again Totowa, N.J., Municipal Court Judge Mario Batelli on Jan. 26, alleging that he violated the Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct by helping his sister-in-law and her father.

Batelli, who is an attorney with Foster & Mazzie in Totowa, N.J., filed an answer Jan. 27. He acknowledged assisting his relatives but denied that he violated any judicial ethics rules.

In the complaint, ACJC Disciplinary Counsel Tracie Gelbstein did not specify what discipline the ACJC believes is appropriate, should the court determine that Batelli did violate any of the canons.

Batelli, admitted to the bar in 1998, acknowledged that sometime before Dec. 3, 2013, he had a discussion with his brother Eugene Batelli, his sister-in-law Annalisa Batelli and her father Pasquale DePinto about difficulties they were having with a contractor, Anthony Pizza, whom DePinto had hired for a home renovation project.

The complaint says Mario Batelli told Annalisa Batelli and her father that they could go to the Wayne, N.J., police department or municipal court to file criminal charges against Pizza. The complaint also alleges Mario Batelli sent an email to Annalisa Batelli listing seven criminal charges that could be filed. Mario Batelli acknowledged those facts in his answer.

Mario Batelli acknowledged in his answer that he said in the email to Annalisa Batelli, “‘All of the above are for your dad. You can charge NJS 2C:21-5 for the bad check given to Wayne for the permits which you had to pay. Ask the detective to run a CCH [computerized criminal history report] which will show other criminal charges including the recent indictment for a $50K bad check. Good luck!’”

The complaint says Annalisa Batelli and DePinto went to the Wayne Police Department on Dec. 15, 2013, to file a report regarding Pizza’s alleged “harassing behavior,” but were told they had to go to the municipal court. Batelli said he didn’t have enough information to respond to that in his answer.

Annalisa Batelli and DePinto, the complaint says, then went to the municipal court and were told by a court administrator that the issue might be a civil matter because a contract was involved. Annalisa Batelli then said, “‘No, my brother-in-law is a judge and he should know. He gave me the charges my father is to sign,’” according to the complaint. Mario Batelli, in his answer, said he had insufficient information to respond to that allegation.

Annalisa Batelli and DePinto, the complaint says, completed a certification outlining the charges they wanted to make against Pizza, along with a brief narrative. The administrator said she had to review the certification and determine whether there were sufficient facts to find probable cause. If she could not determine probable cause, the matter would be sent to a Wayne municipal judge, who would then determine whether there was probable cause to file formal charges, according to the complaint. Mario Batelli said in his answer he didn’t have sufficient knowledge to respond to that.

Annalisa Batelli, the complaint says, then told the administrator: “‘I just contacted my brother-in-law and he said if you cannot find probable cause, ask for a probable cause hearing.’”

Ultimately, the complaint says, the administrator told Annalisa Batelli and DePinto that she had to speak to a supervisor and that she believed it would be “uncomfortable” for her or the Wayne judge to make a probable cause determination because of Mario Batelli’s involvement in the matter, especially since he had presided as a substitute judge in Wayne several times. Again, Batelli said in his answer he had insufficient information to respond.

Gelbstein, in the complaint, alleges that Mario Batelli, by involving himself in the matter and by providing Annalisa Batelli and DePinto with the note, “created the risk that his judicial office would be used to advance the private interests of others and permitted Mrs. Batelli to convey the impression that she was in [a] special position of influence.” Mario Batelli denied that allegation in his answer.

The complaint alleges, and Mario Batelli admitted, that he had CCH reports run on Pizza by the Totowa police and said to Annalisa Batelli in the Dec. 3, 2013, email that she should tell a Wayne detective to also run a CCH against Pizza.

Gelbstein says in the complaint that municipal court judges can request a CCH for official court business on matters before that judge. However, she says, Mario Batelli used his position to access confidential information for personal reasons unrelated to his judicial duties. The judge denied that in his answer.

The complaint claims Mario Batelli violated Canon 1, which requires judges to observe high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved; Canon 2A, which requires judges to respect and comply with the law and to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary; and Canon 2B, which prohibits a judge from allowing family relationships to influence judicial conduct and from lending the prestige of the judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge and others. Mario Batelli, in his answer, denied violating the canons.

The website for Mario Batelli’s firm says he focuses on insurance defense, litigation, administrative law, real estate and public entity defense. Neither he nor his attorney, Carl Mazzie, who is with the same firm, returned calls seeking comment.

Pizza, who has business listings in Rutherford, N.J., and Clifton, N.J., did not return a call left at the Rutherford office. There was no telephone service for the Clifton office.

The ethics complaint is unclear as to whether any criminal complaints were actually lodged against Pizza, or whether there was any factual basis for Mario Batelli to mention that Pizza had been indicted on a bad-check charge.

Gelbstein also did not return a call seeking comment.

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