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Suffolk register of probate seeks end to forced leave

“It’s been horrible. She’s been made to look terrible by half truths. . . . She never hit that guy,” said Philip R. Boncore,  who is representing  Patricia Campatelli (above).

Jeremy C. Fox for The Boston Globe

“It’s been horrible. She’s been made to look terrible by half truths. . . . She never hit that guy,” said Philip R. Boncore, who is representing Patricia Campatelli (above).

She was always unconventional. Patricia Campatelli campaigned for Suffolk County register of probate out of an East Boston social club long associated with bookies, placing her laptop on the pool table at the unlicensed bar and working the phone amid “Vote for Patty’’ posters.

Now, weeks after allegedly punching an employee and being placed on administrative leave not once, but twice, in her one-year tenure, Campatelli hopes to meet with court officials Tuesday to clear her path to come back to her $122,000-a-year job.

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But some colleagues do not want her back, saying they see her as a crude and vengeful boss who makes them feel physically threatened when she is angry.

Philip R. Boncore, who is representing the register of probate, said Campatelli never punched anyone and that the court has refused to provide details about the allegations contained in her second suspension letter, including allegations of mismanagement and “unprofessional conduct.”

“There have been no problems,” Boncore said in an interview. “She has been nothing but professional. And hopefully everything will be resolved Tuesday.”

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Campatelli insists that court administrators do not have the authority to suspend an elected official such as her and that she has been the victim of a smear campaign. After she threatened to return to work Monday, her colorful case has quickly become a test of a more serious question: How much authority do judges have to discipline court officials who were elected by the voters?

“The administrative office cannot suspend her; only the [Supreme Judicial Court] can do that,” said Boncore. “She has agreed to stay out” of the courthouse voluntarily for the time being.

‘It’s been horrible. She’s been made to look terrible by half truths. . . . She never hit that guy.’

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Court officials said they could not comment on a “confidential personnel matter,” but a spokeswoman reiterated that Campatelli remains on administrative leave while court officials complete an investigation of her conduct. If Campatelli comes to the court without permission, court officials plan to ask the Supreme Judicial Court to order her out of the building, said two people who have been briefed on the court’s strategy.

Judges are often reluctant to act on reports of misconduct by elected court officials who are accountable to the voters first.

Middlesex County Register of Probate Robert B. Antonelli was removed from office in 1999 for mistreating employees and creating a hostile work environment, but only after a two-year review and a ruling by the state’s highest court.

Nine years later, Antonelli’s successor, John Buonomo, avoided a lengthy review and resigned after being caught on camera stealing money from courthouse copy machines. He eventually went to prison.

Although they are elected posts, registers of probate are purely administrative officials managing cases involving divorce, child custody, and other family issues. The vast majority run unopposed, and many voters know very little about the candidates. For instance, Buonomo managed to win the Democratic primary in 2008 even though he had already resigned in disgrace.

But it is highly unlikely that the elections for registers will be abolished any time soon, because the Massachusetts Constitution recognizes registers as elected positions. As a result, any change would require approval of the Legislature in two different sessions, as well as a statewide vote.

However, the Administrative Office of the Trial Court has been working with court clerks to come up with a better, quicker way to discipline clerks without conducting a lengthy investigation and hearing process first.

“We need to be transparent and accountable to the people of Massachusetts,” said Patrick McDermott, the Norfolk County Register of Probate and head of the Massachusetts Association of Registers of Probate. “Whether it’s [Campatelli’s alleged] behavior or any violation of the code of professional responsibility, you have to be held accountable.”

If the charges against Campatelli are true, McDermott said, “this is . . . comparable, if not worse, to John Buonomo stealing. It’s a violation of the public trust. It shocks the morality of the office.”

In fact, court officials initially tried to deal quickly and quietly with the assault charge against Campatelli, saying that the court’s investigator, Jean Driscoll, could not substantiate the accusation by longtime registry employee Timothy Perry that Campatelli repeatedly hit him in the face as they rode home from an evening of drinking at two Boston bars on Dec. 18.

The state’s chief probate judge, Angela M. Ordonez, allowed Campatelli to return to work after just four days of paid leave. Campatelli agreed in return to get training on “how to deal with difficult employees,” according to a Dec. 30, 2013, letter from Ordonez. She also agreed to be mentored by another register of probate to better learn how to do the job.

Little more than two weeks later, Ordonez suspended Campatelli again, saying she had received numerous reports about Campatelli abusing her office, including an allegedly implied threat to Perry, who had returned to work for one day after the alleged assault, then went on leave, according to someone with direct knowledge of his situation. Perry has still not returned.

Several employees interviewed by the Globe said they are afraid Campatelli will retaliate against them if she is allowed to return.

“There is a very serious allegation of violence,” said one employee who asked not to be identified. “She should not be allowed into the building.”

The decision to place Campatelli on indefinite leave also came as the Globe was asking questions about the quality of the court’s investigation into the assault allegations. In the hours after the alleged attack, Perry had called several co-workers for help, including one who saved the voicemail recording, according to interviews. None of them talked to court investigator Driscoll.

Faced with an indefinite suspension from her post in a reelection year, Campatelli countered, saying she would return to work despite the written order from Ordonez to “remain away from the Suffolk Probate and Family Court until further notice.”

Boncore said his client is suffering irreparable damage, to her reputation as the administrative leave continues.

“It’s been horrible. She’s been made to look terrible by half truths,” said Boncore in an interview last week. “She never hit that guy.”

Campatelli eventually agreed not to return to the court Monday, as she had planned, in exchange for a meeting with court officials on Tuesday. Boncore insists that only the Supreme Judicial Court can suspend Campatelli, and he said she is staying away from work voluntarily.

Court officials say that Campatelli must remain on paid administrative leave until investigator Ronald Corbett finishes his investigation.

Campatelli’s upstart 2012 campaign for register of probate against Boston city councilor Salvatore J. LaMattina made it obvious that she did not play by conventional political rules. Though she had served as a manager in the state Probation Department, as well as in the Suffolk County sheriff’s office, Campatelli had never run for office before, and it showed.

She would sometimes run her campaign operation out of the Bunker Veterans Social Club, a locked-door facility with a shady past, said two people with direct knowledge. Prosecutors charged that gangster Gerald Sarro — part of a massive drug-dealing, loan-sharking and bookmaking gang — used the Bunker to take illegal bets until he went to prison in 2010. Last August, Boston police cited the club for selling alcohol without a license.

But the club’s reputation did not deter Campatelli.

“Patty had a laptop on a table and one on the pool table” as well as a campaign volunteer helping her to enter data, said someone who frequents the club.

Boncore downplayed the importance of the Bunker as a campaign office for Campatelli, but acknowledged that she has been to the club and may have shaken hands there. Officials at the club, which still has a “Patty” bumper sticker on the door, did not return calls seeking comment.

Campatelli also had campaign finance problems, records show, including a nearly $6,000 private credit card balance that was paid off using campaign funds and at least two bounced checks Campatelli wrote to the campaign.

Mary Jones, an accountant and treasurer of Campatelli’s campaign, said that Campatelli may have made honest mistakes and was not attempting to use campaign funds for her personal expenses. She said that Campatelli inadvertently transferred her credit card balance to the campaign because she was using her own credit card for campaign purchases. Jones also said the bounced checks happened because Campatelli wrote checks on the wrong account.

“She would never use campaign funds to pay off personal uses of the credit card,” said Jones in an interview. “As far as I know, it was all above board.”

Jones and Boncore confirm that Campatelli is under scrutiny from the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

As register of probate over the past year, Campatelli clashed with some employees who complained that she did not know how the office functioned and sometimes seemed more interested in taking cigarette breaks than learning.

“Patty has taken no interest whatsoever in understanding the work; it’s almost insulting,” said one employee who, like several others interviewed, asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

Others said that Campatelli was quick to punish employees, giving written citations to two senior employees who missed work for personal reasons. The day Perry returned to work after the alleged assault last month, Campatelli scolded him for bringing alcohol into the courthouse on another occasion, according to someone with direct knowledge, something Perry took as an implied threat that he could be punished for raising the assault issue.

In the suspension letter Ordonez sent to Campatelli, the judge cited three reasons for placing her on leave:

“1. Your failure to properly manage the office

“2. Your unprofessional conduct and behaviors in the office toward employees

“3. The combination of the above is causing turmoil and disruption in the office.”

But Boncore said the complaining about Campatelli was limited to four of five people who do not like her. out of an office with 40 employees.

“She is not a violent person,” said Boncore. “She is a nice person. She tries to help people.”

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at sean.murphy@globe.com. Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.
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