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SJC picks lawyer to investigate probate official

The state’s top court has appointed outside lawyers to determine whether embattled Suffolk County Register of Probate Patricia Campatelli should keep her job, setting up a potential showdown over the trial court’s authority to discipline elected officials.

Meanwhile, Campatelli, who has been on paid leave since January after an incident in which she allegedly punched an employee, is asking the Supreme Judicial Court to allow her to return to work immediately, arguing that she answers only to the voters who elected her in 2012. The SJC is scheduled to hear the case May 8.

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With Campatelli facing a crowded field for reelection in a few months, the SJChas picked Allison D. Burroughs, a private lawyer and former federal prosecutor, to investigate Campatelli on behalf of the Committee on Professional Responsibility for Clerks of the Courts, a committee of the SJC that investigates misconduct allegations.

The committee has been reviewing Campatelli’s conduct since a court-appointed investigator in March found that she worked just a few hours a day and spent much of that time taking smoking breaks, scratching lottery tickets, and filling out puzzles. The investigator, Ronald P. Corbett Jr., also criticized Campatelli’s “poor judgment” for drinking excessively with employees.

Campatelli denied all the allegations, but Corbett said he did not believe her, saying that, of the dozens of employees he questioned, only Campatelli seemed untruthful.

With all the controversy swirling around her — and the promise of a $132,500 annual salary next year — Campatelli has drawn an extraordinary field of seven opponents in the fall election.

In court documents filed last week, Campatelli asserted that the court administrators who appointed Corbett lacked the authority to suspend an elected official. However, she conceded in rare cases the SJC alone can reverse “the will of the people” and suspend or remove an elected register of probate.

“[This] power has rarely been used and only in extreme cases wherein the elected office holder was indicted for a crime or determine to be mentally incompetent or used his/her position for personal gain,” wrote her lawyers, Jeffrey Turco and Philip R. Boncore. “None of these unique circumstances exists in [this] case.”

Campatelli described Corbett’s investigation on behalf of court administrators as “an orchestrated witch hunt of anonymous witnesses.”

Even before Corbett found that Campatelli “created a fearful atmosphere” in the office — allegedly retaliating against workers who questioned her long breaks and plotting to get rid of employees so she could hire her own people — her flaws as a manager had become clear to court supervisors, an internal memo shows.

The memo filed with the court shows that the chief justice of the state probate and family court, Angela M. Ordonez, met with Campatelli on Dec. 30 — after the alleged assault on her employee, Timothy Perry — to review some basic rules of the job: “No drinking with staff. No smoking [breaks] with staff. . . . Respond to emails.”

“Your success is important,” Ordonez wrote in her “Outline for Meeting with Register Campatelli.” “[Need] you to be an effective and well regarded manager who deserves re-election.”

But two weeks later — as the Globe was preparing to publish a story about Campatelli’s conduct at the Christmas party that preceded the alleged assault — Ordonez suspended Campatelli for her “failure to properly manage the office” and her “unprofessional conduct and behaviors in the office and toward employees.”

Campatelli’s lawyers argue that Campatelli may be a victim of bias because Ordonez worked at the Suffolk County Registry of Probate before becoming a judge and is friends with some of Campatelli’s disgruntled employees.

In fact, at the Dec. 30 meeting, Campatelli said Ordonez asked her to reverse disciplinary actions against two registry employees. “Call it a new beginning,” says Ordonez’s memo.

In March, Campatelli asked a single justice of the SJC to end her suspension. “Her relationship, reputation, and goodwill” had been so damaged that “she is losing the trust and confidence of her constituents, which is severely jeopardizing her ability to seek reelection,” wrote Boncore.

Instead of ruling on the case, the single justice, Fernande R.V. Duffly, sent the matter to the SJC. The full court has the power to take any action it sees fit, including terminating Campatelli or suspending her without pay. Or it could wait for Burroughs, a partner at the law firm Nutter McClennen & Fish, to complete her investigation on behalf of the clerk’s committee.

The clerk’s disciplinary committee has recommended removal of a register of probate in the past. Robert B. Antonelli was forced out as the Middlesex County register of probate in 1999. But it took two years and a ruling by the SJC before Antonelli was ousted for mistreating employees. Court officials have been trying to develop a new disciplinary process for clerks, recognizing that the committee has traditionally taken too long.

If the committee does not act more quickly this time, the voters may speak first. The primary election is scheduled for Sept. 9.

Campatelli, who has been actively campaigning, is currently facing challenges from seven candidates: John Sepulveda, an East Boston community activist; former Boston City Councilor and School Committee member Felix Arroyo ; Martin J. Keogh, a Boston lawyer and unsuccessful candidate for City Council; David I. Keenan; John A. Aliperta; Richard J. Joyce; and Jed Hresko, according to state election officials.

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