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Wednesday, November 6, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Commission finds poor bookkeeping in Corfu court making it impossible to account for all the funds

post by Howard B. Owens in alexander, Brandi Watts, corfu, Robert Alexander

It's likely the taxpayers of Corfu may never know just how much money went missing from the Village Court during the years that Judge Robert Alexander sat on the bench and his daughter, Brandi Watts, was his court clerk.

Watts has already reimbursed the village $10,128 as part of her agreement to plead guilty last week to a single count of tampering with government records, a Class D felony.

A report issued yesterday by the NYS Judicial Review Commission says its investigation found more than $14,000 went undeposited in the court's bank acount from Jan. 1, 2009 to March 31, 2010.

That's one of the problems with the case, said Special Prosecutor Donald O'Geen -- nobody can agree how much money is missing. The comptroller came up with a different figure and Pam Yasses, the current court clerk, did her own audit and came up with a completely different figure.

At the heart of the judicial commission's review, as it was with the comptroller's original audit, is that the bookkeeping was apparently just plain sloppy during Alexander's administration of the court.

For example, there's more than $51,000 in funds received by the court during the period reviewed by the commission that aren't properly recorded. The commission said there is simply no record of where the money came from.

In 39 out of 50 cash deposits during the time period, the court records and bank documents don't reconcile.

Watts allegedly failed to issue receipts for payments on fines in 379 traffic ticket cases during the review period.

O'Geen said the easiest part of the case to prove against Watts, and what eventually led to her guilty plea, was the paper trail indicating the Watts would charge people paying a traffic ticket by check more than the fine imposed by Alexander. O'Geen said he believes Watts was using that higher charge to back fill for funds she was taking from cash fine payments.

The possibility of more missing money from the same time period isn't likely to lead to new charges against either Alexander nor Watts, O'Geen said. In the case of Watts, it would constitute double jeopardy to charge her for essentially the same crime twice, and for Alexander, there's no indication he ever actually took any money himself.

Alexander is legally liable for any missing funds in the court during his time in office. However, it would be up to the Village of Corfu to decide what it could prove is missing beyond the $10,128 already paid back and any potential higher amount believed missing.

"One of the biggest problems with this case," O'Geen said, "is the records are simply in disarray."

The judicial commission's report also complains that Alexander was reducing the fine amount on traffic tickets and waiving surcharges so that the state wasn't getting its share of the revenue.

More than 2,300 traffic tickets during the review period should have resulted in fines being remitted to the state, but did not, the report states.

O'Geen noted that in just about every jurisdiction in the state, judges routinely reduce traffic violations to a parking ticket with a fine that goes entirely to the local jurisdiction.

To fix that, the state recently added a surcharge to parking tickets, O'Geen said.

The commission also criticized Alexander for hiring his daughter without proper judicial commission approval.

During our conversation, O'Geen also referenced a comptroller's audit in October of the court in the Town of Alexander that found the court failed to maintain good accounting records, with nearly 1,900 traffic tickets still pending that should have been resolved.

The local municipal justice system is broken, O'Geen said.

"They're (Corfu) are not unique and that's part of the problem," O'Geen said. "There's a larger conversation to have that the system is bigger than part-time judges and part-time clerks can handle."

In calling for Alexander's removal from the bench -- Alexander resigned from his remaining court position in Pembroke last week -- the commission used harsh language to criticize the former justice.

The commission said Alexander "failed to uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary by failing to maintain high standards of conduct," that he "failed to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety," that he "failed to respect and comply with the law and failed to act in a manner that protects public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."

Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 10:24 am

Robert Alexander suspended as justice in the Town of Pembroke

post by Howard B. Owens in corfu, crime, Robert Alexander

Robert E. Alexander has been suspended with pay effective Thursday as justice in the Town of Pembroke in an order signed by NYS Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

Alexander is under indictment on charges of coercion and official misconduct. He's also been accused -- but not charged with any crime -- of threatening a Town of Pembroke board member.

A former Village of Corfu justice, Alexander's troubles started June 2012 when a NYS Comptroller's Office audit allegedly uncovered at least $10,000 in missing court funds.

In June, Alexander's daughter, Brandi Watts, who was the Village of Corfu court clerk during the period of time covered by the audit, was indicted on 61 counts, including felony counts of grand larceny.

In July, Lippman ordered Alexander removed from all pending court cases in Pembroke and barred him from hearing any future cases pending the outcome of the criminal case against him.

The charges against Alexander stem from a compliant lodged by the current court clerk, Pam Yasses, that Alexander harassed her after initially directing her to conduct an audit of the court records and then reportedly being unhappy with the results when Yasses said she confirmed at least $10,000 in missing funds.

Alexander has denied any wrongdoing.

Further Reading: This morning we found this undated story about Alexander on the 700 Club Web site.

Monday, July 22, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Former village justice Robert Alexander says he would never do anything to hurt the people of Corfu

post by Howard B. Owens in Brandi Watts, corfu, crime, Robert Alexander

Former Village of Corfu justice Robert Alexander said after his appearance in County Court this afternoon that he would never, ever, do anything to hurt the people of his lifelong hometown.

Alexander would not discuss the specifics of the case against him -- he's charged with coercion and official misconduct -- but reiterated in a short statement to media gathered outside the courthouse that he's a born-again Christian and that he wouldn't break the law.

"I had the privileged of serving in the Village of Corfu for 24 years," Alexander said. "I grew up there. I love that village, and when I see people or hear people in social media or on television or anything like that say anything about a case, I say, let a case run its course, number one, but number two, the wonderful people of Corfu shouldn’t have to be put through all those kinds of things where it’s played out in the media versus where it’s played out in a court."

Asked whether he would take the case against him to trial, Alexander said that's something for him and his attorney to discuss and otherwise declined to comment.

The changes stem from what may have been an alleged attempt by Alexander to clear the name of his daughter, Brandi Watts.

Watts worked for Alexander as his court clerk from 2009 to 2011.

After Watts was named in a NYS comptroller's audit that allegedly found the court was missing more than $10,000 in funds, Alexander reportedly asked his new court clerk, Pam Yasses, to audit the court books. Yasses reportedly completed the audit and found the court was missing funds.

According to Yasses, who spoke about the situation at an Oct. 8 meeting of village trustees, Alexander did not accept the results of the new audit and Yasses complained that Alexander was trying to intimidate her and get her to quit her job.

The allegations against Alexander reportedly stem from that incident.

Alexander denied breaking the law.

"I won’t say anything about the case, except I will only say I love the people of Corfu and never do anytihng, as a born-again Christian, as a man serving them, I would never even think of breaking the law in any way, shape or form, no less doing it," Alexander said. "I would certainly would never, ever, ever want to bring anything that would hurt those people that I served for 24 years. We'll let it play out in court."

Alexander also told reporters, "I’m a Christian, I believe in Jesus Christ and I believe in the end I will be vindicated."

Neither Watts nor Alexander entered a plea today and both are scheduled to reappear at 2:15 p.m., Aug. 12, in County Court.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Corfu trustee denies running afoul of closed session protocol

post by Howard B. Owens in corfu, Robert Alexander

In May, Village of Corfu trustees met in closed session and discussed whether the village court really needed both a full-time and part-time clerk.

A portion of that closed session conversion was leaked to Justice Robert Alexander.

At Monday's meeting where the full-time clerk, Pamela Yasses, raised a formal complaint about alleged harassment by Alexander, Trustee Ralph Peterson was accused of being the source of that leak.

At the meeting, Peterson flatly denied it, but a May 24 memo from Alexander to the village trustees suggests Peterson was the source of the information.

From Alexander's memo:

I was amazed when Trustee Peterson informed me this morning that Trustee Graham reported to the Board that the Village Court Clerk Pam Yasses told him that she didn't need the Part Time Court Clerk, (Tom Ingram) and that she can and is handling all the court business without in the him (sic) in her 40-hour-work week. The court clerk does not have the legal right to speak for the Court or evaluate and or comment on the duties or her performance of the court duties to the Board of Trustee members.

Al Graham said today the only place Peterson would have heard about his conversation with Yasses was in the executive session, held the night before Alexander's memo was issued.

Here's the conversation from Monday's meeting:

Peterson: My question is, what do we do?

Attorney Mark Boylan: What do you not do. What you do not do is get on the phone after the meeting and call the judge and tell him what just happened, first of all.

Peterson: I’m asking a question, the question I’m asking is related to this particular situation and the action of the board to pursue this.

Boylan: I’m concerned about action with individuals, too.

Peterson: Well, OK fine, but ...

Boylan: If you’re not acting in concert, in other words, as a board, you're acting individually against the board's wishes ...

Peterson: Are you accusing me of something?

Boylan: Well, I don’t know how this last issue with executive session could have gotten to the judge so quickly. I don’t have any information, but I’m just wondering.

Yasses: Let me say on the record, Rosie, I’m going to call you out because it was you.

Peterson: Well, I asked, that's right.

Yasses: You lied to my face and then you tried to tell me you didn’t tell Judge Alexander something. You did.

Peterson: Where did I lie?

Yasses: You came to me and then we had that meeting ...

Peterson: Whoa, whoa, whoa ... where was the lie.

Yasses: You breached executive session and then he came to me and told me.

Peterson: No I did not.

Yasses: It's the only way ...

Peterson: I did not.

Yasses: Rosie, ...

Peterson: I did not. I did not tell him. I don't know how he found out, but I did not tell him.

Boylan: What I'm telling you is if anybody, if anybody acts against the agreement of the board, you are subjecting this board to potential litigtion.

Tonight, Peterson said he did talk with Alexander, but only after consulting with a staff member at the New York Conference of Mayors who said the board met in a session that should not have been closed to the public.

Under New York law, elected bodies can -- but are not required to -- go into closed session to discuss personnel matters. Peterson said he was told that since the board was discussing a staff position and not the person who held the position, there was nothing confidential about the conversation. The conversation should have taken place in an open meeting.

In his May 24 letter, Alexander accused the board of conducting an illegal executive session and said he, or any village resident, had the option of pursuing litigation to overturn any decision in an illegal executive session.

Graham said the issue came up in May because he went into the court clerk's office prior to a trustee meeting and happened to ask if the part-time position was really necessary.

Yasses, he said, shared with him her thoughts on the matter. He conveyed those thoughts to the rest of the board, which voted to eliminate the position.

At the time, Graham said, the part-time clerk was apparently working on a project for Alexander and Yasses was handling all of the court's business during her 40-hour work week.

The issue has apparently become a sore point for Alexander (who hasn't responded to our request for a statement or interview) because Yasses said he's raised several times with her his belief that she should have no communication with trustees about court business, even though Yasses is employed by the village.

Because Yasses is an employee of the village, according to Boylan, it's perfectly acceptable for trustees to communicate with her and for her to respond to questions about her duties, responsibilities and how they're are discharged.

In emails obtained by The Batavian as part of a larger FOIL request this summer, after this May meeting, Alexander begins a long argument with Mayor Todd Skeet about the re-appointment of Yasses as his clerk.

In a May 31 email, he suggests that the board of trustees didn't follow proper legal procedure in her re-appointment and that he needed a meeting with Skeet. He concludes: "I would like to fulfill the last year of my 24 years as Village Justice with an experienced clerk. I am therefore asking that you confer with me and re-appoint my court clerk."

Alexander maintains in several emails that he has not been properly consulted, as required by state law, on the re-appointment of Yasses.

According to Graham, the trustees feel Alexander gave his consent to her re-appointment in the May 31 email and in a voice mail he left for Skeet.

The board has taken the position that Yasses is an employee of the board and cannot be dismissed by Alexander.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012 at 10:16 am

Court clerk in Corfu files harassment complaint against village justice

post by Howard B. Owens in corfu, Robert Alexander

Some time within the next couple of days, Corfu Justice Robert Alexander will receive a letter from the Village of Corfu Board of Trustees reprimanding him for allegedly harassing and intimidating his court clerk.

Pamela Yasses, who has clerked for Alexander since September 2011, lodged a formal complaint with the trustees at the board's regular meeting Monday night.

The complaint has its roots in how Yasses came to be court clerk in the first place: as a replacement for Brandi Watts, the daughter of Alexander, who was dismissed from her job after it was determined she couldn't work for her father as a clerk.

During this same period of time, a state audit of court records found the court is potentially missing as much as $30,000 in funds received as fines or bail money.

The Judicial Review Commission is reportedly investigating the matter.

Alexander has not responded to an email request for a comment on the complaint filed by Yasses.

According to the account given by Yasses on Monday, shortly after being hired by the trustees, she was asked by Alexander, who is her direct supervisor, to conduct an internal audit of court financial records.

At the same time, Alexander sent a letter to all village residents saying the accusations of financial irregularities could easily be refuted, but "I refuse to lower myself to such tactics, and even much worse by doing so in the news media."

Instead, Alexander announced that he ordered Yasses and then part-time clerk Tom Ingram to conduct an "objective investigation and document the truth."

He promised to release the results no matter what the outcome.

Yasses said Monday night that the internal audit was completed in March and she found evidence of missing funds that "paralleled" the state's findings.

A substantial amount of money is missing, she said, and new evidence continues to emerge of possible misplaced funds the longer she's on the job.

Alexander never released the audit results to village residents as promised, according to the conversation during the meeting.

Instead, according to Yasses, he has tried numerous times to contrive ways to force her out of her job.

"His treatment and attitude towards me has shifted, becoming intimidating, and quite frankly unacceptable," Yasses said. "The continual threat of forcing my resignation or possibly firing me is not something that should be tolerated. I do believe what I am experiencing is classified as harassment."

As a personnel matter, Yasses could have requested her case be heard in closed session, but she said she preferred to address the matter publicly.

While Alexander supervises the clerk's position, the clerk is an employee of the Village of Corfu and only the trustees have the power to terminate her employment, according to village attorney Mark Boylan.

While Alexander has allegedly ordered Yasses on numerous occasions to not communicate with trustees, Boylan said the judge doesn't have the authority to prohibit the clerk from talking to the elected officials who pay her wages.

Though Yasses said Alexander has allegedly harassed her since she completed the internal audit, things apparently came to a head about a month ago after Yasses agreed to do a favor for a Corfu police officer by mailing out a traffic ticket to a citizen.

While it's unclear whether Yasses used an envelope with with a Village of Corfu Court return address, Alexander has accused her of using such an envelope.

Yasses read from an email she said she received from Alexander about the matter:

I'm contemplating what action I am taking about the gross violation of the issue with Officer Retzlaff's ticket. The powers that are in charge are researching whether you committed a violation of the law or just a gross violation of ethical issues in the matter. Hopefully, we'll have the reply by this week or early next week and I will then decide what I am going to do as it applies to your removal from the clerk position, given a chance to resign, or other less drastic measures to see that you never do such an egregious violation.

Boylan told the trustees that the village is facing a potential lawsuit and needed to take action to protect Yasses from Alexander.

"There needs to be a letter, some sort of written admonishment from this board to the judge instructing him to cease and desist his activities," Boylan said. "He cannot continue to conduct himself in this manner. Clearly, this is harassment and clearly this board has an obligation to protect its employee, to safeguard her."

If Alexander fails to comply with the board's request, Boylan said the board could begin proceedings to remove Alexander from office. He said the procedure isn't easy and would take some time.

Out of concern that once Alexander finds out about the complaint lodged by Yasses, but before he receives the letter, he will harass Yasses further, the board agreed to give Yasses a week off with pay. However, upon discussion, it was determined certain court tasks must be completed this week, so she was instructed to only come into the office at times when other employees or trustees are present.

Trustee Art Ianni several times asked Yasses if she understood what she was taking on by bringing a complaint about an elected official to the board.

"This isn't a hot dog stand," Ianni said. "Just because you don't like the guy who puts the mustard on the roll doesn't mean we can get rid of him."

Regardless of how difficult it might be to remove Alexander from office, Mayor Todd Skeet said that as employers, the board needed to ensure employees were protected from a hostile work environment.

"One of the things I think I should say as mayor is that everyone of our employees should come to work happy and go home happy," Skeet said. "If I put myself in Pam's shoes, I'd be pretty unhappy."

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