Lack of Ethics?
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Back, With A Big Payday
Appointee Left Job In '04 After Ethics Complaint
By JON LENDER | Courant Staff Writer
March 22, 2008
In late 2004, Christopher F. Oliveira quit a job as a $43,466-a-year family relations counselor trainee at the state's judicial branch soon after being accused of misusing office equipment for political purposes.
Two months ago, Gov. M. Jodi Rell appointed Oliveira to a major post as a $121,615-a-year family magistrate, making him one of nine quasi-judicial officers deciding cases involving paternity and child support.
How did Oliveira — with the disciplinary case in his past, newly obtained documents now show — get to this high state post, at triple the salary of his previous job, in the same judicial branch where he got in trouble before?
Rell's office offered few answers — although gubernatorial press secretary Chris Cooper said Friday night: "No information on this matter was included in the background report" done in connection with Oliveira's appointment.
Asked if Oliveira failed to disclose the episode, or if Rell still believes he meets the standards of ethics that she has espoused publicly, Cooper declined to comment further.
No such questions had arisen on Jan. 4, when the Republican governor announced her appointment of Oliveira, saying she was confident he would be "an excellent Family Support Magistrate." State statutes are not detailed about the qualifications needed to become magistrate — just be a lawyer at least five years and "be experienced in the field of family law."
"Chris is passionate about public service and the law. He is a family law specialist who knows all about the day-to-day operations at the Family Magistrate Division," Rell said in the release.
Until his appointment, the 37-year-old lawyer held the longtime political roles of Republican chairman in Old Lyme and member of the Republican State Central Committee. He also waged a sometimes-rough campaign — unsuccessfully — as the Republican challenger against incumbent Democratic state Sen. Andrea L. Stillman of Waterford in 2006.
During the campaign, Oliveira raised an ethics question against Stillman. He charged that she didn't help constituents fight New London's controversial eminent domain efforts because of a conflict of interest: Stillman co-owns a family business that sold office supplies to New London and its economic development corporation.
Oliveira, it turns out, had an ethics issue of his own involving office supplies, and it closely preceded his abrupt departure in late 2004 from the job as a family relations trainee he had held for less than a year at the Middletown courthouse.
On Oct. 25, 2004, a letter went out to Oliveira from a personnel administrator saying that a citizen's complaint had been received "regarding your use of Judicial Branch equipment for personal/political business," according to documents obtained by the Courant under a Freedom of Information Act request.
An internal investigation indicated that he had apparently violated policies against political activity. "This activity appears to warrant discipline," human resources manager Joel C. Riley wrote, adding that a "pre-disciplinary hearing" had been scheduled for Oct. 28, 2004.
Notes taken by an official during an investigative interview and subsequent hearing indicate that Oliveira apparently acknowledged using office equipment and materials for political and personal purposes on a limited basis, as he described it.
"Apologizes for personal/political involvement," one note says. Others say: "Does get calls during the day" and "Work Station — Campaign related work ... Written letter to editor or response — use of computer & printer." Another note mentioned "50 faxes," with no elaboration, and was followed by "Oliveira's response: Recognizes the seriousness of events and is happy to reimburse the cost."
Less than two weeks after the hearing, Oliveira submitted his resignation, and no further action was taken. "I have chosen to pursue a career in the private practice of law," he wrote in a Nov. 9, 2004, letter to Riley, "and I must accordingly depart the Branch."
His resignation was effective six days later, and, for the last four years until his appointment, he maintained a solo practice in his Old Lyme home. He has said that it focused on family law and mediation.
No more information on the disciplinary episode is available, and Oliveira refuses to clarify things. Weeks ago, he said through a judicial branch spokesperson that he would not comment for this story. He maintained that stance this week.
Part of the judicial branch's file on Oliveira was withheld from The Courant after he signed a form March 10 saying its release would invade his privacy. No objection was noted, however, to the release of a favorable performance evaluation in August 2004 that called him a "quick study whose knowledge base is expanding at an admirable pace."
Rell's release described magistrates as "quasi-judicial officers" who "perform some judicial functions." They sit in state courthouses and handle child support cases that include both welfare recipients and people asking for help from the state to collect child support.
The magistrates establish, modify and enforce orders for child support and spousal support, and they also hear paternity cases. Oliveira sits Mondays at the Hartford Superior Courthouse on Washington Street under the current schedule and divides his time Tuesday through Friday between courthouses in Norwich and New Haven.
Contact Jon Lender at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2008, The Hartford Courant
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