The state commission that disciplines judges found that Judge Richard L. Gumo, the acting judge in the village of Walton, committed misconduct during a case in which he sentenced a Walton woman to 15 days in jail for swearing in public.
Gumo demonstrated “insensitivity to his ethical obligations” during and after the case, according to a determination of admonition issued by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct on Dec. 30, 2014 and released to the public on Jan. 8, 2015.
Carl F. Becker, a Delaware County Court judge who received an “inappropriate” letter from Gumo about the case, filed the complaint with the commission. The letter contained “self-serving advocacy” and “sarcasm" and was written “in a fit of pique,” according to the commission.
Reached by phone, Gumo told the Watershed Post that he was “not permitted by law to make a comment” about the case.
If Gumo does not appeal the commission’s admonition, it will become final. An admonition is the lightest form of discipline the commission can issue; harsher sanctions include censure or removal from the bench.
Gumo was the judge in the case of Jeanie Groat, a village of Walton resident who got into an F-bomb-laden argument with a Delaware County 4-H official, Jeannette Moser-Orr, during the 2010 Delaware County Fair in Walton.
In 2011, after a trial in the Walton Village Court, Gumo sentenced Groat to the maximum possible sentence for the crime: 15 days in jail and $375 in fines and fees for disorderly conduct. The prosecutors had asked for a much lighter sentence.
Groat’s lawyers criticized the sentence for being overly harsh, and appealed it all the way to the New York State Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. The case received national attention after the Walton Reporter wrote about it, prompting a story on NPR.
After a Delaware County judge upheld her conviction, Groat served 9 days of her 15-day sentence in the Delaware County Correctional Facility in October 2013.
A daughter testifies in her mother’s court
The commission had three concerns about Gumo’s conduct during the case: Gumo allowed the daughter of the court clerk to be a key witness in the case without disclosing that fact; he allowed the clerk to sit in the courtroom during her daughter’s testimony; and he sent an “ethically and procedurally improper” letter to Judge Becker, who handled the case on appeal.
During Groat’s trial, Judge Gumo did not disclose that one of the key witnesses against Groat, 14-year-old Colleen Beers, was the daughter of the Walton Village Court clerk, Kristin Beers. Colleen provided some of the key evidence against Groat.
Having the daughter testify in a court where her mother was the clerk creates “the appearance of impropriety,” the commission members wrote. Beers processed her own daughter's deposition and sat in the courtroom while her daughter testified, according to court documents.
“It was his ethical duty to disclose the relationship on the record,” the commission members wrote. “Disclosure permits the parties to address the issue and bring to a judge's attention information or concerns that might influence the judge's decision on disqualification. In a small town, where, as the prosecutor stated, ‘there was an assumption everybody knew everybody,’ it was especially important to bring the issue into the open by addressing it in court, in order to dispel any appearance of impropriety and reaffirm the integrity and impartiality of the court.”
'A fit of pique'
After Gumo handed down Groat’s sentence, she appealed her case.
The higher court judge, Delaware County Court Judge Carl F. Becker, delayed Groat’s jail sentence until after the appeal, saying at a hearing that it was a “no-brainer” that the case should not have gone forward with the daughter of the court clerk appearing as a witness.
In response, Gumo mailed, faxed and hand delivered a letter to Becker in which he “abandoned his role as a neutral arbiter and became an advocate,” the commission members write.
In the letter, Gumo argues that Groat’s conviction and sentence should be upheld.
Some of the letter is written in all-caps, and at one point Gumo writes that Groat has “not one scintilla of evidence” that he had done anything wrong. The end of the letter contains what the commission describes as a sarcastic paragraph responding to Becker’s “no-brainer” comment.
“[Gumo] was offended and embarrassed by Judge Becker's ‘no-brainer’ comment, which he thought made him ‘look like a complete dunce’ and ‘impugned the integrity’ of his court,” the commission members wrote.
After receiving the letter, Becker forwarded it to the commission and then recused himself from Groat’s case.
A year later, another judge, Acting Delaware County Court Judge John F. Lambert, dismissed Groat’s case. She appealed again, but after reviewing the case, the New York State Court of Appeals declined to hear it. Groat went to jail in October 2013.
Gumo’s term as the appointed acting judge in Walton Town Court—he handles cases that Walton’s elected town justice cannot—is up in April. Gumo also serves as the Delhi Town Court Judge. He ran as an unopposed Republican for that seat in 2013, and his term expires on Dec. 31, 2017.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Colleen Beers's deposition was signed by her mother, Walton Village Court Clerk Kristin Beers. In fact, Colleen's deposition was signed by her father. We have removed a photo of the signatures that accompanied this story.