Corrupt Passaic Judge’s Ethics Hearings Continue
Law360’s Jeannie O’Sullivan covered the March 22, 2017 Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct hearing against Passaic County Superior Court Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebi. Silebi, who was charged by the New Jersey Supreme Court with lying to police, interfering in a former intern’s child custody case, and then lying under oath to investigators, has long been criticized for illegal rulings and unlawful conduct in criminal cases.
The illegal aliens went on to reenter the United States after their deportation and committed more crimes, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As it happens, Silebi is herself a Columbian refugee and the intern she had helped out is a temporary resident from Brazil.
A New Jersey woman who allegedly got improper help in her custody battle from a judge who wasn’t involved in her case told a judicial ethics panel Wednesday that while she formerly served as the jurist’s unpaid intern, the two weren’t close and she never asked for the assistance in her family court dispute.
Testifying before the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct in the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton, Vivianne Chermont said that she didn’t even know at first that it was Superior Court Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebi — now facing ethics charges over her alleged intervention — who asked Fort Lee, New Jersey, police to get involved on a Saturday morning in May 2015 when Chermont’s ex-husband refused to return their, now 7, son after a visit.
“Desperate” to get her son back for Mother’s Day weekend, Chermont said she turned to a friend, a bartender who knew law enforcement community members because of his job, after her own attempts to get the police to intervene failed.
He took her cellphone, made a call to a then-unknown person, and after that “the problem was solved,” she said, adding that he wouldn’t tell her who he contacted. Chermont said she didn’t ask questions and assumed the friend had possibly called a sheriff’s officer. It was only after seeing the police report that Chermont learned of Judge DeAvila-Silebi’s involvement, which she called “a coincidence.”
“I don’t have a relationship with any judges,” Chermont, a Brazil native who says she worked as an attorney in her home country and has held legal assistant jobs since coming to the United States.
Her internship under Judge DeAvila-Silebi took place between February and May 2014, when the judge sat in Bergen County Superior Court, according to questioning by ACJC counsel Maureen G. Bauman. But aside from their initial introduction, Chermont said, she didn’t have contact with the judge while performing her duties as an observer in the judge’s courtroom and didn’t talk with the judge’s staffers.
That characterization drew scrutiny from the ACJC members, who seemed skeptical that an intern and supervisor had such a nominal connection.
“You would go to work … and you wouldn’t talk to anybody at all?” asked Karen Kessler, a lay member of the ACJC.
Currently the supervising Special Civil Part Judge for Passaic County, Judge DeAvila-Silebi is accused of misrepresenting to law enforcement that she had received a call from an attorney with an emergent application for a client who was supposed to have her child that weekend and for saying she’d actually seen the custody court order that was in dispute.
The two-count ethics complaint, which was filed in October, also alleges she misrepresented herself to the police as the judge who was on “emergent duty” — meaning the on-call judge who handles emergency applications for matters that arise outside of office hours — that weekend.
It was unclear how Chermont’s friend, who was not among the witnesses who testified Wednesday, had access to Judge DeAvila-Silebi’s contact information or why he called her specifically.
Testimony from Chermont and others took up the bulk of the roughly five-hour ethics hearing, prompting the ACJC’s chair, retired New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Virginia A. Long, to announce that the judge would testify at a later date.
Judge DeAvila-Silebi’s attorney, Raymond Reddin, characterized his client as someone who took her responsibility as a presiding judge seriously and was acting not because of any personal involvement but out of concern for the welfare of the mother and son.
“She sensed volatility. She sensed there could be an altercation. Most importantly, the first word she heard was ‘child,’” Reddin told the panel.
At the time of the May 2015 incident that prompted the ethics complaint, Judge DeAvila-Silebi was undergoing the “stressful” process achieving tenure and also transferring from the Bergen to Passaic vicinages, according to Reddin.
He disputed the accuracy of portions of the ethics complaint and said there was ”zero appearance of impropriety.”
Yet the panel still pressed Chermont to explain how she’d worked as intern for Judge DeAvila-Silebi but had no interaction with the judge or any of the staffers.
ACJC member Vincent E. Gentile questioned how, aside from Chermont’s introduction to the judge, there was “no other contact.”
“I’m not a sociable person much,” said Chermont, who also told another ACJC member that she hadn’t been interviewed by the judge for the internship.
Adding to the confusion was the fact that Chermont had indicated in her internship application that she’d been referred to the job by Judge DeAvila-Silebi, which she admitted wasn’t accurate.
“Were you concerned about writing on your application with the state of New Jersey that [the judge] referred you when she actually had not?” ACJC member A. Matthew Boxer asked.
Chermont explained she thought it might help her get the internship.
The ACJC also heard testimony from a trial court administrator who explained how emergent duty judges operated; Chermont’s former attorney in the custody matter, who worked for the firm that employed her in one of her previous legal assistant jobs; and a court clerk who had worked for Judge DeAvila-Silebi for six years.
The clerk seemed to shed light on how Chermont and Judge DeAvila-Silebi managed not to cross paths during Chermont’s internship. The judge was able to access her courtroom from her office through a hallway that was situated away from the area where her staff worked, the clerk said.
The clerk also said she didn’t remember Chermont and didn’t recognize her when the two were in the same waiting area outside of the hearing room Wednesday.
Judge DeAvila-Silebi began working in Bergen County in 2008 and sat on the civil and criminal divisions before her transfer to the Passaic County vicinage May 1, 2015, according to the ACJC complaint.