Louis P. Violanti was a Lackawanna City Court judge earlier this year when he orchestrated a courtroom charade to dismiss a ticket on behalf of a friend.
Violanti instructed a Lackawanna police officer to act as the ticketed motorist and ask for the dismissal.
What happened in the roughly 2 minutes of that sham hearing eventually would cost Violanti his judgeship.
“I was going to reappoint him,” Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski said. “Then, everything came down, and he had to resign.”
But the criminal breach of court conduct did not get in the way of Violanti’s appointment to another city job – as assistant city attorney with a $43,800 annual salary.
The job opened up when the mayor named his father-in-law, Norman A. LeBlanc Jr., who had been city attorney, to the judgeship that Violanti left.
Antonio M. Savaglio, who had been assistant city attorney, was promoted to city attorney.
That is often how hiring happens in Lackawanna for the politically connected.
Violanti’s new job lasted two months. After separate state and county investigations, he was criminally charged with official misconduct for fixing the traffic ticket.
He was forced to quit the assistant city attorney job, as a condition of a plea deal negotiated with the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, said District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III.
The case of official misconduct against Violanti, 40, was adjourned in contemplation of dismissal, a plea deal that means the charge will be dismissed if he stays out of trouble for a short time.
Violanti appeared May 3 in Buffalo City Court, where his case was moved to avoid any conflicts of interest in Lackawanna.
Szymanski confirmed Wednesday that Violanti has submitted his resignation letter. Violanti did not respond to a request to comment.
The mayor, who told The Buffalo News in March that Violanti wanted to step away from the judicial position in order to do more private legal work, acknowledged Wednesday that he knew about the sham proceeding that prompted Violanti to step down as judge.
Szymanski defended hiring him as the city’s assistant attorney, even though under normal circumstances Violanti would have been expected to prosecute cases in the same City Court where he had held the sham hearing Jan. 15.
“Lou was doing mostly just research,” Szymanski said. “He was not going in front of any judges.” Tony Savaglio was handling that, he said.
The mayor said Lackawanna has a small number of lawyers qualified for the job, which must go to a city resident.
“It was one incident,” Szymanski said. “Do I think this has ever happened before? No. It’s unfortunate.”
Violanti often serves as emcee at community events sponsored by the city, churches and nonprofit groups.
“He’s really popular. He’s always funny,” Szymanski said. “Everyone loves Lou.”
Violanti broke the law by the way he dismissed an expired-registration ticket given to Daniel E. Endress, of Hamburg, Sedita said.
“You just can’t fix tickets anymore,” Sedita said.
“It doesn’t work like that anymore. If you do it, you’re subject to criminal prosecution.”
Chief City Judge Frederic J. Marrano was supposed to handle the misdemeanor expired-registration charge against Endress. But Violanti arranged to preside over the case.
John S. Hruby, the Lackawanna police officer assigned to the courtroom, said he was following Violanti’s instructions when he pretended to be the defendant and handed paperwork to the judge during the court session.
Hruby could not be reached to comment, but he described to Sedita’s investigators what occurred.
“It was a stupid thing I did,” Hruby told the investigators, according to a transcript of his interview. “For 18 years I’ve been trained to follow orders. I basically did what I thought the judge told me to do.”
Did Violanti instruct him to pose as the defendant in open court?
“Yes,” Hruby told the investigators. “I went on the record, and said I was this Daniel. He told me to do that. I don’t know if it was a trial or what, but I pretended to be the person, and I handed up the proof.”
Hruby faces a possible 60-day unpaid suspension from the Lackawanna Police Department for his role in the sham proceeding, Szymanski said.
Endress’ Dec. 7 ticket likely would have been dismissed, if the case had been handled properly. At worst, it would have been downgraded to a parking ticket, Sedita said.
Endress’ registration was suspended because of a reported lapse in insurance. But his insurance did not actually lapse, Sedita said. A state Department of Motor Vehicles paperwork mix-up apparently led to the suspension, he said.
If Endress had explained the mix-up or showed a good-faith effort to fix the problem, Sedita said, the prosecutor likely would have dismissed the case.
Violanti was “essentially trying to fix a ticket that, ironically, never needed to be fixed,” Sedita said.
A clerk in the court, who was not present when Violanti dismissed the case, noticed a glitch in the paperwork. The clerk was surprised that the case was called because it was scheduled to be heard by Marrano at a later date.
The Office of the Inspector General for the state court system began investigating Jan. 24, Sedita said.
The sham started when Endress encountered Violanti at church after being ticketed and mentioned his upcoming court appearance to the judge, according to his statement to an investigator.
“Give me the ticket. I’ll take care of it for you,” Violanti told him, according to Endress’ statement.
The bogus hearing was recorded, so investigators could listen to what Violanti and Hruby said.
“Are you Mr. Endress?” Violanti asked Hruby.
Yes, Hruby answered.
“You came in today for what, sir?” Violanti asked.
Hruby, pretending to be Endress, said he had paperwork proving he had insurance.
“Let me see what you have,” Violanti said.
Hruby apparently handed over the paperwork.
“OK, thank you,” Violanti said. “What I don’t understand is why you’re here now?”
Hruby mentioned the high cost of the ticket.
Violanti then said he anticipated that the District Attorney’s Office would dismiss the ticket.
“I don’t think I’m out of bounds by dismissing this case in the interest of justice,” Violanti said.
Once investigators started asking questions, Violanti told both Endress and Hruby to explain what happened.
Sedita explained why he agreed to adjourning is case in contemplation of dismissal.“It’s his first offense,” Sedita said. “The investigations by the Office of Court Administration and my office indicated it was an isolated incident. There was no pattern of corruption or ticket fixing. It was a non-violent misdemeanor-level offense. As a condition of the plea, I made him resign from his public position. Nobody benefited from the offense.”Also, once investigators started asking questions about what happened, Violanti told both Endress and Hruby to tell the truth.“To his credit, he told them to tell the truth,” Sedita said.
In the past, ticket fixing might have been swept under the rug, but not so anymore, Sedita said.“We don’t sweep things under the rug,” he said.