The election for the clerk of the criminal division of the Suffolk County Superior Court has heated up in recent weeks with current office-holder Maura Hennigan being fined for violating a campaign finance law and being blamed for allowing a murder suspect to be released from prison.
But despite the hot temperature of the campaign, Hennigan and Robert Dello Russo, a former clerk employee who is attempting to unseat Hennigan, both actually agree on a subject: The clerk’s office is understaffed and under-funded.
“That’s going to be key to running the office efficiently,” Dello Russo said about restoring the staff and funding. “You can’t have people pushed to the limit. That’s how mistakes are made.”
Hennigan also talked about being understaffed, saying when she arrived in 2006, she had 22 assistant clerks, but now has only 12.
“We don’t have enough clerks for the court sessions,” said Hennigan.
But she added, “I love this job. It’s an important job. The more challenging it is, the more I like it.”
Both opponents, who know each other well after facing off in the last election in 2006, agree that this year’s campaign will be hard-fought. Carmen Alvarez Phillips, a blogger, was going to throw her hat in the ring too, but decided “no self-respecting person goes into politics,” she said.
“I expect a challenging campaign,” said Hennigan. “It’s not for the faint of heart. I’ve been in this business for a long time.”
The fire has already been stoked with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance recently finding Hennigan guilty of violating a campaign finance law for having court employees label envelopes intended to send out her campaign materials. She was ordered to pay a $2,000 fine.
“I think it is a major point. I don’t think it is the point,” said Dello Russo. “But I definitely think voters should be concerned with it.”
In a written statement, Hennigan said, “I was not present nor did I instruct employees to engage in this activity. I have cooperated fully with OCPF since I first learned of the incident and agreed to reimburse the Commonwealth for the employees’ time. I regret that this occurred and will be providing training to all members of my staff on campaign finance laws.”
Another controversy Hennigan has found herself in was the recent release of murder suspect Jean Torres Vargas due to a clerk’s error in her office, a story first reported by the Revere Journal. Hennigan said it was human error and the assistant clerk involved didn’t do due diligence.
Dello Russo said these are the type of mistakes that happen when an office isn’t fully staffed.
“That has nothing to do with the clerk,” he said. “It has to do with the office being pushed when the office is short-staffed.”
But Dello Russo did criticize Hennigan for creating animosity inside the clerk’s office, saying she rubs many people there the wrong way. He said that many in the office feel as if Hennigan has a double-standard dealing with people who supported her during the last election versus those who supported Dello Russo.
“I have the ability to work well with everybody,” said Dello Russo.
Hennigan said she works hard to have a congenial office atmosphere and drew attention to the fact she picked Joe Rubino, a man who had endorsed Dello Russo during the last election, as her first assistant clerk.
“I wanted to have a good relationship with people,” said Hennigan.
She added, “I can’t force people to like me or want to work with me.”