The two candidates for the clerk of the criminal division of the Suffolk County Superior Court are ensuring the campaign is one of the more contentious local races by slinging accusations against each other.
Current office-holder Maura Hennigan, a JP resident, is accusing her opponent’s supporters of jeopardizing public safety, while Robert Dello Russo, a former clerk employee who is attempting to unseat Hennigan, said the clerk is using staff shortages as an excuse not to do her job.
Hennigan became embroiled in controversy two months ago when an error in her office led to alleged murderer Jean Torres Vargas being released from prison two weeks before his arraignment, a story first reported by the Revere Journal. Vargas had been in prison on assault and battery and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon charges.
While at the Gazette’s office for an interview, Hennigan brought a document that seemed to show that Dello Russo had signed a document that had Vargas’ name misspelled and might have led to his release.
Dello Russo said in a phone interview with the Gazette he wouldn’t have had any idea if the name was spelled correctly when he signed the document.
“If there was a typo, then there was typo. Obviously it was never caught,” said Dello Russo.
He continued later, “This is not uncommon. But it is very upsetting hearing her trying to blame me for the misspelling. It shows her lack of knowing the process.”
Hennigan also implied that Dello Russo supporters who work at her office released information to a local television news outlet, putting at risk an investigation to recapture Torres Vargas. He has since been found and is back in custody.
“When you have someone who worked in your office run, they’re going to have people who were their friends,” said Hennigan in a recent interview at the Gazette. “Of course they should support their friend. But never do it in a way that jeopardizes public safety or utilize information that is not public record, that only court employees are privy to that is not part of the record.”
Dello Russo denied any knowledge of the situation and said he wouldn’t know if his supporters would commit such an act.
“I have no idea about this issue,” he said. “I wouldn’t know about it anyways. I’m not there at the clerk’s office.”
But Dello Russo did talk about a pressing issue for the clerk’s office: staffing shortages. Dello Russo noted that in several counties in the state, the clerk will cover court sessions when the need arises, such as when an assistant clerk is out sick. He said Hennigan has not done that.
“My problem with Maura Hennigan is that she is using the staff shortages as an excuse for not doing her job,” said Dello Russo.
Hennigan wrote in an emailed response that the clerk’s job is an administrative position and that Dello Russo clearly doesn’t understand that role.
“If I was in a session, there would be no one here to actually run the office and set up the sessions daily,” she wrote. “It is very important to continually monitor to make sure the courtrooms are actually covered. My opponent knows first-hand why it is necessary for me to monitor the clerk’s sessions.”
Hennigan accused Dello Russo of leaving a court session without permission to attend a liquor license matter at City Hall.
Dello Russo, who owns a small part of a North End restaurant, said he had told the first assistant clerk about the errand to City Hall and had used a vacation day to miss the session. He said Hennigan held a hearing on the matter that resulted in a letter being placed in his personnel file. Dello Russo appealed to the chief justice and the letter was removed from his file, he said.
“For 13 years, I was an assistant clerk and I never did anything to embarrass the clerk, even Maura,” said Dello Russo. “But she continues to belittle me. I don’t want to trade jabs with her.”
Meanwhile, Hennigan is attempting to reform the two systems that manage warrants for the District Attorney’s Office, Sheriff’s Department and the courts. She said that having two systems, which will eventually be consolidated into one system but haven’t yet because of budget concerns, contributed to Vargas being released. Hennigan has been in contact with both the DA and sheriff offices trying to improve the two systems.