Arroyo says he faced sabotage as he diversified staff at Suffolk County Register of Probate

Andrew Ryan
FEBRUARY 14, 2017

The suspended Suffolk register of probate is alleging he faced resistance and sabotage by longtime court employees who resented his efforts to diversify the staff and hire people with language skills to assist residents who don’t speak English.

An attorney for register Felix D. Arroyo said Monday that Arroyo inherited an office hobbled by years of mismanagement and cronyism. Arroyo became register in 2015 as the first person of color elected to the post. Court officials suspended him earlier this month without making specific allegations of wrongdoing and placed him on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into the operation of the office.

His attorney, Walter B. Prince, said court administrators undermined Arroyo by preventing him from hiring his own management team as allowed under state law. Administrators did not allow Arroyo to fill positions to help clear a backlog of cases and at times did not allow him to fill other vacancies, the attorney said.

“Felix has been working hard to reform the office and to hire qualified people from diverse backgrounds,” Prince said in an interview. “It’s been met with significant resistance by the folks who have benefited by the previous practices of that office. “As this matter unfolds, there will be evidence that there was sabotage by some of the people that were resentful for the changes he was making,” the attorney said.

Prince did not provide examples of sabotage but said employees purposely slowed work in the office.

A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Trial Court said in a statement that retired Probate and Family Court judge Anthony Nesi will lead the investigation. Arroyo has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the inquiry into the operation of the Suffolk Registry of Probate during his tenure.

“The inquiry and related documents are confidential personnel matters upon which the Trial Court is not at liberty to comment at this time,” said Jennifer Donahue, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Trial Courts.

Arroyo’s defenders want to know how an official elected by voters can be suspended by the state without specific allegations of wrongdoing. Prince sent a letter Friday to Massachusetts Trial Court administrator Lewis H. Spence demanding details about the allegations against Arroyo.

“We don’t believe that there is anything,” said Prince, who added that Arroyo was innocent and likened the probe to a witch hunt. “We want to know what they are seeking to investigate so we can defend ourselves.”

The Globe reported earlier this month that Arroyo had been placed on leave pending an investigation. The Trial Court launched the probe several months after an internal shake-up ousted Arroyo’s first assistant. In October, a manager from the Essex court system was brought in to oversee management of the office.

The Probate Court handles adoptions, divorces, paternity cases, wills, and other legal family matters. As register, Arroyo’s annual salary was recently increased by the Legislature to nearly $140,000.

The office gained unflattering attention during the tenure of Patricia Campatelli, who was accused of confrontational and violent behavior. In 2013, Campatelli allegedly punched a subordinate after a party, prompting her suspension and an investigation in which employees said she often worked only 15 hours a week.

Campatelli ran for reelection in 2014 but was defeated by Arroyo. Arroyo had just started the third year of his six-year term as register of probate when he was suspended.

Arroyo’s lawyer has asked the court for all office audits and an annual accounting showing demographics, job titles, and salaries for the staff going back to the 1990s, when Richard M. Iannella held the office.

The data will show, according to Arroyo’s lawyer, that the staff has long lacked diversity and suffered from poor performance. Friday’s letter from the lawyer also asked officials to make the investigation public.