Suffolk Probate Court is a mess, but who caused it?

Adrian Walker
FEBRUARY 27, 2017

Three defenders of Felix D. Arroyo, the suspended Suffolk County Register of Probate, describe the office he inherited as so rife with racial tension, backbiting, and unprofessional behavior that dysfunction was practically inevitable.

In the office, they say they have witnessed — and been subject to — racial slurs and other demeaning comments, uttered without retribution from superiors. They insist that Arroyo was intent on cleaning up a toxic workplace, even as he was thwarted by entrenched bureaucrats who have seen such bosses come and go for years.

The three met with me to discuss the investigation that has led to Arroyo’s abrupt removal. They asked for anonymity because they feared speaking out about their workplace. They are women of color, and supporters of Arroyo. “Felix is a good manager,” one of them insisted. “Felix just didn’t have the right people working for him.”

Arroyo was suspended earlier this month, just two years into a six-year term. Citing confidentiality, officials of the Massachusetts Trial Court, which oversees the registry, have declined to discuss the reasons for his suspension in detail. But they have cited “serious deficiencies” in the office that have impeded the court’s work.

Arroyo’s supporters have been quick to condemn the process of the investigation, charging that it is unfairly shrouded in secrecy. They have demanded that the process should be more transparent — although some have added to the problem by not releasing a copy of the suspension letter sent to Arroyo earlier this month. Presumably that letter could shed some light on what is otherwise a perplexing mess.

In the meantime, Arroyo’s attorney, Walter B. Prince, has asked that the court release to the public all information related to the investigation of the office. Court officials have balked at doing so while the investigation is in progress.

The women I interviewed are not privy to the investigation itself. But they described an entrenched and insensitive bureaucracy in which Arroyo was thwarted in his efforts to bring order.

Anecdotally, they describe an office bordering on chaos because of a recalcitrant staff. They said checks for fees and services routinely go uncashed, mail can go unopened, and crucial court files often go missing just as they are needed by judges.

Disorder by Probate Court staff is not a new story in Suffolk County, but Arroyo’s critics say that after two years in office, the 33-person office functions no better than under his predecessor, who was removed by her superiors.

While Arroyo’s critics attribute that to incompetence or negligence, the three employees offered a different explanation. They said Arroyo has been actively sabotaged by his employees, many of whom backed Arroyo’s opponent when he was elected in 2014.

One employee said some veteran white employees resented helping customers whose first language is not English. “Our job is to provide access to justice, but they couldn’t care less about that. They said, ‘They should learn to speak English.’ ”

One of the employees said many customers would bring their children into the registry to act as translators. But court personnel began to discourage the practice, because the information involved in Family Court cases is sensitive, and was often directly related to the children’s parents. Registry officials have access to translation services, but these officials said many of their colleagues were reluctant to use it.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect the release of every detail of an active investigation as it unfolds. But the public is entitled to know why a duly elected official cannot even set foot in his office. Arroyo’s bosses don’t have a right to suspend him without so much as saying why.

Arroyo deserves a chance to defend his reputation and save his career, and the public deserves to know why it is being so poorly served. But the questions about the Suffolk Probate and Family Court clearly don’t end with one person.