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Making their case

Critics and friends weigh in on Lokuta

A jubilant Ann Lokuta is greeted by a supporter at the Luzerne County Courthouse on primary election night in 1991 as it became evident that the Dupont attorney had won the nomination for Luzerne County judge.

TIMES LEADER FILE PHOTO

This 1992 photo shows a smiling Judge Ann Lokuta in her first official portrait since joining the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas

Attorney Ann Lokuta is interviewed during her 1991 campaign for a seat on the county bench.

TIMES LEADER FILE PHOTO

WILKES-BARRE – In the clouds swirling over Judge Ann Lokuta’s judicial career, there is one pattern becoming clear.

Many of those who supported the judge, aiding her in times of past criticism, have ditched their favorable views.

“Let’s just say that seems to have been a prevalent pattern over the years,” said attorney Tom Marsilio, a former law clerk for Lokuta.

Marsilio should know.

He once called previous complaints made against Lokuta “gross exaggerations, extremely, totally unfair.” He said, “We got along famously.”

He worked for Lokuta for several months before leaving to expand his private practice. Then he went to work for her again.

“That did not go well,” he said.

He won’t discuss it any further.

Beth Boris also fits into the pattern.

She had rushed to Lokuta’s side in the past, claiming Lokuta would be cleared of previous misconduct charges. Then Boris filed her own misconduct claims against Lokuta.

Ted Krohn is another former law clerk who once published a letter criticizing a newspaper of being unfair to Lokuta during her bid for retention.

Now?

He says he’s forbidden from talking about the case because of the charges filed against Lokuta earlier this week.

The state’s Judicial Conduct Board claims Lokuta has been “discourteous, rude, impatient, undignified, abusive, unprofessional, demeaning, humiliating, intimidating and volatile” toward attorneys, court personnel and her staff.

The 52-year-old judge, the county’s first female jurist, has denied the claims and will respond to the charges before a trial with the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline.

If the charges are proven, Lokuta could be reprimanded, suspended or removed from the bench on which she’s sat since 1992.

The charges actually came as a relief to some, even one attorney who has no gripe with Lokuta.

Attorney Ferris Webby said Lokuta is “extremely strict” but always respectful toward him. But he’s heard the horror stories from colleagues.

Hopefully, these charges will clear the air and put the rumors to rest, he said.

“I’m glad,” he said. “Either fish or cut bait.”

Pattern emerges

Lokuta’s rocky judicial ride started soon after she took office in 1992.

A year later, the state’s Office of Attorney General was asked to investigate criminal misconduct by Lokuta, and the Judicial Inquiry and Review Board, now the Judicial Conduct Board, was asked to examine her behavior following a clash with Public Defender Basil Russin.

Russin had assured one of his clients he would almost certainly receive probation if he pleaded guilty to bookmaking. Lokuta, however, sentenced the man to four months in jail.

Lokuta later took a shot at Russin.

She said Russin acted improperly when he added his signature to his client’s plea agreement form, which said, among other things, he had not received any promises or deals before he pleaded guilty.

She also vowed to refer Russin for criminal prosecution and threatened to refer the veteran public defender to the lawyers’ disciplinary committee.

Five months later, Russin, who did not want to comment for this story, asked then-District Attorney Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. to initiate a criminal investigation into Lokuta.

He referred the case to the attorney general.

Although the investigation stemmed from a single incident, it happened around the same time courtroom observers say they began noticing behavioral problems with Lokuta.

They said she was harsh, rude and inexperienced. And they gave her names, like “little Hitler.”

Years later, Olszewski said he intended to file a complaint with the conduct board, accusing Lokuta of bias toward the defense in her questioning of a prosecution witness in a drunken-driving case.

Lokuta’s pursuit for prestige on the bench wasn’t coming easily.

Road to the bench

Lokuta, from Dupont, graduated from high school in 1971. She earned an undergraduate degree from King’s College, then a law degree from Hofstra University in 1979.

She began a private practice in 1983 and made an unsuccessful run for judge in 1985.

She later spent some time as a part-time prosecutor under former District Attorney Correale Stevens.

She quit after handling two trials – losing both – and had a highly publicized falling-out with Stevens, who said he could not comment for this story, in 1988. She ran again for judge in 1991.

She was viewed by some as a strong contender, even though the Luzerne County Bar Association did not recommend her and she had little support from the county political machine.

Detractors questioned her temperament and experience.

Attorney Bill Keller, Lokuta’s opponent in the race, said Lokuta had an advantage by being a Democrat and female. She campaigned “hard,” urging voters that it was time to put a female on the bench, he said.

“I thought I was much more qualified,” Keller said, noting his 100 or so cases he had handled at the time.

Once she took the bench, Lokuta had no qualms about asserting herself, once ordering an attorney with a cold to remove a cough drop from his mouth during a trial.

She’s had no problem chastising attorneys who violated what she believed were common rules of courtesy. She’s also had no problem making tough court rulings.

In 1998, Lokuta threw out a civil case before it could go to the jury, ruling a man had failed to prove Luzerne County was responsible for the death of his wife, who was struck by lightning at Moon Lake Park.

That same year, Lokuta issued a ruling against a private fishing club that opened the Lehigh River to all anglers. The decision was upheld on appeal to the state Superior Court.

Then came 1999, the year Boris leveled her claims.

Charges are filed

Boris, now Beth Sindaco, alleged Lokuta pressured her for sex and threatened to “ruin” Boris when she ended her five-year tenure with the judge in 1997. Boris did not want to comment.

Lokuta, who did not return a message left in her chambers Friday, has said those charges were unfounded after an exhaustive investigation. There was also no indication any action was taken on the earlier claims by Russin.

But, last week, formal charges – apparently unrelated to Boris’ claims – were filed.

And some of the allegations came across as downright disturbing to veteran attorney Mike Cefalo. He’s known Lokuta for “a long time” and helped her win her seat on the bench, he said.

“She always struck me as very intelligent,” he said. “She was a good lawyer. She was smart. She was aggressive. There’s no question about it.”

Cefalo said he lost contact with her after she took the bench. That left him “surprised” by many of the allegations.

But he’s not rushing to judgment.

“I don’t know if they are true or not,” he said. “Let me say this. If the allegations are substantiated, then obviously she changed from when I knew her.”

He even noticed the pattern of how Lokuta’s past supporters are not supportive anymore – some of them at least.

Lokuta’s longtime friend Paul Paternoster still supports her. He gives no credence to the latest charges against Lokuta and has a theory as to why they were filed.

“She’s a judge of the people,” he said. “She won’t let attorneys dictate her. You can’t buy her. … They’ve been trying to do this the past 10 years.”

“She was a good lawyer. She was smart. She was aggressive. There’s no question about it.”

Mike Cefalo Attorney
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