Castle shooting reveals judicial conflict

A Suffolk County Supreme Court justice backed an effort by Gary Melius to seize control of a private company at the same time the politically influential developer sought to name a close associate of the justice — state Independence Party chairman Frank MacKay — to the company’s board of directors.

Justice Thomas Whelan granted Melius’ motion last year to force John Ruocco, the founder of Interceptor Ignition Interlocks, to hold a shareholders meeting in May. Minutes entered into the court file show that during the contentious meeting, Melius attempted to nominate MacKay to the company’s board of directors.

MacKay is Whelan’s longtime political benefactor, and Whelan is the godfather of MacKay’s daughter.

Whelan, a member of MacKay’s Independence Party, did not disclose his connections to MacKay and did not recuse himself from hearing the case. His Dec. 24 ruling stripped Ruocco of most of his ownership stake and effectively handed Melius the company, which makes ignition locking devices that prevent drunken driving.

State rules require that judges disqualify themselves when “their impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” The language mirrors the American Bar Association code of judicial conduct.

“It is clear that he should have recused himself,” Monroe Freedman, a Hofstra University School of Law professor and expert on judicial ethics who has published numerous books on the subject, said of Whelan. “There is no question.”

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