SJC removes Barnstable clerk for abusing office

Robert Powers is first clerk-magistrate dismissed for cause in 14 years

In a highly unusual move, the Supreme Judicial Court has ordered the removal of the Barnstable District Court clerk-magistrate for consistently arriving late for work; yelling at litigants, attorneys, employees, and even judges; and threatening people who appear before him.

Robert E. Powers, a West Roxbury probation officer who was appointed to his post by former governor Mitt Romney, had been relieved of his duties and transferred to Taunton District Court pending the outcome of the probe into the allegations. The Committee on Professional Responsibility for Clerks of the Courts recommended last fall that Powers be removed, and the SJC agreed.

“We do not reach this conclusion lightly; we recognize that removal ‘strips the individual of the enjoyment of a position of distinction’ to which he had been appointed by the Governor and approved by the Governor’s Council,” Justice Ralph Gants wrote in the unanimous ruling. “After consideration of the record presented by the committee and after hearing, we conclude that sufficient cause is shown for the removal of Powers from the office of clerk-magistrate of the Barnstable District Court and that the public good requires his removal.”

Powers, who is an active contributor to political campaigns, is the first clerk-magistrate removed from office for cause since 1999. In 2011, CommonWealth took a look at clerk-magistrates, many of whom are appointed because of political connections rather than legal expertise. Once in, clerk-magistrates can and often do serve for decades with little or no oversight of their job performance.

According to testimony, Powers was confronted numerous times over the years about his tardiness and his abusive demeanor toward workers in his office as well as court employees and contractors such as social workers and public defenders. In one instance, in 2010, Judge James O’Neill, the presiding judge at Barnstable, met with Powers to tell him he would have to “roll up his sleeves” and be on time after one of his assistant clerks had been promoted to another court. Powers, according to O’Neill, became enraged.

“Powers admitted that he raised his voice and, in effect, told the judge, ‘Who are you to come into my office and tell me what to do,’ and reminded the judge that he had been appointed by the Governor to be the clerk and would decide how the clerk’s office would be run,” Gants wrote in the opinion.

In another instance, Powers called a man a “coward” when the man tried to explain how he was having difficulty controlling his teenaged son, who was facing driving without a license charges at a show cause hearing, since his wife, the boy’s mother, died of cancer.

“Powers became red in the face and, with a raised voice, called the father ‘a coward for using his wife’s death from cancer’ to try to protect his son from the issuance of a complaint,” Gants wrote.

Powers was also found to have threatened to alter tapes so his behavior would be edited out. Investigators also found that he did not consistently deposit funds from payments made to the court in a timely manner, making it difficult to determine if any money was missing.

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Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Even after he was told by higher-ups to clean up his act, Powers continued to show up late for work, or sometimes not appear at all. During CommonWealth’s investigation into clerk-magistrates, we checked Powers’ office and parking space at the Barnstable court as well as his house in West Roxbury multiple times over the course of several weeks. We found his courthouse space unoccupied or with someone else’s car in the marked space. We also photographed both his cars 70 miles from the courthouse, in his West Roxbury driveway, during business hours. Because the courts are exempt from public records requests, we were unable to determine if Powers was on vacation, out sick, or simply not at work. Calls to his office at the time were not returned.

During his disciplinary hearing, Powers claimed part of his difficulty was that he suffered from multiple sclerosis but he provided no medical proof to back the claim. The committee hearing officers dismissed that defense and Gants said the record overwhelmingly supported Powers’ removal.

“We recognize that even the most temperate judge or clerk-magistrate may occasionally demonstrate impatience, frustration, or anger at litigants, colleagues, or staff,” Gants wrote, “but we conclude that the pattern of conduct shown here, in frequency and degree, demonstrates what is in essence a continual abuse of authority, not an occasional lapse of judgment.”