SOUTHINGTON — A panel that oversees the professional conduct of state lawyers found that local attorney John Nugent violated ethics laws in his handling of the estate of Josephine Smoron, according to a decision released this week.
The Statewide Grievance Committee ruled that Nugent knowingly ignored knowledge that Smoron had a signed will leaving her 80- to 90-acre farm to caretaker Samuel Manzo. It further found that Nugent sought to intentionally deceive and defraud Smoron of her final wishes, and lied during testimony last fall.
The committee ordered that Nugent be reprimanded for the violations, which means a copy of its findings will be published in the state’s law journal.
“We conclude that the respondent knew that Ms. Smoron had a will that left her estate to the complainant,” the report stated. “Rather than actively search for this will and confirm Ms. Smoron’s testamentary wishes, however, the respondent chose to ignore the information presented to him and develop a mechanism that would give him control over Ms. Smoron’s estate after her death and allow him to determine who would inherit her estate.”
Nugent’s attorney, James Sullivan, said the ruling was based on vague rules of administration of justice and he will appeal the decision.
“We disagree with the findings and we are going to request a hearing,” Sullivan said.
Nugent, who served as Southington’s assistant town attorney, faced disbarment, a suspended law license, or the reprimand published in the Connecticut Law Journal.
Nugent was Smoron’s conservator when she died in June 2009. Several months before she died, Nugent created two trusts and funded them with her cash assets and real estate while naming himself trustee. He also made a deal with local developer Carl Verderame to buy the property for $1.5 million for use as an access road to Verderame’s proposed sports complex off Interstate 84. Three local churches were to be named beneficiaries, not Manzo.
Shortly after Smoron’s death, Manzo learned there was only $6,000 in the estate and hired local attorney Barry Pontolillo. The case is now in the hands of three probate courts and Hartford Superior Court.
Manzo, who is still caring for the farm and the animals, said that while he agrees with the committee’s findings, he feels the discipline was too light.
Pontolillo also expressed disappointment that Nugent wouldn’t face stiffer sanctions. But the panel’s findings would bolster his motion to have Nugent removed as trustee of the estate and to install a disinterested third party. A status conference is scheduled for next month.
“Obviously, I thought there should have been more of a suspension,” Pontolillo said. “He intentionally lied in his testimony and intentionally tried to deceive and defraud a client. In this business, your word is your bond. If they publish that you willfully lied, who is going to trust you?”
Pontolillo said he’s not surprised Nugent would appeal the decision because he has denied any wrongdoing from the outset.
Nugent has maintained that he was not aware of any will and he was only protecting his client’s assets when he created the trusts. He could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
The case also involved former Southington Probate Judge Brian Meccariello, who agreed to the formation of the trusts in May 2009 but failed to invite Manzo to a meeting. Meccariello told the Council on Probate Judicial Conduct he approved only the creation of the trusts, not the funding. He was publicly censured by the council in September 2010 for his role in failing to notify potential heirs of the meeting.
The Statewide Grievance Committee heard testimony from Nugent, Manzo, Meccariello and local attorney Valerie DePaolo, among others.
Smoron was a farm woman who spoke Polish and was known to sleep with a sick cow in the fields. She had no children. The farm had fallen into disrepair and bills hadn’t been paid during the long court battles. Manzo said he had to borrow money to pay for property insurance.
“I’m up to my wits’ end now and he’s not turning (the property) over,” Manzo said, referring to Nugent. “He’s just making it hard up to the end.”
Panel rules against Nugent in Southington probate case
Mary Ellen Godin
June 21, 2012