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Plymouth judge accused of breaking rules of conduct

Complaint alleges list of violations

A Plymouth County probate and family court judge has been accused of collecting attorney fees and operating a real estate business over four years in violation of judicial conduct rules that require judges to steer clear of commercial enterprises.

In a wide-ranging complaint made public yesterday, the Commission on Judicial Conduct alleged that Judge Michael Livingstone asserted that he had an arm's-length relationship with both his real estate firm and his former private law practice.

However, the commission said he sent a threatening letter to a Section 8 tenant, collected and deposited rent checks, secretly collected fees from former law clients through an arrangement with another lawyer, and claimed business expenses on his tax returns related to his supposedly closed law practice.

"The commission alleges that Judge Livingstone engaged in a pattern of misconduct over a period of time which is prejudicial to the administration of justice and unbecoming a judicial officer and which brings the judicial office into disrepute," the commission wrote in its statement of formal charges.

In his formal response to the charges, Livingstone acknowledged that he made some errors and stressed that he was forced to take on a more active role in his real estate firm when a business partner abandoned the business.

"Judge Livingstone is a very hard-working, conscientious probate judge who is widely respected," Livingstone's Boston-based lawyer, Michael Mone, told the Associated Press.

"None of these charges have anything to do with what he did on the bench."

Mone did not immediately return a call left at his office by the Globe. Efforts to reach Livingstone were unsuccessful.

The commission began investigating Livingstone after receiving complaints from an estranged business partner and the state's Supreme Judicial Court.

It is only the fifth time the commission has brought charges against a judge in the last 20 years, said Jill Pearson, the commission's executive director.

The Commission on Judicial Conduct is asking the Supreme Judicial Court to appoint a hearing officer to handle the complaint proceedings, which could take several months.

Both the commission and the hearing officer will make recommendations on possible punishment, and the Supreme Judicial Court will make a final decision.

Punishment could include a fine, private or public censure, or a recommendation that the judge retire or be removed from office by the Legislature.

Acting Governor Jane Swift appointed Livingstone to the bench in December 2002.

At the time, Livingstone sent a letter to clients of his law practice explaining that another lawyer, Jane Warren, would be "taking over [his] client files."

The letter, attached to the complaint, does not mention that he had reached a deal with Warren to collect a percentage of fees she collected from his former clients.

The complaint states that Livingstone, who makes about $113,000 a year as a judge, collected a total of about $49,000 over four years through the arrangement.

Livingstone acknowledged he did not disclose to clients that he would receive a cut of their payments to the new lawyer, but he said in his written rebuttal that clients' fees did not increase as a result of the relationship.

He also said the payments did not represent "fee sharing" among two practicing attorneys, but instead represented Warren buying out his former practice.

At the time of his appointment, according to the commission, Livingstone asked his business partner, Raymond Hotte of New Bedford, to manage the two rental properties owned by their business, High Low Properties.

However, in the months following Livingstone's judicial appointment, the two men had a falling out, and Livingstone took a more active role in the business.

Specifically, the commission said, Livingstone executed leases with the New Bedford Housing Authority, collected Section 8 rents, and threatened a tenant with eviction if she did not pay rent.

Livingstone said his direct role in the company arose out of a dire need to handle the company's affairs after his business partner quit.

In the August 2005 tenant letter, Livingstone wrote that he would "not pay your utility bills and will have you evicted from your unit for failure to pay your rent as required," if the tenant did not send checks directly to the judge.

The commission said that "if Judge Livingstone had followed through with his threat, it would have constituted a crime and formed the basis for a civil suit by the tenant."

The commission added: "The fact that Judge Livingstone is a judge makes his improper threat to [the tenant] even more serious, given the potentially coercive effect of his letter."

Livingstone acknowledged the wording of the letter "may have been inappropriate," but he denied it constituted a threat.

John C. Drake can be reached at jdrake@globe.com.

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