Embattled Suffolk Register of Probate Felix D. Arroyo presided over a courthouse of “dysfunctional chaos,” refused to learn how to adequately use the court’s computer system, and undermined the manager brought in to improve operations, according to his February letter of suspension.
Arroyo, who earns nearly $140,000 a year, also skipped a meeting intended to brief him on the improvements being made to the office he was supposed to run, the letter states.
“This failure was symptomatic of your consistent indifference, and even resistance to, efforts to train you in Registry operations,” wrote Massachusetts Trial Court administrator Harry Spence.
Arroyo made public the letter along with a trove of other documents Wednesday. But he did not release a damning 53-page assessment of his office, produced in October, that documented the disarray. According to that assessment, provided Wednesday night by the trial court, legal case files had gone missing for months, even years. Checks were left in employees’ offices and desk drawers, some dating back a year. Employees’ phones had been disconnected. Fifty bins of legal cases were scattered about the office, never having been processed. With a week of assisted management, the office collected $75,000 worth of backlogged filing fees.
In a 12-page response to his suspension dated Monday, before the release of the trial court’s assessment, Arroyo offered a point-by-point rebuttal to Spence’s charges and alleged that he faced a “racist and hostile environment created and maintained in the office by several white longtime staff members.” Arroyo said he made substantial efforts to learn registry operations and worked the front counter to help translate for Spanish speakers.
Spence and other trial court officials undermined his elected authority, Arroyo said, and prevented him from hiring staff necessary to fix a workplace that was “in a state of disarray and dysfunction long before I came into office.”
“I did not fail as a manager,” Arroyo said in the letter. “In fact, I believe it showed good management skills to understand and acknowledge that there was a problem, and to work with you to provide a possible solution.”
The documents made public by Arroyo and the court shed new light on the circumstances surrounding Arroyo’s Feb. 3 suspension. Previously, he and his allies had refused to divulge the suspension letter, while demanding transparency from the court administrator. Arroyo hired a lawyer to contest his suspension, contending the court lacked the reason or authority to suspend him and demanding that documents be released.
On Wednesday, his spokesman alerted reporters to the documents he had posted on a website created to raise money for Arroyo’s legal defense.
The documents Arroyo provided trace his ouster back to October 2016, when he and Spence agreed to make several changes in the office. Arroyo’s first assistant register was placed on administrative leave with pay, and Spence would bring in a replacement with the requisite skills.
Within two weeks, Arroyo told his staff that their office was failing the public and asked them to welcome the manager brought in to right the ship, Terri Klug-Cafazzo.
“As we are all aware, the Registry is not meeting expectations,” Arroyo said, according to the speech now posted on his website. “We must never forget that we are here to serve the public. It is my estimation that instead of being an entry point to service, the registry has at times been an obstacle to service.”
“Let me be clear, I support her in this effort and expect the entire team here at the Registry to do so as well,” Arroyo said.
But by December, Arroyo complained in an e-mail that he had been “stripped of many of my rights and responsibilities without consent.” While he had appreciated the temporary assistance, he wrote, he was surprised to learn that people were being hired without his consultation.
In a late January letter, Spence countered that Arroyo’s overseers had “prevented the further operational deterioration” of the registry. He wrote that he appointed a temporary operations manager to “prevent the further loss of filings, dissemination of incorrect information, and mistreatment of court users.” And while Arroyo has blamed his predecessor for the problems he’d inherited two years earlier, Spence insisted that the problems worsened on his watch.
“While the Suffolk Registry suffered from some mismanagement prior to your arrival, the operational dysfunction and severe impediments to access to justice increased exponentially under you and your chosen first assistant register,” Spence wrote. “As a result, the Suffolk Registry lacked effective management, in fact, any management, from your swearing in on.”
In response, Arroyo noted that he was the first person of color elected to countywide office in Suffolk County. He wrote that although case levels remained constant, the number of staff at the office had dropped by one-third over the past decade.
Alleging that the office was marred by “systemic racism and cronyism,” Arroyo pointed a finger at Spence. He noted that the trial court had direct control of the office for long stretches of time in recent years after the resignation and suspension of previous registers.