PROVIDENCE, R.I. (CN) – Rhode Island’s first Hispanic judge has brought a defamation complaint against a local NBC reporter over a news segment that said “the judge often removes his pants while in chambers.”
The broadcast began, according to the Nov. 10 complaint, with the quip that Rafael Ovalles was facing “serious accusations of odd conduct.”
Ovalles notes that he has been a judge with the Rhode Island District Court since 2005, and that his disciplinary record during the ensuing decade was wholly unblemished, as was his prior 14-year career as a lawyer. Born in the Dominican Republic, Ovalles is the uncle of former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.
Though a clerk and an attorney had filed complaints against him in fall 2014, Ovalles notes that he “was legally entitled to the confidentiality of proceedings before the Commission on Judicial Tenure & Discipline.”
In any case, he tells the Providence Superior Court, neither of the complaints accused him of having removed his pants.
Noting that the complaints against Ovalles are still pending, and that the commission’s proceedings remain confidential, the judge’s attorney Gerard DeCelles declined to discuss the subject of those complaints in an interview.
Ovalles says reporter Parker Gavigan got the information about his pants from some unnamed “tipster” in the course of the commission’s investigation into the clerk and the attorney’s complaints.
Contrary to the details of those complaints, Ovalles says, Gavigan’s April 23, 2015, broadcast attributed to a female clerk the claim that the judge “often removes his pants while he is in chambers.”
“Yes, you heard that correctly,” the report continued. “He takes his pants off.”
Seeking punitive damages for defamation and invasion of privacy, Ovalles says Gavigan “published and republished falsehoods recklessly, without proper investigation, and with willful disregard for the facts.”
Ovalles quotes a number of statements from the broadcast that he says are “utterly false and sensationalized.”
“My sources told me court employees have seen it and are uncomfortable when asked to come to judge’s chambers,” Gavigan said, according to the complaint.
“Complaints in documents I read do not appear to be frivolous,” Gavigan allegedly told viewers. “My sources say they are quite serious.”
In addition to Gavigan, Ovalles sued Sinclair Communications, which owns and operates Rhode Island’s NBC affiliate, WJAR Channel 10. A representative for WJAR declined to comment.
DeCelles, the judge’s attorney, said Ovalles has requested that the eventual hearings be deemed public, and he “absolutely” believes this litigation will go to trial.
In the complaint, Ovalles notes that the clerk filed her complaint against him after he disciplined her “for admittedly insubordinate conduct in open court.”
The judge contends that Gavigan never sought out employees who allegedly saw him pantless, and that the reporter has never been trained on verifying information from anonymous sources.
Late last year, the Providence Journal published a Dec. 7, 2015, notice of public hearing that says the Rhode Island’s judicial disciplinary commission completed a preliminary investigation into Ovalles and “concluded that the charges are supported by substantial evidence.”
That 21-page report says that a deputy county clerk accused Ovalles of sexual harassment.
On two different occasions, the clerk claims to have entered the judge’s chambers to deliver files “only to find respondent [Ovalles] sitting in a chair with his pants unbuttoned, his zipper pulled down, pant flap folded to the side and with his hand in his underwear.”
The report then counts six instances where Ovalles purportedly harassed female litigants, including telling one female attorney, while in line at a wake, “that he was enjoying the view behind her.”
Another allegation mentioned in the complaint includes the claim that Ovalles “failed to respond appropriately, and in a timely fashion, to matters while presiding on the mental health calendar.”
In addition to allegations of abusive treatment, the reports discusses evidence that Ovalles failed to maintain professional dignity.
“In addition to the propensity to remove his pants during the day, respondent took naps during the middle of the day on his desk,” the report states.
Another section details “odd actions” that demonstrate a lack of judicial fitness, and instances in which he allegedly “denied or chilled the rights of attorneys to open access to the courtroom.”
The last items include “failure to understand basic legal concepts,” “impairment of fair representation” and attempts to interfere with the investigation.
Ovalles faced a public hearing as to these complaints on Feb. 6, 2016, according to the report.