Kinsella's Probate Imbroglio Shouldn't Obscure Many Contributions
Hartford Courant Editorial
October 10, 2012
It would be unfortunate if James H. Kinsella is remembered for nothing more than a single controversy. Mr. Kinsella, who died this week at 88, did a great deal for Hartford over his long life.
The scion of one of the city's great Irish political families — his grandfather was elected mayor of Hartford in 1918; his father was city assessor, his brother was a mayor and city treasurer — Mr. Kinsella, a lawyer, was elected a councilman and deputy mayor in 1953 and mayor in 1957. He was elected judge of probate in 1961.
As mayor, he was a major figure in the urban renewal efforts that changed the face of downtown Hartford in the late 1950s and 1960s, for better or worse. He believed that the Constitution Plaza project, criticized for being barren and antiseptic, would have been more successful if it had been built as planned, especially with the housing component that was never built. The plaza has shown more vitality since one part of the original plan, a connection to the river, was completed by Riverfront Recapture in the 1990s.
The controversy that engulfed Mr. Kinsella involved a wealthy woman in her 80s named Ethel Donaghue, who lived across Prospect Avenue from the governor's residence. Mr. Kinsella was accused of seizing control of Ms. Donaghue's $35 million estate in 1979 and putting it under the control of his friend Alexander Goldfarb, who then ran up large fees and entertainment expenses, it was alleged.
This became a major cause celebre, with extensive media coverage. In 1984, a special legislative committee recommended that Mr. Kinsella be impeached over the Donaghue matter. Mr. Kinsella resigned rather than face impeachment, an ignominious and painful end to a long career in public life.
The former judge maintained in a 2004 interview that he did nothing wrong. He said that he took control of the Donaghue estate because it was being mismanaged by the previous conservator. He said that Mr. Goldfarb was handsomely but not exorbitantly compensated, and that the wealthy Ms. Donaghue was simply afforded the luxuries she'd been used to.
While the legislative committee, a bar association committee and a probate court investigation found serious improprieties with how Mr. Kinsella and Mr. Goldfarb gained control of the estate, Superior Court Judge Norris O'Neill rejected a grievance committee recommendation that Mr. Goldfarb be reprimanded, saying he did nothing wrong. No criminal charges were ever filed.
The case would make a great research paper for a legal scholar.
In any event, Mr. Kinsella's resignation in disgrace caused some to suggest that he leave town. He did nothing of the kind.
In the ensuing quarter-century, Mr. Kinsella quietly carried out a remarkable series of good works for the city. He created scholarships and school trips for Hartford youngsters, bought a piano for the library and an organ for First Church, put the rose window in the Charter Oak Cultural Center, acquired lights for city hall and horses for the police. He has sponsored classical music on public radio.
Mr. Kinsella has helped build small parks, including one at Broad Street and Farmington Avenue that had been the site of Hartford Public High School before the construction of I-84. Though a Bulkeley High School graduate, Mr. Kinsella had quietly maintained a monument to Hartford Public on the site.
The money for these good deeds came from the trust of his good friend Mr. Goldfarb, who died in 1987. Indeed, one of the police horses the trust bought was named "Alex."
Mr. Kinsella was also, until his last weeks, an active West End neighbor, letting very little that affected the neighborhood pass unnoticed. He was a good lawyer, a trove of Hartford history, stimulating company. It would be a shame if the good that he did was interred with his bones.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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