Hartford City Councilman Settles Malpractice Lawsuit
Complaint Against Him Pending With Statewide Grievance Committee
November 15, 2010
When the federal government began investigating a Mather Street bodega and its owner, Maribel Diaz, for food stamp irregularities in 2005, attorney Alexander Aponte handled the case on behalf of the couple who ran the store.
Diaz had never met Aponte, and she wasn't aware of the investigation until after she had been fined thousands of dollars in penalties, she claims in a legal malpractice lawsuit she filed in June against Aponte, who now sits on Hartford's city council.
The lawsuit alleges that Diaz was the business owner on paper only — a parishioner from her church and his wife ran the store — and that Aponte handled the case on behalf of the parishioner, who had been convicted of food stamp fraud in 1997.
Attorneys in the malpractice lawsuit reached a settlement this week, the terms of which are confidential, said Diaz's attorney. A complaint against Aponte is pending before the Statewide Grievance Committee, a legal panel that investigates misconduct by lawyers.
Aponte, former corporation counsel for the city of Hartford, was recently elected by members of the city council to fill the city council seat left vacant when Pedro Segarra became mayor.
Diaz knew nothing about Apolinar Collado's past when she agreed to become the titular owner, she said. Aponte had represented the parishioner, Collado, in similar matters, she claimed.
She was also unaware, her complaint states, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture began investigating questionable food stamp practices at the bodega, El Poderoso Supermarket, in November of 2005. As the legal owner of the business, Diaz was the subject of the investigation.
Aponte claimed, in correspondence to the USDA, to represent Diaz even though she had never met him or heard from him, the claim states.
Paperwork relating to the investigation was delivered to the bodega, but Diaz, according to her complaint, was not informed.
Collado was indicted in June on food stamp fraud charges at several markets, including the Mather Street bodega, according to the U.S. attorney's office. The case is pending in federal court.
Documents on file with the secretary of the state's office show that Diaz bought the business on Feb. 15, 2005, for $50,000 from the Rev. Michael Galasso, the priest of St. Peter parish on Main Street.
In a story published last year in The Courant, both Galasso and Diaz's attorney, Stefan Stolarz, said the money was never paid.
Galasso told the Courant that he had assumed ownership of the bodega to help out Collado and his wife, Lillian Adames. Their family was facing large medical bills, and Collado was in the country illegally, Galasso said.
"He asked me if I could put my name on the documents," Galasso said. "I wasn't comfortable with it, but I said, 'I'll do you the favor for a few months.' "
Galasso told Diaz he could no longer assume that responsibility because of tax purposes, according to her complaint.
According to Diaz's complaint, she was unaware of the 1997 conviction when she entered into the agreement and did not know that Collado was in the country illegally.
Collado and Adames received a large portion of their income from the food stamp program, the complaint states. Instead of removing food stamp machines to prevent further allegations of fraud, Aponte requested "reviews" from the USDA that allowed the bodega to continue accepting food stamps, the complaint states.
In March 2006, he notified the USDA that Diaz no longer owned the business. The USDA imposed a $30,846 penalty. With penalties and interest that amount is now over $43,300 the complaint states.
Galasso was removed as pastor of St. Peter Church in Hartford in December 2008 and sent to St. Luke's Institute in Maryland. The reasons for his departure remain unclear, although the Archdiocese of Hartford said at the time of Galasso's departure that he was on medical leave.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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