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Paychecks keep coming for NY judge despite arrest, absence

Posted June 9

— A judge continues to draw a $174,000-a-year paycheck despite being stripped of her judicial duties after driving drunk to work, being jailed for skipping a court date and taking an extended trip to a monastery in the mountains of Thailand.

Because Rochester City Court Judge Leticia Astacio is an elected official, only the state Commission on Judicial Conduct can remove her from the bench. The commission won't say if it's investigating, and any action could take years.

Meanwhile, Astacio, a Democrat elected to a 10-year term in 2014, has made a string of courtroom appearances related to her 2016 arrest, in which she was charged with driving while intoxicated after crashing her car on the way to work.

As images of Astacio in handcuffs and orange jailhouse scrubs appeared in local news outlets this week, critics in social media complained that she's being paid her judge's salary even though she's been barred from hearing cases since March 2016.

"You are self-sabotaging any chance you have to return to the bench," Judge Stephen Aronson said Monday when Astacio appeared before him to explain why she skipped a court-ordered urine test last week.

To resolve her drunken driving case without a guilty finding, Astacio had agreed to undergo random alcohol testing and have a device installed on her car that tests her breath before starting the ignition.

The urine test was ordered after the device recorded a positive alcohol reading, which Astacio said was from her daughter blowing into it.

Ed Fiandach, Astacio's lawyer, said she didn't know about the urine test order because she was at a Thailand monastery and unreachable by phone. Aronson chided Astacio for leaving the country when she was subject to monitoring and being paid as a judge.

"Instead of doing something constructive with your time, serving the people that elected you, you're traveling halfway around the world," Aronson said Monday before offering a plea deal that included 45 days in jail. Astacio rejected the deal.

At Thursday's hearing, Astacio told the court she had gone to Thailand to "de-stress" and had limited cellphone service. She said she hadn't planned to return until August.

Aronson ruled that Astacio had violated the terms of the conditional discharge of her DWI conviction by missing the test, even though she was unaware of it.

The daughter of parents who held multiple blue-collar jobs, Astacio said during her election campaign that she was determined to be a role model for the daughter she had at age 17. After a few years with the Monroe County district attorney's office, she launched a criminal defense practice. She said she saw a judgeship as a way to reroute young lives in their first contact with the criminal justice system.

Fiandach, who said he plans to appeal, noted that Astacio had never been in legal trouble before.

"Arguably, she's being punished for something bad she did," Fiandach said outside the courtroom Thursday. "But by the same standpoint, I think she deserves some credit for living such a good life."

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