Corrections Sergeant-Minister Suspended For Statements At Sentencing Hearing Of Parishioner

In 2001, Charles Leek, a corrections sergeant with the New Jersey Department of Corrections, was ordained as an associate pastor in the New Life Group Church. Two years later, he established the New Life Community Church and became its pastor.

On January 12, 2003, Bernard LaMorgia showed up on the steps of Leek’s church asking Leek and other church officials for help to change his life and overcome his crack cocaine addiction. Criminal charges were pending against LaMorgia in two counties. Leek ministered to LaMorgia, who, according to Leek, made great strides in turning his life around.

Leek later appeared on behalf of LaMorgia at two court appearances. During one court appearance, Leek wore a yellow golf shirt bearing a corrections “boot camp” insignia. At the second hearing, Leek addressed the judge, and in the course of his remarks, identified himself as a corrections sergeant.

Leek later wrote a letter to a sentencing judge asking the judge to be lenient with LaMorgia. In the letter, Leek identified himself as a “drill sergeant for the State Department of Corrections Adult Boot Camp,” and stated that “as a corrections sergeant, I believe the recommended sentence is more than fair, but I have reservations as to whether this would be best for Mr. LaMorgia or society in this case.” Leek concluded the letter by stating “as public servants it is often difficult not to lose sight of why we serve. We serve not only to protect the public today and to ensure justice through punitive measures, but also to transform lives to ensure a better society for tomorrow.”

Upon learning of Leek’s activities, the Department of Corrections began an internal investigation. Eventually, the Department suspended Leek for 30 days without pay. Leek challenged his suspension in the court system, arguing that his conduct did not violate any of the Department’s rules, including the Department’s “conduct unbecoming and fraternization with inmates” rule.

The New Jersey Appellate Division disagreed with Leek and upheld the suspension. The Court reasoned that the Department’s rules applied even to individuals such as LaMorgia who, though not presently inmates, were certain to become inmates in the near future: “The Merit System Board could have reasonably concluded that breaches of security, loss of morale, and blackmail could still occur even when the inmate is not yet confined in state prison. LaMorgia faced a six-and-one-half-year term of imprisonment as part of his plea agreement. LaMorgia was thus highly likely to soon become a State inmate even though he was not a State inmate at the time of Leek’s letter to the judge. We conclude that the Department’s interpretation of its own regulations in a manner that classified LaMorgia as an inmate was reasonable and is therefore entitled to our deference.”

The Court was clearly concerned about Leek’s blending of his corrections position with that of his job as a minister: “Leek serves in a law enforcement capacity. Leek’s plea for lenient treatment of LaMorgia was antithetical to his official responsibilities, and Leek consequently discredited himself, or the Department, or both, by advocating that both judges disregard the negotiated plea agreements, which called for terms of imprisonment, and instead sentence LaMorgia to a term of probation. Leek’s comments to both sentencing judges included pointed criticisms of the Department. We are satisfied that Leek used, or attempted to use, his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for LaMorgia in violation of the Department’s rules.”

Leek v. New Jersey Department of Corrections, 2008 WL 2026428 (N.J.Super. 2008).

This article appears in the July 2008 issue