Brooklyn Surrogate's Court 2005

Keep up to date with the latest Newspaper and Internet articles on this year's Brooklyn Surrogate Court race

Monday, November 07, 2005

'A NEW DAY' IN B'KLYN

By JIM HINCH - NY Post October 12, 2005

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LOPEZ TORRES
Declared the winner.

October 12, 2005 -- Here comes the judge — and she's going to clean house.

In a slap to Brooklyn's Democratic machine, a Queens judge yesterday ruled that Margarita Lopez Torres will keep her 102- vote victory as a Surrogate Court judge in last month's primary election.

"Yes!" exulted Lopez Torres as she rode the elevator down from the courtroom where Judge Leslie G. Leach ordered her certified as the election winner. "It's a fresh start, a new day."

The reformist jurist said she intends to root out the "entrenched culture" of Brooklyn's patronage-ridden court.

Party loyalists had worked night and day for weeks to find enough votes to swing the election to Supreme Court Judge Diana Johnson, who attends disgraced former party boss Clarence Norman's church.

But they came up short. First, they said more than 1,000 votes should have been counted because they belonged to registered voters who simply forgot to mark that they were Democrats on the ballot.

But it emerged in court yesterday that many of those so-called "votes" were by people who didn't live in Brooklyn, weren't Democrats or were convicted felons

As a backup, Johnson's lawyer, Mitch Alter, asked to have the entire election tossed out because, he said, many voters had forged signatures at poll sites.

But many of those "forgeries" also didn't pan out, since they included votes by prominent city officials who had indeed voted.


After the ruling, Johnson said it would be "unseemly" for her to comment.

Alter said the Board of Elections didn't count questionable ballots in Brooklyn because they were trying to help mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer avoid a runoff.


A board lawyer denied that claim.


Lopez Torres said she would end past surrogate judges' habit of doling out estates and other lucrative legal work to cronies.



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New York Daily News -
Lawsuits tossed in Surrogate's recount
BY HUGH SON

Wednesday, October 12th, 2005

The Brooklyn Democratic organization was dealt another blow yesterday after a pair of lawsuits were dismissed in a nasty fight over a powerful Surrogate's Court judge job.
Margarita Lopez Torres eked out a 102-vote victory over Diana Johnson for the post last month. Johnson and the county party sued, arguing that about 1,500 disqualified ballots should be included in the final tally.

Queens Supreme Court Judge Leslie Leach ruled yesterday that Johnson couldn't object to the ballots because her campaign approved of disqualifying them when they believed she was leading the close race. Lopez Torres' victory should be certified by the Board of Elections, he ordered.

Lopez Torres - considered a key reform figure in Brooklyn's scandal-racked judiciary - said her victory sent a signal to party leaders.

"It will no longer be business as usual, and they know that," Lopez Torres told the Daily News. "People want a courthouse that serves people, not one that enriches certain individuals."

But the electoral saga isn't over. Johnson's lawyer Mitch Alter pledged to appeal, calling Leslie's decision "all screwed up."

Alter plans to charge the Board of Elections engaged in a complex scheme to help Democratic mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer avoid a runoff election by counting certain ballots in the Bronx and not in Brooklyn.

Ballots that could have tilted the election in Johnson's favor weren't counted, Alter charged.

"For the Board of Elections to count ballots with a defect in one county and not count them in Brooklyn is outrageous," Alter said.

A Board of Elections spokesman didn't return calls for comment.

Judge: Surrogate race result stands

Judge: Surrogate race result stands
November 1, 2005

BY HUGH SON
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER

Surrogate Court candidate Margarita Lopez Torres finally claimed victory last night, beating the Brooklyn Democratic machine-backed candidate.
The electoral saga ended not with a bang, but a whimper: A two-sentence decision from federal Judge Raymond Dearie released yesterday dismissed a last-ditch effort to overturn the result of the Sept. 13 primary, which Lopez Torres won by 102 votes.

Lawyers for party-backed candidate Diana Johnson apparently exhausted all their legal options, said Lopez Torres' campaign manager, Gary Tilzer.

"For the first time since the election, there are no court cases pending," said Tilzer.

Lopez Torres is running unopposed in the Nov. 8 general election on the Democratic ticket.

The closeness of September's Surrogate Court election - both Lopez Torres and Johnson got about 39% of the vote - prompted fevered recounting and lawsuits alleging several hundred disqualified paper ballots should be included in the final tally.

After a Queens State Supreme Court judge dismissed a pair of lawsuits filed by Johnson and the Brooklyn Democratic organization, the Elections Board certified Lopez Torres' victory.

But Johnson's lawyer Mitch Alter convinced the state Appellate Division to force the counting of about 900 disputed paper ballots last week - which resulted in Johnson losing by twice as many votes. Lopez Torres picked up an additional 103 votes in a recount that ended Friday.

Alter agreed that Lopez Torres had won, saying that because "the federal suit was denied, as far as I can see, it's all over."

Lopez Torres is considered a key reform figure in a position that is especially vulnerable to corruption. The Surrogate Court handles the estates of the deceased and millions of dollars in lawyers' fees, making it a post the county Democratic organization desperately wanted to keep in the family.

"She didn't have as much money as the other candidates, yet she gave the voters of Brooklyn a choice of real reform, and the voters responded," Tilzer said.

Originally published on November 1, 2005

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Big House Can't Break the Clubhouse

The Big House Can't Break the Clubhouse

By JOYCE PURNICK
Published: September 29, 2005 - The New York Times
SO another political leader has been found guilty of wrongdoing, Clarence Norman Jr. He was convicted in Brooklyn on Tuesday of violating campaign finance laws, which has to have shaken the borough's clubhouse Democrats.

But make no mistake. The Norman legacy lives, however weakened. Mr. Norman, the leader of the Brooklyn Democratic organization since 1990 and an assemblyman until his conviction, is the product of an entrenched political system that, as ever, plays with ethics like a cat with the mouse.

For evidence, go back only two weeks, to the Cadman Plaza Diner, near the Brooklyn Bridge. It was there that members of Mr. Norman's Democratic Executive Committee met to select their nominee for a newly created second Brooklyn Surrogate's Court seat that legal experts say is not even needed.

Normally, voters select surrogate nominees in a primary. But thanks to a deal made in Albany, the Norman organization got to handpick the Democratic candidate.

That was quite the gift. The Surrogate's Courts are traditional bastions of patronage and cronyism where politically connected lawyers get lucrative assignments as executors, guardians and estate trustees - and where some surrogates get in trouble. Just last June, the State Court of Appeals upheld the removal of Surrogate Michael H. Feinberg of Brooklyn, for awarding $8.6 million in legal fees to an old friend.

Bypassing the primary was part of a classic agreement in Albany that benefited everyone, including Gov. George E. Pataki, the Democratic and Republican legislative leaders and Mr. Norman, who had long been assistant majority leader.

The governor, his third term winding down, wanted to expand the Court of Claims with additional judges, all of whom he appoints with routine Senate consent. This is not to say that his nominees would be unqualified, just to observe that even a lame-duck governor has his perks.

Since expanding the judiciary requires legislation, the Pataki plan was an invitation to both legislative leaders to bargain for their judges, too. The measure proved popular not only with politicians, but with court advocates as well, since the courts are always hungry for resources.

The legislation that came up for a vote on the last day of the Albany session added 21 new state judges - 14 going to the Court of Claims, the rest to other courts around the state - distributed in a way that gives Democrats and Republicans generous and probably equal shares in the largesse.

IN addition to the new Brooklyn surrogate, for instance, one new judgeship is going to Rensselaer County, home of the Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, a Republican; and one is going to Queens, whose Democratic leader, Thomas J. Manton, did the governor a favor last year by supporting a former counsel's candidacy for State Supreme Court.

Most of the state's judicial nominations are controlled by party leaders, but at least candidates for surrogate run in primaries. The Brooklyn exception was written into the legislation: the bill, approved on June 23, delayed its effective date to Aug. 1 - 18 days after the deadline for submitting primary petitions.

That put the party organization in control of the nomination, which is tantamount to election in overwhelmingly Democratic Brooklyn. The new surrogate was originally to be Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, a Brooklyn veteran whose likely designation may have helped the bill's passage, because he is well liked by colleagues. Only three lawmakers voted no - Brooklyn Democrats who objected to the erased primary - State Senator Martin Connor, and Assembly members Joan L. Millman and James F. Brennan.

Mr. Lentol decided to stay in the Legislature, raising suspicions, which he denies, that he was a stalking horse. The nomination went instead to Assemblyman Frank R. Seddio, another Brooklyn Democrat.

His selection also happened to benefit Norman allies in the prominent Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club. The club backed a Norman ally who ran against his nemesis, District Attorney Charles J. Hynes of Brooklyn. Mr. Hynes, who prosecuted Mr. Norman, won anyway.

But a favor is a favor, and soon, since Jefferson is Mr. Seddio's club, it will select another club stalwart to run for his seat.

"It's all in the family, just the way everything is in Brooklyn," said Alan Fleishman, a reform district leader and critic of the old ways. That is how it works, and why Mr. Norman's conviction, while it dusts Brooklyn's political house, does not deep-clean it.

Lopez Torres Declared the Winner

'A NEW DAY' IN B'KLYN
By JIM HINCH - NY Post October 12, 2005


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

LOPEZ TORRES
Declared the winner.

October 12, 2005 -- Here comes the judge — and she's going to clean house.

In a slap to Brooklyn's Democratic machine, a Queens judge yesterday ruled that Margarita Lopez Torres will keep her 102- vote victory as a Surrogate Court judge in last month's primary election.

"Yes!" exulted Lopez Torres as she rode the elevator down from the courtroom where Judge Leslie G. Leach ordered her certified as the election winner. "It's a fresh start, a new day."

The reformist jurist said she intends to root out the "entrenched culture" of Brooklyn's patronage-ridden court.

Party loyalists had worked night and day for weeks to find enough votes to swing the election to Supreme Court Judge Diana Johnson, who attends disgraced former party boss Clarence Norman's church.

But they came up short. First, they said more than 1,000 votes should have been counted because they belonged to registered voters who simply forgot to mark that they were Democrats on the ballot.

But it emerged in court yesterday that many of those so-called "votes" were by people who didn't live in Brooklyn, weren't Democrats or were convicted felons

As a backup, Johnson's lawyer, Mitch Alter, asked to have the entire election tossed out because, he said, many voters had forged signatures at poll sites.

But many of those "forgeries" also didn't pan out, since they included votes by prominent city officials who had indeed voted.


After the ruling, Johnson said it would be "unseemly" for her to comment.

Alter said the Board of Elections didn't count questionable ballots in Brooklyn because they were trying to help mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer avoid a runoff.


A board lawyer denied that claim.


Lopez Torres said she would end past surrogate judges' habit of doling out estates and other lucrative legal work to cronies.



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New York Daily News -
Lawsuits tossed in Surrogate's recount
BY HUGH SON

Wednesday, October 12th, 2005

The Brooklyn Democratic organization was dealt another blow yesterday after a pair of lawsuits were dismissed in a nasty fight over a powerful Surrogate's Court judge job.
Margarita Lopez Torres eked out a 102-vote victory over Diana Johnson for the post last month. Johnson and the county party sued, arguing that about 1,500 disqualified ballots should be included in the final tally.

Queens Supreme Court Judge Leslie Leach ruled yesterday that Johnson couldn't object to the ballots because her campaign approved of disqualifying them when they believed she was leading the close race. Lopez Torres' victory should be certified by the Board of Elections, he ordered.

Lopez Torres - considered a key reform figure in Brooklyn's scandal-racked judiciary - said her victory sent a signal to party leaders.

"It will no longer be business as usual, and they know that," Lopez Torres told the Daily News. "People want a courthouse that serves people, not one that enriches certain individuals."

But the electoral saga isn't over. Johnson's lawyer Mitch Alter pledged to appeal, calling Leslie's decision "all screwed up."

Alter plans to charge the Board of Elections engaged in a complex scheme to help Democratic mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer avoid a runoff election by counting certain ballots in the Bronx and not in Brooklyn.

Ballots that could have tilted the election in Johnson's favor weren't counted, Alter charged.

"For the Board of Elections to count ballots with a defect in one county and not count them in Brooklyn is outrageous," Alter said.

A Board of Elections spokesman didn't return calls for comment.




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DAILY NEWS


Dem boss battle heats up
BY HUGH SON



October 12, 2005

A battle is raging among Brooklyn Democrats as the man who would fill deposed boss Clarence Norman's shoes pushes for a vote on the post - while opponents stall for time.

Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D-Bushwick), a North Brooklyn powerbroker, says he has enough support to become the next leader of one of the nation's largest Democratic organizations.

But Boerum Hill district leader Jo Anne Simon fired off a letter yesterday to other leaders charging that they were on "a collision course" with disaster if they elect Lopez after Norman was convicted for felony campaign abuses last month.

"We shouldn't rush to elect somebody who might have some of the same problems as Clarence did," said Simon, a foe of Lopez's who charged he has "ethical issues."

Simon and other self-described reformers want to choose an interim boss through a public interview process.

"Let's decide what the qualities of the leader should be, not through some backroom power play deal," said Park Slope district leader Alan Fleishman.

Brooklyn district leaders were set to vote for a new county boss last night, but dissenters succeeded in pushing back the vote until at least next Thursday, giving them a chance to find a challenger to Lopez.

Meanwhile, Lopez argued that a party leader should be elected in time to influence the mayoral election next month.

"Forestalling having leadership in place will only further reinforce the image we're totally disorganized and dysfunctional," Lopez told the Daily News.

"This is an attempt to block ... the majority of county leaders from voting in favor of my candidacy," he charged.

Simon disagreed with Lopez's rationale for electing a leader.

"Our party has been in disarray for so long, it's ridiculous to assert that," she said.

Despite the focus on the Brooklyn party after Norman's fall, it is doubtful a real reformer could be elected because entrenched party leaders would inevitably choose one of their own, said Dorothy Siegel, chairwoman of the South Brooklyn Working Families Party club.

"I don't think you'll find a reform person that will be acceptable because that person will end the machine, and they're all dependent upon it to support them in their time of need," Siegel said.

Acting party chief Freddie Hamilton said that if at least 21 district leaders want an election, it will happen. Lopez claims to have 26 supporters in his camp.

"The meeting is going to take place and I believe the election will take place," Hamilton said. "I agree we should give ourselves more time, but the majority will prevail."

Court Finds Lopez Torres To Be Brooklyn Surrogate

New York Law Hournal -
Court Finds Lopez Torres To Be Brooklyn Surrogate

Daniel Wise 10-12-2005
Civil Court Judge Margarita Lopez Torres has won the tight race for Brooklyn surrogate, a Supreme Court judge ruled yesterday.

Justice Leslie G. Leach, the administrative judge in Queens, refused to intervene to examine whether Judge Lopez Torres' thin 102-vote lead over Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Diana A. Johnson should be overturned.

Justice Johnson's lawyer, B. Mitchell Alter, vowed to appeal, saying Justice Leach was incorrect to have decided the case without conducting a formal hearing into Justice Johnson's claims that an additional 1,500 affidavit ballots should have been counted.

In an oral decision from the bench, Justice Leach ordered New York City's Board of Elections to certify Judge Lopez Torres the victor.

In the latest tally by the board, Judge Lopez Torres led Justice Johnson, 41,911 votes to 41,809. Brooklyn Justice Lawrence S. Knipel trailed with 23,296.

If the decision is upheld, Judge Lopez Torres, a Democrat, will succeed former Surrogate Michael H. Feinberg because Republicans did not nominate a candidate for the slot.

Surrogate Feinberg was removed by the Court of Appeals in June for having awarded excess compensation to the Brooklyn public administrator's counsel, who was a personal and political friend of the former surrogate.

After hearing oral argument yesterday, Justice Leach found that the Johnson campaign's failure to object to the affidavit ballots at the time they were counted was "dispositive."

He also ruled that state law requires that voters casting paper ballots disclose both their addresses and party affiliations.

Mr. Alter had argued that the Board of Elections' form instructing voters how to prepare the affidavits, which must accompany paper ballots, was hopelessly confusing.

For instance, he argued, a form instructed voters to "check" one of four boxes to indicate the reason they had not been permitted to cast a machine ballot.

Three of the four boxes were associated with reasons why a voter may not have been permitted to cast a machine ballot. The fourth, however, related to a statement as to a voter's enrollment in a political party.

To disclose that a voter was a Democrat, and therefore eligible to vote in the Sept. 13 primary, the voter would have had to check two of the four boxes, not one, Mr. Alter contended.

But Justice Leach said the form had been approved by the state Board of Elections, and any objections as to whether it was confusing would have to be "lodged with some other forum."

The judge, however, did not address Mr. Alter's most explosive allegation: that paper ballots like those excluded because they did not contain the voter's address or a declaration of enrollment as a Democrat were counted in the Bronx.

Mr. Alter submitted copies of the "affidavit oath" that was submitted by 19 such voters whose ballots were counted in the Bronx.

Justice Leach further found that Justice Johnson had failed to meet her burden of showing that, after properly excluded votes were discarded, there were enough questionable votes to change the outcome of the election.

Mr. Alter had contended that some 1,200 paper ballots were excluded because voters did not state they were Democrats in the affidavit. Another 300 were excluded because they did not contain addresses, he contended.

But Ms. Lopez Torres' lawyer, Martin E. Connor, argued that Mr. Alter's 1,200-ballot figure was too high, and the number of votes that "arguably" could be excluded was around 400. He also said that 356 ballots were properly excluded because the voters were not, in fact, registered Democrats and another 450 were excluded for other valid reasons.

Meanwhile, Cesar A. Perales, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, said yesterday his group is weighing whether to bring a federal suit to challenge a law that created a second surrogate seat in Brooklyn.

Democratic leaders have nominated Assemblyman Frank R. Seddio for that seat, which became effective Aug. 1, too late for the primary.

The fund had asked the U.S. Justice Department to void the legislation as a violation of minority voting rights, but last month the Justice Department "pre-cleared" the statute.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

STEALING A JUDGESHIP FROM THE VOTERS

Daily News – 9/20/05
Editorial
STEALING A JUDGESHIP FROM THE VOTERS

For sheer brass, no one in New York City politics surpasses Clarence
Norman. While standing trial on the first of four felony indictments,
the boss of the Brooklyn Democratic organization is giving a powerful
judgeship to a hack whose only judicial experience was judging the Queen
of Coney Island beauty pageant.

On Norman's say-so, Assemblyman Frank Seddio is taking a newly created
surrogate judgeship, a post he can hold for 12 years - without even one
voter having a say in the matter. And all that time, Seddio will have
free rein to dole out millions of dollars in patronage.

Surrogates - judges who handle estates of the dead - are supposed to be
elected. But Norman can install whomever he wants because this post was
created in a dark-of-the-night deal as the Legislature shut down for
business last spring.

Giving Norman say over the judgeship spared him the hassle of having the
voters select the new surrogate in a primary. Allowing the voters into
the picture would have put Norman at very real risk of watching the
surrogate's job go to an insurgent. Were that to happen, all the
politically connected lawyers and accountants who feast on Surrogate's
Court appointments would have been out of luck.

So Norman anointed Seddio, of Canarsie, a former cop who slowly moved up
the political ladder. And as Seddio's official Assembly biography says,
"He is best known for his elaborate Christmas display that surrounds his
home each year, which is visited by thousands." When Seddio [above]
becomes surrogate, there will likely be gifts year-round for the
Brooklyn machine.

It is repulsive that Norman would award, and that Seddio would accept, a
long-term post that belongs to the voters. Norman first offered the spot
to Assemblyman Joe Lentol, who wanted it badly but bowed out honorably.
Seddio should show as much class. He should step down so the governor
can appoint an acting surrogate. There would then be a primary election
next September.

Do the right thing, Mr. Seddio, quit and make your case to voters.

Crain's Insider

Crain's Insider - 9-20-05

Surrogate: Civil Court Judge Margarita López Torres will be the next
Brooklyn surrogate after a recount found that she won the Democratic primary by 90 votes out of nearly 107,000 cast. The initial count had Supreme Court Judge Diana Johnson ahead by 80 votes.

Judge Lopez Torres Takes Lead

New York Law Journal 9/20/05
Judge Lopez Torres Takes Lead in Still Incomplete Count
— Daniel Wise
In a dramatic turnabout, Civil Court Judge Margarita Lopez Torres nudged 90 votes ahead of Supreme Court Justice Diana A. Johnson in the race for the Democratic nomination for surrogate in Brooklyn, according to the latest tally by the city Board of Elections yesterday. And in the race for Civil Court from District 6 in Brooklyn, the leader Cynthia Boyce saw her lead over Michael J. Gerstein dwindle to six votes. Only absentee ballots that were received yesterday or will be received in today's mail remain to be counted, said board spokesman Christopher Riley. To be valid an absentee ballot must have been postmarked by 12 a.m. Monday, Sept. 12. In addition, should the results be challenged in court, about 150 paper ballots have been set aside for judicial review, said Steven Richman, the board's counsel. Of those 150 ballots, about 65 have not yet been counted, he added. In the unofficial tally reported last Wednesday, Justice Johnson had led Judge Lopez Torres by 80 votes. Since last Wednesday, Ms. Boyce's lead has narrowed to six votes from 123. A third candidate in District 6 which covers Park Slope, Flatbush and neighboring communities, Ingrid Joseph, trails Mr. Gerstein by 118 votes. Meanwhile, former Supreme Court Justice Kristin Booth Glen has broadened her lead over Blank Rome partner Eve Rachel Markewich by 84 votes to 2,242 in a tight race for surrogate in Manhattan.

CBID Letter

Tom Bergdall l Marty Bernstein l Ken Diamondstone l
Alan Fleishman l Susan Loeb l Warren Miner l
Jim O’Reilly l Ellen Raider
Members of Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats

Wednesday, September 7, 2005 Contact: (347) 623-2668-Susan Loeb

Honorable Lawrence Knipel
765 East 18th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11230

Dear Justice Knipel:

As Members of Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats ("CBID"), we write
to strenuously object to the continued distribution ­ apparently by your
campaign ­ of a piece of campaign literature that blatantly
misrepresents the position of CBID with respect to your candidacy. We
call on you to direct your campaign, and those working on your behalf,
to immediately cease distribution of this campaign literature, and to
publicly state that this piece shall not be distributed.

The piece, a copy of an article in the Brooklyn Eagle from July 8, 2005,
written by Charles Otey, implies that CBID is supporting you. “Justice
Knipel’s virtues as a Surrogate were being extolled by organizations
such as the Central Brooklyn Independents, a reform-minded group ...”

This statement is false; as of July 8, 2005, CBID had not taken a
position on any of the candidates for Surrogate. Moreover, as you are
well aware, on July 21, 2005, CBID endorsed Judge Margarita Lopez Torres
for Surrogate, not you.

Notwithstanding the fact that you were denied CBID¹s endorsement, you
continued to distribute this piece. Indeed, at the August 3rd
endorsement meeting of Lambda Democrats, CBID Vice President Ken
Diamondstone spoke to you and objected your continued use of this
article as misrepresenting CBID. We understand that you assured him this
would not happen in the future.

Despite all this, we understand that this piece was distributed
door-to-door in parts of Park Slope, one month later, on September 3.
Moreover, the piece distributed omitted the author’s byline ­ making it
appear to be an editorial from the Eagle, which it apparently is not.
And the piece failed to indicate it was paid for by your campaign, or,
for that matter, who had paid for the printing and distribution of this
piece. As you should know, there are rules against anonymous campaign
leaflets.

More importantly, we believe that your campaign's continued distribution
of this piece reflects badly on your integrity as a judicial candidate.
The Judicial Conduct Rules, section 100.5 (A)(4)(d)(iii), says that a
judge shall not “Knowingly make any false statement or misrepresent the
identity, qualifications, current position or other fact concerning the
candidate or opponent.”

We ask that you immediately rectify this. You did not receive CBID's
support, and should not imply that you did.

The signers of this letter are currently active members in good standing of
The Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats. They are speaking solely for
themselves and not CBID.

Sincerely,
Susan Loeb
On behalf of:

Tom Bergdall
Martin Bernstein
Ken Diamondstone
Alan Fleishman
Warren Miner
James O’Reilly
Ellen Raider

Monday, September 05, 2005

Brooklyn Surrogate's Court: López Torres

El Diario - Sept 5, 2005
Editorial Endorsement

We go to Surrogate`s Court at some of the most stressful times in our lives – when a loved one dies, with or without a will; when a mentally retarded adult or an elderly relative needs a guardian; or when we adopt a child.

Because Brooklyn is in the midst of a judicial corruption scandal, the primary election there for the Judge of the Surrogate's Court takes on added importance. It's crucial that the next judge be a person who has demonstrated competence, integrity and independence from the political machine. That person is Margarita Lopez Torres.

She seeks to replace Michael Feinberg, who the state Court of Appeals removed in June for paying excessive fees to lawyers he appointed to deal with the estates of people who died without leaving a will. Another Surrogate's Court judgeship was created in a last-minute deal between Gov. George Pataki and the state Legislature, but it was effective Aug. 1, too late for the primary. Instead, the Brooklyn Democratic party leader gets to appoint that judge. The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund has filed a lawsuit to stop it.

Lopez Torres was elected to the Civil Court in 1992 with Democratic machine backing, but she has since fallen out of favor with party leaders and they refused to endorse her in 2002. She was re-elected anyway.

Although people think only rich people with big wills end up in Surrogate's Court, Lopez Torres says most of the estates are small. She wants to ensure that lawyers' fees are appropriate. And she wants to include more Hispanics and Blacks on the list of lawyers who are assigned to handle estates and as guardians.

All this will take a judge who will pick people not because of their political connections, but because they will provide the best service for the public. We believe that person is Margarita Lopez Torres and we endorse her for Surrogate's Court judge.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

For Cleaner Courts in Brooklyn

New York Times -- Editorial Endorsement
Sept. 4, 2005
Two critical contests on the Sept. 13 Democratic primary ballot in Brooklyn - for district attorney and for a Surrogate's Court judgeship - offer voters a chance to register their disgust with the cozy clubhouse-courthouse ties that lie at the heart of the borough's judicial patronage and corruption scandal, and the undue influence of Clarence Norman's local Democratic machine. Together, these races amount to a referendum on cleaning up the local political and justice system.

Surrogate's Court

There are two Surrogate's Court seats to be filled this fall in Brooklyn. But voters in the Sept. 13 primary have been granted a say in filling only one - the vacancy created in June when the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, took the rare step of removing Surrogate Michael Feinberg, a Democratic clubhouse stalwart, for doling out excessive fees to the crony he appointed to deal with the estates of those who died without leaving a will. In a disgraceful backroom deal, Albany recently created a second judgeship and timed it so that party regulars, not voters, would get to choose the candidate who will appear on the sure-to-win Democratic line in November.

These shenanigans make it all the more important to choose a candidate of proven independence from those who have long treated the Surrogate's Court as their personal cookie jar. Of the three candidates, only one fits the bill - Margarita Lopez Torres. A veteran Civil Court judge, Ms. Torres would start on Day 1 of her tenure to reorganize the court to serve the people as it is meant to.

Her rivals in the race, Supreme Court Justices Diana Johnson and Lawrence Knipel, are smart, competent and pledge reform. But their close ties to the clubhouse do not bode well for achieving the necessary clean break. We enthusiastically endorse Ms. Lopez Torres.

Choices for surrogate

Daily News - Editorial Endorsement
Sept. 4, 2005

Democratic primary voters in Brooklyn and Manhattan have a rare opportunity to elect surrogates, the judges who oversee the estates of the dead - a mother lode of patronage spoils. The Daily News endorses Margarita Lopez Torres in Brooklyn and Kristen Booth Glen in Manhattan because they appear most likely to remain above cronyism.

Brooklyn Dems get to pick a surrogate because the Commission on Judicial Conduct bounced party hack Michael Feinberg from the bench for letting a pal siphon millions of dollars from dead people's estates - malfeasance that was exposed by this newspaper. The three contenders for the spot are Lopez Torres, a Civil Court judge, and Supreme Court Justices Larry Knipel and Diana Johnson.

Lopez Torres has demonstrated competence on the bench while warring with the Democratic organization, and she promises reforms like using either court staff or rotating private lawyers to handle probate work. So she gets the nod. Knipel, who gets high marks for legal ability, and Johnson promise to limit political influence on lucrative court appointments, but both played footsie with the party to get their judgeships. (Knipel's wife is a Democratic district leader, and his campaign is backed by two retired judges who both testified as character witnesses on behalf of the ousted Feinberg.)

In Manhattan, the decisive factor is also independence from the party. On that score, Glen, dean of the CUNY law school who has served on both the Civil and Supreme courts, tops Eve Rachel Markewich, a private estates lawyer. Until recently, Markewich was a Democratic district leader, and she is backed by party bosses.

Glen promises to bar from appointment all elected party leaders, district leaders, county committee members and club presidents. She should add judicial nominating convention delegates to the list, and, if victorious on Sept. 13, she and Lopez Torres must follow through on aggressive reforms.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Citizens Union Issues "Preference" for Lopez Torres for Surrogate

Daily News August 24, 2005
Key watchdogs OK Hynes, Lopez Torres
By Hugh Son

An influential watchdog group is backing Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes for reelection .... said Dick Dadey, executive director of the Citizens Union, a New York City political reform group founded in 1897.
...
The Citizens Union also backed Judge Margarita López Torres in her campaign to take the seat of disgraced Surrogate Court Judge Michael Feinberg, calling her the "clear reform candidate."
"Our choice is rooted in the need to sever the way in which the Surrogate Court is used as an ATM for the corrupt Brooklyn Democratic Party machine headed by Norman," Dadey said.
Lopez Torres' opponents, Justices Diana Johnson and Lawrence Knipel, both have links to Norman, Dadey said - and that could perpetuate the system of doling out legal patronage that Feinberg was fired for.
Norman couldn't be reached for comment, a spokesman said.
The Citizens Union nod is a valuable endorsement, said Baruch College public affairs professor Doug Muzzio.
"It's the original good government group in New York," Muzzio said. "Their endorsement carries weight with opinion makers who then might influence voters."

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Better to Know the Judge

As an adult home deteriorated, a veteran jurist and a lawyer shared cocktails and dinner
Village Voice
by Tom Robbins
August 9th, 2005

Another report of insider trading in the Brooklyn courts arrived in late July from the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct. This one produced more sighs than fury. Years after editorial pages had spent their wrath condemning Brooklyn's judicial politics as a school for scandal, here was another censure of another veteran judge for failing to reveal his ties to yet an other politically wired attorney practicing before him. Even the names were predictable.

Supreme Court Justice Richard Huttner, a clubhouse regular, had never told other lawyers in a case he adjudicated about his friendship with defense counsel Ravi Batra, former law partner of assemblyman and Democratic county leader Clarence Norman Jr. The panel reported that Huttner neglected to tell plaintiffs that while he was hearing their case he and his wife were having cocktails with Batra and his spouse, or that the judge had also attended a wed ding anniversary and a memorial service with the Batra family. Or that he and the attorney had shared "drinks, lunch, and dinner together on numerous occasions." Or that he thought so highly of Batra he had awarded the lawyer 11 separate fiduciary appointments.

What to do?

Huttner, 70 years old, caught a break. On the proviso that he will permanently retire on December 31, the panel "reluctantly" let him off with censure. Case closed. The report made for a four-inch wire service story in the Times; it never made it past the borough section in the Daily News.

But not since Judge Victor Barron, another clubhouse hack, was caught demanding $115,000 to fix the case of a maimed three-month-old baby has a story penetrated so near to the rotten heart of Brooklyn's judicial politics.

Batra's appearance before Huttner was on behalf of a wretchedly deteriorated adult home run by Norman's father, Re verend Clarence Norman Sr., pastor of one of Brooklyn's largest churches. In Baisden et al. v. Pacific House Residence for Adults, lawyers for the home's residents, most of them the formerly homeless with varying degrees of mental problems, were seeking to block Norman Sr.'s efforts to sell the building and evict them. At the time, Reverend Norman was trying, with Batra's help, to stay one step ahead of state regulators who were being forced to act on years of complaints of callous care and grievous conditions at the home.

When I visited Pacific House in the summer of 2000 while the case was before Huttner, residents were aimlessly roaming the streets ("A Ministry of Neglect," June 28–July 4, 2000). Several told me they were terrified about what would befall them. The most cogent understood exactly what was going on. One woman, Clara Taylor, had formed a residents' council, which had sought out legal services attorneys. Taylor had personally confronted Norman Sr. about the situation. The reverend had pled poverty. While the home collected $60,000 a month from the residents' disability checks, he said he was hobbled by a poor cash flow. Additional government grants had been denied after inspectors found rampant vermin, unsanitary bathrooms, and poor care.

Taylor had also cornered the reverend's son when the assemblyman attended a street fair near the home. She had pointed to a urine-soaked resident, sitting mumbling and untended on a nearby stoop. "I asked him if he would help. He said, 'I'm glad you're concerned,' and promised to speak to his father," Taylor told me.

But when I got Assemblyman Norman on the phone that summer he said that his only involvement was to ask his partner Batra to represent his father. Batra got results. Before Huttner, the lawyer was able to win his client sufficient breathing room to negotiate a sale of his property—minus its troubled residents, who were dispersed elsewhere in the city—to another politically tied organization. It was "a graceful exit," Batra told me then.

Later this month, after long delays, Assemblyman Norman is finally due to go to trial on the first of four indictments brought against him by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. The county leader stands accused of double billing for his gas receipts, failing to disclose a $2,700 in-kind contribution from a lobbyist, misfiling a $5,000 campaign check, and compelling judicial candidates to use favored vendors.

Several of the charges appear shaky. But on any moral scale, they are far outweighed by the outrage of Pacific House and the casual use of Brooklyn's Democratic judicial-political complex to defend it. Yet no law enforcement office looked to see if there were any penal code violations there. It was considered business as usual; a crassly cynical business perhaps, but not criminal. Meanwhile, conveniently for both Hynes and Norman, the first jury's verdict isn't likely to be heard until after the September 13th primary, thus sparing one or the other a major embarrassment.

That Tuesday, Hynes faces his first competitive race for re-election since he won office in 1989, with three challengers seeking his job. It is an important day for Norman as well. He's hoping his candidate for D.A., an undistinguished, clubhouse-bred state senator from east Brooklyn named John Sampson, can ride a tide of African American votes to unseat Hynes. Another important goal for the embattled leader is to try to hold on to the Surrogate's Court judgeship, the single most lucrative judicial post in the borough. The position had been held by another Norman candidate, Judge Michael Feinberg, who bizarrely won the open seat in 1996 on a reform platform. Feinberg even won the Times' endorsement that year, telling its editorial board he would have a panel "screen appointments and recommend changes in how the place was run."

Of course he did no such thing. He immediately appointed a longtime Norman ally, East Flatbush Democratic district leader Marietta Small, as public administrator, a job that calls for competence and sensitivity in the handling of estates of the deceased. Small brought neither to the job. Two separate audits have chastised Small, who still holds her $91,000-a-year post, with bungling multiple cases and losing track of assets.

For the profitable job of counsel to the public administrator, Feinberg held no interviews, instead selecting his friend and neighbor Louis Rosenthal, whose closest experience in the surrogate business was his father's service as public administrator in the early 1960s. Rosenthal promptly began to collect an 8 percent fee for every estate that crossed his desk, 2 percent more than counsels in other boroughs. He did so without filing the required affidavits describing what he'd done to earn the money. This was not a problem for Feinberg, however, who rubber-stamped more than $8 million in payments to his friend.

Such pillaging probably would have rolled merrily along had not two Daily News reporters, Nancie Katz and Larry Cohler-Esses, exposed the scheme in May 2002. In the wake of their stories, the Attorney General's Office and the Commission on Judicial Conduct each opened investigations. Rosenthal was forced out. In late June, the state Court of Appeals upheld the judicial conduct panel's ruling that Feinberg should also be removed. The judge had admitted to the commission that he had only "skimmed" the rules of office, and somehow missed the one about required affidavits. The panel found him "incredible, evasive, and unreliable."

Norman's replacement candidate for the office is a protégé, Supreme Court Justice Diana Johnson, who attends Clarence Norman Sr.'s First Baptist Church in Crown Heights. He has a backup candidate, Judge Lawrence Knipel, who has gotten good marks on the bench but whose independence has been questioned since his wife is a district leader and Norman loyalist.

The third candidate is civil court judge Margarita López Torres, who has been tilting her lance at Norman's machine ever since he refused to back her for re-election in 2002. The reason? López Torres refused to accept a political appointee as her law clerk ("The Judge Who Said No," July 31–August 6, 2002).
In the surrogate's race, López Torres has pledged to do all the things Feinberg claimed he would nine years ago, and more. "I am going to structure the court in a way it serves the people," she said under a hot noon sun at a City Hall press conference last month. "The integrity of this court has been challenged," she said. "I will change that."

Lentol cools to judgeship amid lawsuit

Daily News - Aug 9. 2005
Lentol cools to judgeship amid lawsuit

By Hugh Son

Veteran Assemblyman Joseph Lentol was picked for a powerful - and controversial - new Surrogate Court judge seat, but he may no longer want the job.

"This job as a surrogate judge is very tempting for me to take, but I'm not sure it's the right thing to do because my heart may not be in it," Lentol (D-Williamsburg) told the Daily News yesterday.

"I still feel like I have a lot to offer the state Assembly representing my district," he said.

Lentol's announcement - a reversal from remarks made earlier this year - comes after a lawsuit filed by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund that seeks to block the Nov. 8 election in which Lentol would be the Democratic candidate.

Lentol was tapped after a last-minute deal was struck between Gov. Pataki and the Legislature to give Brooklyn a second surrogate judge.

The position was created too late to schedule a primary election, leaving the choice of the candidate to the party. In overwhelmingly Democratic Brooklyn, the Democratic line in a judicial race is a virtual lock on election.

The lawsuit contends the process violates the Voting Rights Act, said Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund President Cesar Perales.

"It denies minority voters an opportunity to have a say in the election of the second surrogate in Brooklyn," Perales said.

At least one of the Democratic district leaders who joined embattled party boss Clarence Norman in picking Lentol said he thought the lawsuit had an excellent chance of succeeding.

"The creation of that seat is outrageous. Why should 42 district leaders pick the second-most important judge in the county, instead of 900,000 registered Democrats?" said Alan Fleishman, Park Slope district leader.

If the Justice Department agrees with the lawsuit, Pataki may be empowered to pick a one-year appointment and an election would be held next year.

Democratic sources said Lentol was shying away from criticism of the way the nomination was handled. "Lentol only wants it if it's handed to him on a silver platter," said a political operative who didn't want his name used.

But Lentol denied being influenced by any outside force.

"It has only to do with me, what's in my heart," Lentol said. "I've been more of a legislator than a lawyer, and I don't know if [the judgeship] is for me."

Friday, August 05, 2005

State Asks U.S. to Clear Second Brooklyn Surrogate

New York Law Journal 8-5-05

by Daniel Wise
New York state has asked the U.S. Justice Department to find that a law enacted in June creating a second Surrogate's Court seat in Brooklyn complies with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, according to the state's July 27 filing. Cesar Perales, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, said yesterday his group received a copy of the state's filing. Last month the group asked the Justice Department to intervene and find that the new seat compromises minority voting rights because the timing established by the law bypassed the primary process and placed the selection of a candidate in the hands of Democratic leaders in Brooklyn. In its filing, the state claimed there was no infringement of minority voters' rights because minority legislators supported the bill. Meanwhile, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who has been widely reported as the party's likely nominee for the slot, yesterday expressed second thoughts about running. Mr. Lentol, who had stated without qualification in June that he was interested in the nomination, said yesterday that "my heart is in a governmental job that is not finished and I don't know if I want it locked in a judge's chambers." In a reference to the Voting Rights Act challenge, he said, "We may be talking about [an election] that may not happen." Richard Emery, an expert on the act, said the defense fund's challenge is a long shot because the Justice Department has not been receptive to voting rights challenges. But he added that a claim that minority voters have been bypassed has "visceral appeal."

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Voting Wrongs Act

Daily News -- July 23, 2005
Editorial

The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund has called on the Justice Department to rule that Gov. Pataki and the Legislature violated the federal Voting Rights Act last month when they created a new Surrogate's Court judgeship in Brooklyn. The feds should take their sweet time considering the matter.

Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno established the post in the final moments of the legislative session as part of a back-room deal that doled out judgeships to political bosses. The Brooklyn beneficiary was indicted Democratic chief Clarence Norman, for whom Surrogate's Court is a patronage trough.

Albany delivered the fiefdom directly into Norman's hands by establishing the judgeship as of Aug. 1, when the state's election calendar says it's too late to conduct a primary election for the seat. That being the case, the party gets to choose which of its hacks will appear on the November ballot and thus get the 14-year berth overseeing the estates of the dead.

But the election calendar offers another possibility. If the judgeship is vacant after Aug. 8, the governor or the state's chief administrative judge would get to appoint an interim surrogate for one year. The voters would then next year select a judge in the primary and general elections. By waiting to rule until after Aug. 8, the Justice Department would put the power where it belongs - with the voters, not the bosses.

Friday, July 22, 2005

A suspicious new judgeship

El Diario - July 22, 2005

EDITORIAL

We all have good reason to be suspicious about a new Surrogate Court Judge position in Brooklyn, created by Gov. George Pataki and the state Legislature as the legislative session in Albany was drawing to a close last month.

Last Thursday, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund asked the U.S. Department of Justice to find that Pataki and the state Legislature violated the federal Voting Rights Act when they created the new judgeship. The post in Brooklyn is one of 21 new judgeships the governor and the legislature established across the state, effective Aug. 1. That makes it too late to hold a primary election, according to the state election calendar, which means political party bosses get to appoint the party candidate.

In Brooklyn, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, the Democratic candidate is virtually guaranteed to be the winner in November. And the man making the appointment will be none other than party boss Clarence Norman, who is currently under indictment on corruption charges.

Because of a history of racial discrimination, Brooklyn is covered by the Voting Rights Act. Any decision to add or remove a judgeship must be approved by the Justice Department. PRLDEF argues that the elimination of a primary election can severely reduce minority participation, and has asked the Justice Department to stop the appointment of candidates.

We agree that this process must be halted. The stakes are high. The new judge would serve for 14 years or until he turns 70, the mandatory retirement age.

People all over the state are upset about the judgeships, largely seen as patronage positions created by Pataki at a time when he is considering a run for higher office. Even if the new judgeship in Brooklyn passes Justice Department review, the system should appoint an interim judge for a year. Voters would select the judge in a primary and general election next year. And that’s as it should be.

Rights Group Fights Judgeship Creation

RIGHTS GROUP FIGHTS JUDGESHIP CREATION

BY JOE MAHONEY - NY Daily News
July 22, 2005 Friday

A new set of judicial robes destined for Brooklyn could end up in mothballs because a civil rights group is going to the feds in a bid to block the controversial creation of the Surrogate Court position.

The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund contends the Legislature violated the Voting Rights Act by ramming through a measure that shuts out voters from a chance to weigh in on judicial candidates in a primary election.

Citing the fact that Brooklyn falls under the Voting Rights Act, the group is asking the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department to intervene and stop the state from allowing the Nov. 8 general election for the Brooklyn surrogate judgeship to move forward.

"Clearly, the problem they are going to run up against is they violated the federal Voting Rights Act in the process of their machinations," Cesar Perales, the group's president, told the Daily News. "We certainly think that a court will agree with us."

Perales' group hopes the Justice Department will rule that the judgeship was engineered in a way that harms the ability of Hispanic and African-American voters to participate in the selection of the new judge.

State legislative insiders say the judgeship is expected to go to Assembly Codes Committee Chairman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), a key lieutenant in Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's operation at the state Capitol.

The Brooklyn judgeship was created as a part of a deal that allows Gov. Pataki to name 14 new Court of Claims judgeships and creates several other new judicial posts across the state.

In heavily Democratic Brooklyn, the judgeship was created in a way that empowers party boss Clarence Norman, an Assemblyman who works alongside Lentol in Silver's shop at the Capitol, to appoint the new surrogate.

Pataki aides said the state Board of Elections is drafting the "preclearance letter" the Justice Department needs in order to sign off on the state's effort to create the Brooklyn spot.

Justice Department officials reached in Washington last night had no immediate comment on the tempest erupting in Brooklyn.

Perales said his group was successful in delaying the city's mayoral primary in 1981 because of civil rights concerns. If the advocates get their way this time, lawmakers would be forced to go back to the drawing board - and enact legislation that paves the way for an open primary election, he said.

Group Opposes Adding Second Brooklyn Surrogate

NY Law Journal
July 22, 2005

Group Opposes Adding Second Brooklyn Surrogate
by Tom Perrotta

The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund has asked the U.S. Justice Department to intervene in the election for a newly created Surrogate's Court seat in Brooklyn. Because of the timing of the Legislature's creation of the seat, the borough's second, there will be no time for a primary. Instead, Democratic and Republican leaders will choose candidates, with the Democrat likely becoming the overwhelming favorite in the heavily Democratic borough. The group claimed yesterday that Brooklyn is covered by §5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, owing to a history of racial discrimination. It contends the borough is subject to clearance requirements from the Justice Department when creating a new judicial position, and added that the elimination of a primary could reduce the ability of minorities to partake in the election. It further said it has asked the Justice Department to deny
any clearance requests.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

No More Debasing of the Surrogate's Court

Footnotes (www.footnotesny.com)
NO MORE DEBASING OF THE SURROGATES COURT

By Maurice Gumbs. July 19, 2005


A May 21 article on our website (Surrogate Court Judges Rush In To Protect A Brother) discussed Surrogate Judge Feinberg’s appeal. We suggested that Feinberg was fortunate that his proposed punishment was no more than removal from the bench. Feinberg had given away millions of $$$ to his pal Lou Rosenthal with no bills, no justification. This was money that rightfully belonged to other people, many of whom needed it desperately.

The Court of Appeals panel expressed its disgust when it accused Feinberg of “debasing the bench.” Debasing the bench is one of the worst betrayals in a civilized society. It is an act as gross and obscene as a judge sitting on the bench and defecating in his black robes. In the days of his ancestors, Mike Feinberg would have been stoned to death, or boiled in oil, or have his eyes taken out. And this defrocked judge is fortunate that he lives in a more permissive community.

Feinberg’s predecessor, Surrogate Judge Bernard Bloom was found guilty of deception and falsehood, and similarly escaped severe punishment. Bloom was approaching 70, and the kind Court of Appeals panel allowed him to continue on the bench with the understanding that he would retire at 70. Looking at the record, it appears to us that Bloom was also guilty of perjury. Perjury in Court generally invokes severe punishment. Usually a stern lecture from the judge and a jail sentence. Bloom was fortunate, and so is Feinberg who was also accused of lying, and dishonesty.

Bloom and Feinberg are fruit of the same tree. They emerged from the culture established by the semi-mobster and County Leader Meade Esposito. Judges like Bloom and Feinberg were comfortable with the sleaziness, corruption, and wheeling/dealing of Brooklyn politics. They saw the Surrogate Court as a market where huge sums of money could be transferred from vulnerable citizens into the bank accounts of their pals.

Once again there are candidates waiting to follow in the footsteps of Bloom and Feinberg. County Leader Clarence Norman expects to organize the election of another Surrogate Judge just as he did with Feinberg in 1996. Directly or indirectly he appears to have two candidates lined up to replace Mike Feinberg. We understand that he hopes to put the Surrogate Court in the hands of a member of the First Baptist Church or in the hands of the husband of a District Leader who has been his loyal supporter.

If we didn’t know before, we should know it after Bloom and Feinberg. Putting the Surrogates Court in the hands of County-supported candidates is like sending a 7 year old kid to a sleep-away camp run by a pedophile.

The Surrogates Court used to be called the Widows and Orphans Court. It’s a Court for human beings who are in desperate need of a fair, honest, and caring judge. Instead, Brooklyn’s political leaders see it as a hunting ground for predators. The Surrogates Court has turned into a place where there is a license to steal money, homes, and other property from those who need help.

Footnotes has received dozens of letters from victims of the Surrogates Courts.

Under Bloom and Feinberg there may be hundreds of people who lost homes, money that they were supposed to inherit from relatives, and estates that were gobbled up by lawyers and receivers in the Surrogates Court. Many of these were elderly people, sick people, and children, and poor people.

Some years ago columnist Jimmy Breslin gave us a look into the Surrogates Court when he told the story of a 18 year old Mexican worker who was crushed and drowned in cement in a Williamsburg building in 2000. The builder was found guilty and the Federal Court placed the value of the young Mexican’s life at $100,000. The payment was promptly made in Federal Court in 2001, and the check sent to Mike Feinberg’s Surrogates Court from which the funds were to be sent to the family in Mexico. Breslin recalls dealing with the Public Administrator’s Office a year later trying to get them to send out a check to the young man’s family. He finally got through to Marietta Smalls and found Lou Rosenthal sitting on the $100,000 deposit. Meanwhile, the boy’s family was in desperate condition in Mexico where they had been living off the money he was sending back home while alive.

And finally Breslin described how after more than a year, Lou Rosenthal finally sent a check to the family. And Rosenthal had deducted $15,000 which he claimed was his fee. In fact, Rosenthal indicated that it was far less than his usual fee. We get the feeling that if it were not for Jimmy Breslin, it could have taken a decade for that money to get to Mexico, and by that time, Rosenthal’s fee could have increased to $50.000 Judging from the stories we hear, this was standard procedure under Surrogates Court Judges Bloom and Feinberg.

Communities are defined by the way they treat their widows, orphans, the needy, the sick, the helpless. Brooklyn will be defined by its choice of its new Surrogates Court Judge. This year’s candidates for Surrogates Court Judge will make promises about their future righteousness. That’s what Bloom did. That’s what Feinberg did. They claimed to care. They swore they would be reformers.

And then they proceeded to debase the Court.

There is a simple test by which to eliminate individuals who seek to fill the position of Surrogates Judge. It has nothing to do with glossy literature, fine speeches or the support of County Leadership, and ClubHouse politicians.

Brooklyn cannot afford to continue “debasing” its Surrogate Court with judges backed by the County Leader and other political predators. It was County Leader Clarence Norman who sponsored Mike Feinberg as his candidate for Surrogate Court Judge in 1996. Unless the goal is to put another Feinberg in office, any candidate affiliated with the County Leader should automatically be eliminated. We’ve been there…Done that.

Footnotes has been told that candidate Diane Johnson is a longstanding member of the First Baptist Church where Clarence Norman’s father is the pastor and Clarence himself is a distinguished officer. We understand that Diane is one of maybe 5 or 6 judges who are members of this church. How extraordinary!! If the information about Ms. Johnson is true, then in our view she is utterly disqualified from consideration.

District Leader Lori Knipel has been one of Clarence Norman’s faithful supporters. Not only has she worked to keep Clarence as County Leader, but Lori was instrumental in delivering the County Committee vote which gave Carl Andrews the Democratic line in the Special Election for State Senate. It appears that County Leader Clarence has already rewarded Lori for her loyalty by making her husband a judge. And now Lori seeks to put her husband in a position where he can control the wealthiest Court in Brooklyn. Another Feinberg in the making.

Clearly differentiated from the other candidates is Judge Margarita Lopez Torres. Although she is one of the most senior judges in Brooklyn, and has an impeccable reputation, Judge Margarita Lopez Torres has not been nominated to the State Supreme Court by County Leadership.

Her independence and her refusal to let politicians control her decisions in Court have made Judge Lopez Torres untouchable by the power-brokers who corrupt the Courts. There is no other judge in Brooklyn dead, half-dead or alive who has had the courage to speak out against the corrupt practices that debase the Courts of Brooklyn. In her fearless integrity, Judge Lopez Torres, a gentle, quiet mother towers above her peers. Her record qualifies her to preside over a Court where more than in any other Court, the people need the Judge to be their advocate.

New York State’s Court of Appeal is trying on its end to bring an end to corruption in Brooklyn. Within a month they have sent two strong messages. It is now up to Brooklynites and their civic leaders. To our delight, Congressman Major Owens is once again fighting for decency and against corruption just as he did three decades ago. Major, together with Congresmembers Towns and Velasquez have joined to support Judge Torres. We wonder what will keep Anthony Weiner from joining his colleagues.

And what about Mayor Mike Bloomberg? Judge Margarita Lopez Torres offers a unique opportunity for the Mayor to join the demand for the end of debasing Brooklyn’s Courts. The Mayor can use his bully pulpit to speak out against the disgrace of two new Surrogates Court judges being chosen by a County Leader who is likely to be in jail before their first year in office is over. It would be terrific if Mike Bloomberg finds a legal way to put support behind the best candidate with the least money. And even if the Mayor simply shines the spotlight on this contest and raises the awareness of the critical issues involved, he would finally demonstrate a level of moral leadership.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Congressmembers endorse a Latina Judge

El Diario 7/19/05

Congresistas respaldan a jueza latina
Eva Sanchis/EDLP

Nueva York — Tres congresistas de Brooklyn respadaron ayer a una conocida jueza latina para un puesto vacante en de la Corte de Sucesiones de Brooklyn.

Los congresistas afroamericanos Edolphus Towns y Major Owens y la congresista puertorriqueña Nydia Velázquez apoyaron a Margarita López Torres, la primera mujer latina en ser elegida a la Corte Civil de Brooklyn en 1992, por su fuerte independencia e integridad.

“Todo el que se postula a la corte de Sucesiones lo hace como un reformador”, dijo el congresista Owens, “pero sólo Margarita López Torres ha defendido consistentemente la independencia judicial, sin importarle los riesgos”.

López se postula en la primaria demócrata para el puesto que dejó Michael Feinberg, después de que una investigación interna demostrase que un amigo suyo había estafado millones de dólares a viudas y huérfanos en excesivos cobros por documentos legales.

En el 2002, López, de 53 años y originaria de Puerto Rico, fue reelegida jueza de la Corte Civil a pesar de no obtener el respaldo del Partido Demócrata de Brooklyn por negarse a contratar a personas sugeridas por el partido. De ser elegida jueza de la Corte de Sucesiones de Brooklyn, López se convertiría en la primera latina del estado y en la primera mujer de la corte de Brooklyn en lograrlo.

López reafirmó ayer su compromiso contra el nepotismo y la contratación de personas por su afiliación política. “Si salgo elegida, prometo sólo contratar a gente por sus méritos y no por sus conexiones políticas”, dijo. “Estaré segura de que tienen la preparación adecuada para el puesto”, agregó.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Race and the race for judge

Daily News 7-8-05
by Errol Louis
Race and the race for judge

As noted in this space last week, the forced removal of disgraced ex-judge Michael Feinberg for siphoning excess fees from the Brooklyn Surrogate's Court has set off a hot contest for the seat in this fall's primary. Tribal loyalties in the race for mayor could determine the winner. The best-known candidate, Civil Court Judge Margarita Lopez-Torres, will get a boost from the candidacy of Fernando Ferrer because his bid to become New York's first Puerto Rican mayor will raise turnout among Brooklyn's Latino voters. Another contender for surrogate, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Diana Johnson, who is African-American, could get a similar lift from the fact that the most fiercely contested Council races in Kings County are going on in the overwhelmingly black neighborhoods of central Brooklyn. In Brownsville, for instance, the Campaign Finance Board reports 12 challengers vying for the seat being vacated by term-limited Tracy Boyland - all of whom will be trying to get voters to the polls.

A BIPARTISAN DEAL TO CREATE 21 NEW JUDGESHIPS

New York Civic (www.nycivic.org)
Q (Quotidien) No. 62
Tuesday, July 5, 2005
by Henry Stern

A BIPARTISAN DEAL TO CREATE 21 NEW JUDGESHIPS

The Daily News editorial, LET THE VOTERS CHOOSE THE JUDGES, denounces the sweetheart deal between the major parties this year that lets the Democratic party bosses choose the next surrogate, without the primary election that the law normally requires. The News suggests that Clarence Norman, the Brooklyn county leader, names a 69-year-old to the position, who would have to retire at the end of 2006. That way the people would have an opportunity to select his successor.

An excellent idea, BUT if the legislators had wanted to give the people a chance to elect a judge, they would not have selected August 1 as the effective date for the new law.. August 1 is within the window of opportunity for the Brooklyn gang, too late for petitions to be circulated by candidates for election, but early enough for Norman & Co. to select a catspaw for the Democratic nomination for the new position of second Surrogate for Kings County. The gig is for fourteen years, at $136,700 per annum, plus staff, benefits and other emoluments.


PLACE NOT YOUR TRUST IN PRINCES
--

PARTICULARLY THOSE WHO SUP WITH THE BROOKLYN MACHINE

Since we have cited editorials from the Post and the News, it is fair that we quote from an editorial from the New York Times that is relevant nine years after it was published, on Thursday, September 6, 1996, just four days before the botched Democratic primary election on Monday, September 10. BTW, the election was so poorly managed, the courts ordered the polls reopened on October 10 for those who were unable to vote because voting machines failed to arrive at polling places. Now, we proceed to the Times' advice to Brooklynites.

"The Brooklyn Surrogate's Court has long put the needs of politicians before those of the public. All four candidates vow to clean up the place. But only State Supreme Court Justice MICHAEL FEINBERG has strong credentials.

"Justice Feinberg has promised reforms ranging from a panel to screen appointments and recommend changes in how the place is run, down to keeping the office open at lunchtime as a convenience to the public. But his ardent backing by the Democratic county organization, which wants to retain its patronage jobs and fees, is DISQUIETING. With some WARINESS we endorse Judge Feinberg on the basis of his good record, and TRUST that he will STAY TRUE to his reform pledges." (We added the emphasis.)


ALL THAT GLITTERS -- FEINBERG'S PRINCIPAL OPPONENT

To be fair to the Times, we must report that Judge Feinberg's principal opponent in the 1996 primary was Judge Lila Gold, then on the Civil Court. When she ran for Supreme Court in 2003, having made her peace with the county organization, The Village Voice mocked her in an article headlined: THE JUDGE IN THE PURPLE PLASTIC GLOVES: Clarence Norman's Latest Pick for Supreme Court.

We quote from Tom Robbins' Voice article:

"'She is my nightmare of a judge,' said a fellow jurist who has observed her in action and listened to complaints from both defense lawyers and prosecutors. 'To say she is harsh doesn't even begin to describe it. She will put defendants in jail for failing to pay as little as $15 of the mandatory surcharges imposed on those convicted.'

"Gold also has disconcerted both defendants and attorneys with her predilection for wearing colored plastic, dishwashing-style gloves while administering justice on the bench. She has explained to colleagues that she has a skin condition. But the condition only affects her in the courtroom; when she attends political dinners and functions, she doesn't wear them.

"In 1998, Jack Newfield and Maggie Haberman, writing in the New York Post, included Gold on a list of the city's worst judges, citing her 'irritability, nastiness and irrational outbursts' in court."

NY Civic recommends that you link to Robbins' absorbing column. He explores additional areas of Gold's alleged deficiencies, including her fund raising activities, and describes civil litigation in which she was a defendant. Robbins' article is a guided tour of a portion of the sewer that is Brooklyn judicial politics.

End of Quotes. Fast Forward to 2005.

Justice Michael Feinberg was ordered removed from office by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct on February 15, 2005. Their decision was unanimously upheld by the Court of Appeals on June 29. You can link to the decisions, so we need not repeat the sad story of his numerous derelictions.

A key phrase in the Court of Appeals opinion: Judge Feinberg "debased his office and eroded public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

TOP BROOKLYN LEGAL EAGLE CAGED FOR BRIBERY

New York Post

By ZACH HABERMAN
July 6, 2005 -- The corrupt former head of the Brooklyn Bar Association yesterday was sentenced to more than two years in prison.
"In the twilight of my career, I threw it all away," said Edward Reich, who pleaded guilty to accepting more than $10,000 in kickbacks. Watched by his tearful family, he admitted he was "wrong legally, ethically and morally."

Brooklyn federal court Judge John Gleeson called Reich's pocket-padding an abuse of power and a "corruption of the judicial process" before sentencing the once-prominent lawyer to 27 months in a federal prison.

Reich admitted accepting $10,500 in bribes on five different occasions in exchange for lowering foreclosure prices on properties he presided over at auction as a referee.

"I never intended to harm anyone," Reich said. "My actions are reprehensible."

Gleeson also ordered the former head of a judicial screening committee to pay a $75,000 fine as well as restitution for the bribe money he accepted. Reich also will be disbarred and have his law office closed.

He has to turn himself over to prison officials Oct. 17.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Let the voters choose the judges

New York Daily News July 5, 2005
EDITORIAL

The Court of Appeals last week booted Michael Feinberg, a Brooklyn Democratic scoundrel, from his post as the borough's surrogate judge for letting a lawyer pal siphon millions of dollars from the estates of the dead. Ah, sweet, slow justice.
The Daily News exposed Feinberg three years ago. It is satisfying that the high court has unanimously found him unfit for the bench. Now the issue arises: Who will fill Feinberg's place, as well as a second Brooklyn surrogate position just created by Gov. Pataki and the Legislature in an odious back-room deal?

Political parties use surrogate's court as a patronage trough because its judges get to appoint numerous lawyers, guardians and other estate specialists to paying positions. The Brooklyn organization is poised to keep the borough's two posts in the family.

Feinberg's spot will be filled by a primary this fall, but candidates have until only July 14 to collect signatures to get on the ballot. The party apparatus can get the job done for its favored candidate. Chairman Clarence Norman must not sabotage everyone else by challenging their petitions. The contest should be open to all comers.

Norman, who's facing trial on corruption charges, will get to handpick the second Brooklyn surrogate, thanks to Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. In the final minutes of the just-ended legislative session, they created 21 judgeships, delivering three into the hands of party bosses.

Those spots, one controlled by Norman, one by Bruno, who doubles as the Republican strongman in upstate Rensselaer, and one in Orange County's Family Court, should have been filled by the voters. But the capital's big three headed off that inconvenience by establishing the judgeships as of Aug. 1, when the Election Law says it's too late to organize a primary. In that event, the bosses rule.

And that's not all. When Albany creates judgeships, everyone grabs for a piece of the pie. This time around, Pataki got the okay to appoint 14 new Court of Claims judges, which is the regular practice, while party organizations in the Bronx, Queens and Westchester will pick four candidates for November judicial elections.

The biggest offense committed by the Albany trio was to deny primary voters a say over the new surrogate, who will serve 14 years, at a time when Chief Judge Judith Kaye is trying to promote confidence in judicial elections. Would-be surrogates with honor will run in the primary for the Feinberg seat. Brooklyn Assemblyman Joe Lentol, who is the party's likely choice for the unelected surrogate post, should be among them rather than tarnish his three decades of public service.

As for the tainted seat, Norman's only legitimate move would be to install someone who is 69 years old and who will have to retire next year, allowing then for a real open primary

Monday, July 04, 2005

Surrogate's Court And Why It Should Go

Gotham Gazette - (www.gothamgazette.com)
July 4, 2005

Surrogate's Court And Why It Should Go
by Gary Tilzer


Last week, Brooklyn Surrogate's Court Judge Michael Feinberg was removed from the bench because he committed misconduct by improperly awarding nearly $9 million in fees to attorney Louis R. Rosenthal, his long-time friend. The fees in question were taken from the estates of Brooklyn's dead, their widows and orphans.

In a unanimous decision, the state's highest court upheld Feinberg's ouster by the Commission on Judicial Conduct and ruled that his actions "debased his office and eroded public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary."

Feinberg never denied he gave the money to his friend -- in fact he freely admits he did -- but said the payments were justified and in keeping with long-time practice in Brooklyn Surrogate's Court.

Surrogate Feinberg was among a small group of judges, lawyers and politicians who make their living from a court that for over 100 years has been at the center of judicial, legal and political corruption in New York City. Yet it has survived many attempts to eliminate it.

If anything, today's politicians are more shameless than ever. On June 24, the entire New York State government acted to ensure that the Brooklyn Surrogate's Court will continue to benefit politicians and politically connected lawyers. In the middle of the night, both houses of the legislature passed a bill to create 21 new judgeships throughout the state -- including a second Surrogate's Court judge in Brooklyn. The bill was submitted by Governor George Pataki and passed later the same day -- without any hearings or public discussion. Since the law will take effect August 1, after the filing date for the September primary, Brooklyn's political leaders -- the very same people who selected Feinberg -- will get to choose another judge.

This latest episode and the disclosure of Feinberg's abuses should serve as an impetus finally to eliminate the court that Senator Robert Kennedy called "a political toll booth exacting tribute from widows and orphans." Once informally known as "the widows and orphans court," the Surrogate's Court handles estates from people who die without a proper will. In doing this, it funnels millions of dollars a year to lawyers who serve as guardians.

The prospect of appointing lucrative guardianships has motivated generation after generation of machine politicians and establishment lawyers to capture a Surrogate spot for one of their trusted judges, who then spreads the largesse among the party faithful. Often the fees they charge eat up substantial assets. For example, reclusive tobacco heiress Doris Duke, who died in 1993, wanted her estate of $1.2 billion to go toward the improvement of humanity. But a dispute over the estate in Manhattan Surrogate's Court became what one lawyer called the "world series of litigation," with big name law firms vying for a piece of the pie.

The political establishment and media seem to have lost past generations' moral outrage at the corruption there. Even the well-informed tend to see Surrogate Feinberg's misconduct and other similar incidents as isolated problems. This year three candidates are vying for a rare open seat on Manhattan Surrogate's Court, but the campaign has not featured any debate over the way the court works.


A CULTURE OF PATRONAGE AND SYSTEMIC CORRUPTION

Earlier this year, political consultant Norman Adler told the New York Observer that politicians cherish the court for "the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: That's where the money is."

And the well-connected ones get it. "The courts are so political that almost nothing is decided purely on the merits," wrote the late journalist Jack Newfield in 2001, one of the few consistently outraged critics of the court.

The examples establish a clear pattern.

The Commission on Judicial Conduct found that the attorney-friend appointed by Surrogate Feinberg was so entrenched that he prepared the Surrogate's decisions on fees awarded to attorneys in the form of Post-it notes.

Between 1997 and 2001, according to Newfield, the law firm of Queens Democratic Party leader Tom Manton received more than $400,000 in court patronage.

In 1987 a government investigation accused the Public Administrator for Manhattan Surrogate Renee Roth of using the court as a racketeering enterprise. The administrator resigned after he was accused of stealing $1 million from three clients. And a 1998 bar association report found that about two-thirds of Roth's guardianship appointments went to campaign contributors or to lawyers who worked for firms that contributed.

Some of the abuses have been even more blatant. In 1987, Surrogate's Court investigators were captured on videotape stealing valuables from the apartments of the deceased; they had been hired to inventory the property.

The state regulates all aspects of Surrogate's Court -- except the public administrator that every Surrogate's Court judge appoints, who is under the city's purview. This dual control has provided a convenient way out for auditors. In 2002, the Daily News reported that, during his eight-year tenure, State Comptroller Carl McCall never audited the Brooklyn Surrogate's Court's Public Administrator. McCall's office insisted he never took a look because then-city Comptroller Alan Hevesi was already auditing the Brooklyn court. Hevesi did -- but never discovered that Judge Michael Feinberg was awarding excessive fees without proper documentation to his friend Louis Rosenthal.

The problems with Surrogate's Court go beyond individual instances of corruption; they are systemic.


UNNECESSARY AND INVULNERABLE

There is absolutely no reason to maintain a separate Surrogate's Court. Under the New York State Constitution, the State Supreme Court already shares jurisdiction on anything the Surrogate's Court might handle -- estates, appointments of guardians and conservators, and adoptions. And so, abolishing the Surrogate would not leave a sudden void in our judicial system.

In Supreme Court and Family Court, cases are randomly assigned to a stable of judges. But there is only one Surrogate each for Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. Manhattan has two, and now so will Brooklyn. Putting the management of millions of dollars in assets under the purview of just one or two judges creates a recipe for patronage and corruption. Abolishing the court, and dispersing its functions and cases among the many Supreme Court and Family Court judges in each county would go a long way toward breaking up the patronage mill. But because of the big money involved and the powerful people who benefit from the court, every attempt to abolish or reform it in the past has ended in failure.


EFFORTS TO ELIMINATE THE COURT

In the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called Surrogate's Court "the most expensive undertaking establishment in the world." He believed it was control of the Surrogate's Court of New York County, more than any other factor, that kept the Tammany Hall political machine alive through the lean years when he deprived it of city jobs and President Franklin Roosevelt denied it federal jobs.

In 1938, the New York Bar Association called for the merger of the Surrogate's Court and the Supreme Court to eliminate corruption. In 1948, the Americans for Democratic Action called for a legislative campaign to reduce the patronage in the Surrogate Court. In the 1950s a commission put together to end the abuses of Tammany Hall urged the elimination of the Surrogate's Court by merging its functions with the Supreme Court. These recommendations came to naught.

The movement to abolish the court reached its peak in the 1960s. Citizens Union urged the system of appointing special guardians be abolished and replaced by a staff of salaried public officials who could act for minors, widows and incompetents. Robert Kennedy endorsed this idea, saying the salaried public guardians "would eliminate patronage from the Surrogate's Courts and dry up a major source of sustenance for the worst elements in our political parties." But, almost as soon as Kennedy made the proposal, representatives of the bar association and many of the city's Surrogate judges attacked it. And the senior Manhattan surrogate at the time, Samuel DiFalco, who had been elected with the help of the Manhattan Democratic machine, blocked reforms.

Ironically, calls for the elimination of the Surrogate's Court disappeared as reformers assumed power in the city. In 1977, Edward Koch ran for mayor, attacking the Democratic machine. Soon after his election, though, Koch did what most reform politicians do after defeating a machine: make a deal with it. Though Koch set up panels to screen candidates for judgeships, presumably based on merit, as time went on, the erstwhile reformers became more and more dependent on contributions and support from the machine politicians and the law firms that benefit from Surrogate patronage. Since then, Koch himself – along with other prominent politicians, including former Governor Mario Cuomo -- has been the beneficiary of the Surrogate's Court. Koch, for example, received $77,000 for a guardianship in 2001 and 2002, according to the New York Observer. "I'm on the list of people who are qualified," Koch told the Observer. "They're very careful to prevent [the court] from being used as a trough."

Today, every candidate who runs for Surrogate pledges to make "reforms" and end the court's patronage. Once elected, they do nothing. This is so widespread that it hardly even counts as irony that a New York Times editorial in 1996 endorsed the now-fired Surrogate Feinberg with the words: "Justice Feinberg has promised reforms ranging from a panel to screen appointments and recommend changes in how the place is run, down to keeping the office open at lunchtime as a convenience to the public."


THE BROOKLYN COURT

With Feinberg's removal, people interested in running for his seat will have two weeks to try to collect the 4,000 signatures to get on the ballot. If two or more candidates qualify as Democratic candidates, there would be a primary contest for Feinberg's seat.

But this would not be the case for the second Surrogate's post the state government created last month. Even veteran political observers were astounded by the addition of a second Surrogate's Court in Brooklyn in the middle of the removal process for the current Surrogate -- without giving citizens the right to vote in a primary.

That's right, there will be no primary for the new position. Albany in effect gave Brooklyn Democratic leader Clarence Norman a big role in picking who will select the new Surrogate for that borough. Norman awaits trial for extorting money from past judicial candidates and supported Feinberg for Surrogate's Court in 1998. And whomever Norman and his cronies choose is virtually guaranteed to win the November general election, and serve 14 years before they have to run again.

The only chance of derailing this seems to lie in Washington. Because Brooklyn comes under the federal voting rights act, the plan for a second Surrogate's judge might need Justice Department approval.

Ten years before Feinberg's removal, the same State Commission on Judicial Conduct that removed him censured his predecessor, Bernard Bloom. Bloom's censure was one step short of removal. Then the political machine that picked Bloom selected Feinberg. Now that very same machine that chose the two discredited judges is likely to select at least one—and perhaps two - more Surrogates.

In setting the stage for this, Albany once again has provided evidence that, in a legislature where almost every incumbent gets re-elected, there are no consequences for taking the low road. The government's action also sends the message that politics still trumps justice in New York.

Gary Tilzer is a political consultant whose articles have appeared in the New York Sun, the Village Voice and other local publications.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

ALBANY REPORT CARD

The New York Times - Editorial
July 3, 2005

ALBANY REPORT CARD
Last year, if you had asked us to assess New York State's legislative year, we would have found it hard to get beyond a sigh of disappointment. This year, mostly, we applaud. An impressive number of the 700 or so bills approved by the Legislature reflect a conscientious effort to reform the way Albany does business. Here is a closer look at what the legislators did and did not do.

* * *

On the downside * * * at the last minute, legislators created a number of new judicial positions, many for patronage appointments. Among these was a judgeship in Brooklyn created just in time to miss the deadline for elections. Now Democratic party leaders will choose the judge - not a good idea, especially in Brooklyn.

Bill to Alter Court Is Assailed in Brooklyn

NEW YORK TIMES

Bill to Alter Court Is Assailed in Brooklyn
By JONATHAN P. HICKS
Published: July 3, 2005

In a legislative session dominated by talk of reform, lawmakers took one quiet step that has alarmed several New York City politicians: they created a second judge seat for the Surrogate's Court in Brooklyn that many officials fear could be a vehicle for patronage.

For the last few days elected officials and political candidates have condemned the bill to establish the additional seat in Surrogate's Court, calling it an unnecessary and politically motivated move.

Last month, the Legislature passed a bill that would establish a number of new judgeships throughout the state, among them are new positions in Queens and the second surrogate position in Brooklyn.

But the Brooklyn judgeship has been widely criticized, in part because, under the bill, the position would not be officially created until August, making it too late for candidates to collect petition signatures and run in the September primary. Instead, the executives of the political parties will select the candidates to appear on the ballot. In Brooklyn, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, selection by the Democratic Party would be tantamount to election.

"It's an outrage," said Arnold Kriss, a candidate for district attorney in Brooklyn and a former lawyer and former deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department.

"The Legislature and governor created another potential patronage headache in Brooklyn," Mr. Kriss said. "I don't see that there is any need for such a court. I don't remember any public cry, either in the law circles or in the public, to create a whole new position in the judiciary."

Some politicians said they objected strongly to the fact that Brooklyn voters could not vote on the position.

"I support judges being appointed and if that can't happen, they should be elected," said City Councilman David Yassky, a Democrat in Brooklyn who was formerly a professor at the Brooklyn Law School.

"I don't think judges should be appointed by party leaders," Mr. Yassky said. "There are different ways to select judges. But the worst is selection by party leaders." Mr. Yassky said that the Legislature improved its performance this year, citing its first on-time budget agreement in years. "But this was a real example of backsliding."

Once called the Widows and Orphans Court, the Surrogate's Court is familiar to those few voters who deal with estates and adoptions. But politicians know it as a last bastion of patronage, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to lawyers who serve as guardians and conservators in thousands of estate cases.

The move to create a new surrogate position came a week before the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, upheld the removal of Judge Michael H. Feinberg, the surrogate judge in Brooklyn, for awarding $8.6 million in legal fees to a longtime friend to handle the legal matters of people who died with no wills.

Still, several Brooklyn legislators defended the creation of a second surrogate position, saying the city's most populous borough should have two such judgeships, particularly since there were two in Manhattan.

The bill to create the new judgeship has been widely viewed in Albany as a move to create a position for Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, a Democrat who has represented Greenpoint and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, since 1972. In an interview Friday, Mr. Lentol said he planned to be a candidate for the position and said that the creation of a second surrogate position in Brooklyn was a reasonable action by the Legislature.

"I think that is something that is needed because the caseload in Brooklyn requires the attention of two judges," Mr. Lentol said. "I think this will be a good thing for the people of Brooklyn."

Mr. Lentol said that he had no discussions with either leaders of the Brooklyn Democratic organization or the Assembly about creating the position. "This was something that was done by the leadership of the two houses of the Legislature and the governor. I was not involved."

Several legislators pointed out that the bill that was passed by the Legislature had created several positions beyond the surrogate judgeship in Brooklyn. And they added that there was no reason to object to the one position in Brooklyn when there were so many others throughout the state.

The bill, which Gov. George E. Pataki intends to sign, will create four positions on the State Supreme Court, 14 on the Court of Claims, an additional county court clerk in Rensselaer County and a Family Court judgeship in Orange County, in addition to the position in Brooklyn.

Nonetheless, there was still criticism of the Brooklyn surrogate position and its selection process.

"We believe that any system that deprives the voters of the choice is problematic, legally and democratically," said Jeremy Creelan, associate counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Mr. Creelan, who was one of the authors of a report issued by the Brennan Center that criticized how the Legislature functions in Albany, said: "The voters should decide. And we're skeptical of any other mechanism that the Legislature would put into place."

Friday, July 01, 2005

Big Mess in B'klyn Court for Estates

Daily News July 1, 2005
BIG MESS IN B'KLYN COURT FOR ESTATES
By Nancie L. Katz
A DAY AFTER a powerful Brooklyn judge was booted for lining a pal's pockets with the money of the dead, a city report said the system the judge presided over was rife with sloppy bookkeeping.

City Controller Bill Thompson called the files on estates of people who died in Brooklyn without a will "disorganized collections of documentation."

He said the office of the Brooklyn Surrogate's Public Administrator Marietta Small also was "unable to demonstrate that the fees it charged estates for administrative expenses . . . were appropriate," according to an audit released yesterday.

A probe of 25 files during 2004 found such disarray that Small closed the books on one dead Brooklyn resident's estate without distributing 48 U.S. savings bonds. The bonds later showed up in an employee's desk drawer, the report said.

On Wednesday, the state Court of Appeals bounced Surrogate Judge Michael Feinberg, finding he approved nearly $9 million in fees to his pal - Louis Rosenthal, counsel for the public administrator - without ever asking for affidavits saying what he did to earn the money.

Feinberg said he didn't know he needed to get affidavits - an excuse scoffed at by the court.

The audit also faulted Small for allowing Rosenthal to charge substantial fees without ever filing the required affidavits.