Brooklyn Surrogate's Court 2005

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Oust judge in fee flap: watchdog

Daily News - February 15th, 2005
By Nancie L. Katz

The state's top judicial watchdog recommended yesterday booting a Brooklyn judge who routinely approved excessive fees to a lawyer pal.

In a scathing report, the Commission on Judicial Conduct said Brooklyn Surrogate Judge Michael Feinberg effectively deprived the heirs of Brooklyn residents who died without wills of $2 million.

The money was diverted to Louis Rosenthal, the counsel for Public Administrator Marietta Small, in the form of sky-high fees, said the panel.

A Daily News probe revealed the arrangement between Feinberg and Rosenthal.

Feinberg could be suspended by the state's highest court as early as Friday pending an appeal.

Rosenthal, a former law school buddy appointed by Feinberg, raked in about $9 million in legal fees between January 1997 and May 2002. The panel found that at least $2 million of that was excessive, and also found that Rosenthal never filed the required documents showing what he did to earn his fee.

"For a surrogate, entrusted with enormous power over the lives and fortunes of many, the ethical transgressions revealed ... are simply intolerable," it said. "A public sanction less than removal for such egregious conduct would be wholly inadequate."

The commission noted its two-year inquiry was sparked by a 2002 News' exposé that found Feinberg routinely gave Rosenthal 8% or more of an estate's worth. That was despite a 6% cap Feinberg's predecessors had agreed to under pressure from the state attorney general's office.

It said Feinberg's excuse that he was unaware of the limits as "not credible ... and evasive."

The commission's findings could shape how much Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who is conducting a separate probe, would demand Rosenthal pay back.

Neither Feinberg, his lawyer nor Rosenthal returned calls yesterday. Rosenthal's lawyer declined to comment.

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