Brooklyn Surrogate's Court 2005

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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Surrrogate Court Judges Rush in to Protect a Brother

Footnotes (www.footnotesny.com)
SURRROGATE COURT JUDGES RUSH IN TO PROTECT A BROTHER
By Maurice Gumbs. May 21,2005

From time to time we have commented on the extreme loyalty that Brooklyn judges have to each other. The Brooklyn Judiciary Wall of Silence is more solid and impenetrable than that of the Police. We do not recall even the hint of any sitting judge who has broken that Wall and volunteered information about the wrongdoing of another judge.

In fact, apart from Judge Margarita Lopez Torres, not a single Brooklyn judge has had the courage to reject the sleazy, corrupt actions of Brooklyn’s County bosses. Former Judges Yellen and Sikowitz have now accused County Bosses Norman and Feldman of criminal extortion.. But we find no honor or courage in the protest of these ladies. They made their allegations only after their deal with the Bosses went sour.

The attitude of these Judges is bothersome. If there is any citizen who should shine the light on the dark corners of corruption we expect it would be the judge who stands in the place of God.

But even long after they have retired from the bench, so-called “righteous” oldtimers like Comptroller Billy Thompson’s father maintain a prosperous silence and decline to comment on sordid transactions which they should have been in a position to observe. So far, only Judge Jones, now preparing to be confronted by the celestial video-tapes, has suggested that judgeships were being bought and sold as a matter of custom. However, even Judge Jones has mentioned no names, and may be sitting on a best-selling auto-biography...JUDGE JONES AND THE DEVIL.

In keeping with the shabby fraternity rules, suspended Surrogate Court Judge Mike Feinberg now has powerful and wealthy friends coming to his rescue. The May 9 edition of the Brooklyn Law Journal announced that the State Association of Surrogate Court Judges had filed an “Amicus” brief in defense of their brother, Mike.

The image of judges brazenly banding together to support one of their number who has been found guilty of misconduct is a disturbing one. It is reflective of the depth to which New York State’s judiciary system has sunk(or stunk) during Chief Justice Kaye’s watch. And it may be a signal for her to increase scrutiny of the state's Surrogate Courts. Better yet..get out and let someone else try to clean up the shameful obscenity that has developed under her watch.

Surrogate Judges are the “blue bloods” and the princes of the New York State Judicial system. Their Courts control more money than any other Courts. So Feinberg’s brother judges will be able to provide him with the best legal expertise that money and status can buy..

Howard Levine, the attorney who presented the Amicus brief in Feinberg’s support, was once a Court of Appeals Judge. Levine is now the distinguished senior counsel at one of the nation’s most prestigious law firms, Whiteman, Osterman, and Hanna. His Law firm does lobbying for companies like Johnson and Johnson, American Express, Hertz, MCI and a bunch of other major corporation. Get the picture of the $$$$ involved here.

Having a former Court of Appeals judge on their staff must be a great asset for firms which specialize in lobbying. And if you have a case before the Court of Appeals it sure doesn’t hurt, to have a member of the Old Boys Club working with you, does it? And who knows whether Howie might be willing or able to pull a few strings for his low-paid brothers and sisters when they leave the bench.

The Commission on Judicial Conduct voted to remove Feinberg from office after finding that he had given his close friend Lou Rosenthal excessive commissions which amounted to millions of dollars within just a few years. We estimate that Rosenthal collected as much as $10,000,000 in fees and payments within the space of 4 or 5 years. And Lucky Lou seemed on track to rake in maybe $40,000,000 by the time Judge Feinberg’s term in office ended.

Attorney Howard Levine’s brief now offers two major arguments in defense of Feinberg:

1. That the action of the Judicial Commission was illegal since only the Court of Appeals had the right to review “judicial decisions” made by Feinberg.

2. That the office of the Attorney General Elliott Spitzer was “party to the proceedings” and Spitzer never appealed.. Suggesting that the Attorney General essentially approved of the excessive fees that Feinberg was giving to Rosenthal. In effect, Levine claims that the Attorney General’s Office had determined Feinberg’s actions to be legal.

The written rules mandate that the Surrogate Court comply with the established schedule of fees and the requisite reporting mechanism. . Lou Rosenthal was required to submit an affidavit of legal services. Judge Feinberg was required to review Rosenthal’s reports before he signed off on payments. In addition, fees were restricted to a maximum of 6% of the Surrogate estate unless extraordinary services had been substantiated. And of course, Judge Feinberg was required to demand the proof of this extraordinary service rendered before authorizing payment.

None of Judge Feinberg’s required duties in these matters constituted protected “judicial decisions.” Judge Feinberg did not have the discretionary power to ignore the limitation on fees or the requirement for submission of affidavits of service. Feinberg did not have the prerogative to sign checks for whatever amount Rosenthal instructed him to pay….without even asking what they were for, or reviewing the documents submitted.

The Judicial Commission is empowered to conduct Hearings to determine whether judges have violated the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct. The investigation which took about 3 years resulted in a finding that Feinberg was guilty of gross violation of these rules. The Commission confirmed that Rosenthal automatically billed Surrogate estates the 6% maximum no matter how little work he did. They cited at least one example of Rosenthal getting paid more than the heirs of an estate actually collected for themselves.

The report suggests that in many of these cases Rosenthal actually had very little work to do. Yet he still extorted the maximum percentage from the estates of many poor people who needed every penny that was left to them.. In addition, Rosenthal automatically added 2% to each bill suggesting that he had done extraordinary work on every one of his cases. The Judicial Commission found that for several years Rosenthal never submitted affidavits of work done and Feinberg never asked for them. The testimony indicated that Rosenthal simply submitted bills with post-its on them for Feinberg’s signature, and Feinberg just rubber-stamped away millions of dollars.

Feinberg was found to be grossly derelict in his duty as Surrogate Judge. But even worse, most, if not all members of the panel condemned the judge as being “evasive, unreliable and incredible.” That language appears to be just a euphemism for the more serious crime of perjury. And Feinberg should consider himself fortunate not to be facing criminal charges in these days when a guy can be convicted and face a jail sentence for voting from the wrong address.

This whole situation smelled of corruption and “rip-off” from the very beginning.

Lou Rosenthal had been Feinberg’s personal friend and “family” since college. When Feinberg was elected to Surrogate Judge in 1997, Rosenthal promptly requested the position of Surrogate Counsel. Feinberg immediately dumped the incumbent counsel and gave Rosenthal that job. And it is easy to imagine that this was a plot created by Feinberg’s sponsors even before he took office.

It seems impossible to believe that the County Leaders who are now on trial for shaking down judges would allow Lou Rosenthal to walk away with unshared millions of Surrogate dollars when they were responsible for putting his boss, Surrogate Court Judge Feinberg in office.

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