Brooklyn Surrogate's Court 2005

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Friday, July 01, 2005

Joan of Arc

Daily News July 1, 2005
by Earl Louis

Alums make & break law

Having graduated from Brooklyn Law School a month ago, I couldn't help noticing that Michael Feinberg, the former Kings County Surrogate judge who got kicked off the bench this week by unanimous vote of New York's highest state court, is a fellow alumnus.
All Brooklyn Law students have to take an ethics class called "professional responsibility," before graduating. Like any good law school - and Brooklyn is among the best - it teaches students the law and makes clear that the choice is ours: to uphold it or break it.

Feinberg chose the dark side, funneling $2 million in excess court fees - money drained from the estates of people who died without leaving a will - to an attorney, Louis Rosenthal, described by the Court of Appeals as Feinberg's "longtime friend and law school classmate."

Feinberg and Rosenthal remind me of another pair of Brooklyn Law alums who played starring roles in a city corruption scandal.

Stanley Friedman was a Democratic boss in the Bronx who ended up spending four years in prison for conspiracy and racketeering after paying bribes to steer a $21 million city contract to a firm y he headed. Another alum, former Queens Borough President Donald Manes, committed suicide after his role in the scheme came to light.

Joining those scoundrels on the alumni rolls is a much longer list of distinguished civic leaders. Former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton graduated in the 1950s, as did former Rep. Herman Badillo, ex-Mayor David Dinkins, former Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward and current GOP mayoral candidate Tom Ognibene. Not to mention a slew of respected state and federal judges.

The school doesn't talk much about the alums who became crooks, which is a mistake. Chronicling their failed careers provides a sobering, cautionary tale for new lawyers.

Faith-based politics

Feinberg's expulsion has touched off a scramble to elect a replacement Surrogate's Court judge this fall. As is often true in Brooklyn, the path to power runs through First Baptist Church of Crown Heights, a 5,000-member congregation whose pastor is Clarence Norman Sr., the father of Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr., the Brooklyn Democratic chairman.

The church's support - and Norman's - will likely go to Supreme Court Justice Diana Johnson, a longtime church member running for surrogate. Another Supreme Court judge in the race is Lawrence Knipel, the husband of District Leader Lori Knipel.

Meanwhile, most good-government types are lining up behind Margarita Lopez-Torres, who has run maverick races for Civil and Supreme Court against Norman's machine in recent years, and in the process turned into a kind of Joan of Arc of reform in the borough.

Originally published on July 1, 2005

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