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, October 17, 2005

The Big House Can't Break the Clubhouse

The Big House Can't Break the Clubhouse

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

By JIM HINCH - NY Post October 12, 2005


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.



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

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.



Dem boss battle heats up

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.