Brooklyn Surrogate's Court 2005

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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.


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