Wednesday, February 18, 1998


New York Post, February 18, 1998


IT'S been only two days since The Post published an expose on the Queens Surro-gate's Court, but we already have received 25 phone calls describing other horror stories from citizens who had their estates fleeced by political lawyers in the fashion of Jonathan Weinstein.

Courthouse patronage is not a victimless crime.

Its purpose is to impose party control through discretionary favors.

A young district leader like James Wrynn would not be getting $26,000 in Surro-gate's Court assignments if he stopped doing what he was told.

The underlying theme of our stories was the mentality of the clubhouse pols in Queens - the provincialism of their cynicism.

The purest expression of this mentality came just before the stories were finished. A Queens Democratic official, who knew he would be mentioned unfavorably, called me to make sure his reference had not been cut.

"I don't want the party to think I was a source for you," he explained. "If I'm criticized, too, they'll assume I wasn't cooperating with you."

This poor fellow would rather be thought of as a leech than a rat to maintain his status on Queens Boulevard.

This is the code that inspires the two people who administer the system of judicial favor-trading in Queens - Surrogate Robert Nahman and Public Administrator Mindy Trepel.

Nahman even got his job in a trade of favors.

The previous surrogate, Louis Laurino, timed his resignation in August 1991 so that it came a week after the deadline for filing primary petitions. This allowed Democ-ratic county leader Tom Manton to pick a surrogate without an election.

Nahman was a perfect fit. Every job he had ever had came through the Democratic Party clubhouse: assistant district attorney, law secretary to three different judges, Civil Court judge, Supreme Court judge.

In an interview, Nahman acknowledged working in the political campaigns of the can-didates supported by the Queens Democrats - while he was a law secretary.

In Queens, the courthouse and the clubhouse are indistinguishable. The majority De-mocrats, the minority Republicans and the Bar Association are one party.

When I told Nahman - an unusually sweet and insecure man - that most of his repeat assignments had gone to party hacks, he just said it was "a coincidence."

It was like telling Rick in "Casablanca" that "there is gambling going on in the casino."

No one had to tell Nahman to give his assignments to district leaders, the chairman of the party's law committee, Surrogate Laurino's former law secretary, his own former law secretary, Tom Manton's former chief-of-staff, the former counsel to the public administrator and 16 former judges.

This favoritism is a way of life, part of the clubhouse culture.

Of course, the 1,600 capable estate lawyers on the Queens eligibility list did not get a single appointment - they're not active in the campaigns to elect slugs who will eventually become judges.

Trepel, the public administrator, was handpicked by Nahman without benefit of a search committee or screening panel.

Her credential was that she worked for Laurino, who quit at such a convenient time so Nahman could get the job without giving the voters a say.

Trepel also inadvertently voiced the credo of the courthouse-clubhouse complex in an interview with Post reporter Maggie Haberman.

"I want to make sure," Trepel said, "that you're aware that I've been responsible about returning your phone calls. Maybe in your article you could write something nice about me."

One hand washes the other. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Don't decide anything just on the merits.

Nahman applied this philosophy to name Gerard Sweeney to be Trepel's counsel. Sweeney is Manton's former law partner and campaign treasurer - the insider's in-sider.

Sweeney's job traditionally grossed $1 million in annual fees. But nobody knows how much Sweeney has made from estates the last six years.

His compensation is not disclosed by Trepel, Nahman, the Office of Court Admini-stration or any city or state agency.

That's why it is the most prized patronage plum in Queens. It is shielded from ac-countability and disclosure. It's virtually a license to fleece.

The surrogate system can't be reformed. It has to be abolished.

The civil-service lawyers in the Corporation Counsel's Office should be handling these estates, based on genuine expertise in estates law.

What attorney Jonathan Weinstein did to the estate of Marie Gaudier should be a crime - the lawyer making four times as much money as the legal heirs.

The offices of surrogate and public administrator have no rationale to justify their existence.

They are ATMs for the favor bank owned by politicians.

Monday, February 16, 1998


New York Post, February 16, 1998


The majority of lawyers appointed by Queens Surrogate's Court as guardians for widows, orphans and the disabled owe their plum jobs to party ties, cronyism and nepotism, a Post investigation has found.

Queens Surrogate Judge Robert Nahman has a court-certified list of 1,800 lawyers to choose from in appointing guardians for estates, infants and missing heirs.

But in his six years in office, he's given paid appointments to only 180 of them.

A two-month Post investigation found that the vast majority of lawyers receiving repeat Queens Surrogate's Court assignments have direct ties to the Queens Democ-ratic Party and its county leader, Rep. Thomas Manton.

Most are lawyers with interconnections and layers of past associations that amount to the political equivalent of incest.

Among them are officers of the Queens Democratic Party, district leaders, the sons and spouses of politicians, and retired judges.

"It's just a coincidence," Nahman insisted when asked about the pattern of patron-age found in his court.

Not so, said a well-known veteran Queens Boulevard lawyer, who spoke for many when he told The Post: "Queens Surrogate's Court patronage is a tight, closed club. Merit is irrelevant to these people."

He added: "They are my friends and they give me referrals, so don't use my name."

Surrogate Nahman was maneuvered into his powerful position by Manton without a pri-mary in 1991. His predecessor, Louis Laurino, resigned just after the deadline for filing primary petitions, paving the way for the Democratic Party to unanimously nominate Nahman.

Among the key findings of a Post probe were:

Frank Bolz III, chairman of the Queens Democratic Party's law committee, is the single biggest recipient of assignments from Nahman - collecting $178,050 for 47 paid guardianship appointments since 1992.

Bolz is the law partner of Queens Assemblyman Joseph Crowley's father and brother.

Lois Rosenblatt, a solo practitioner from Far Rockaway, is another front-runner in fees, receiving $127,832 for 60 paid appointments.

Rosenblatt, a member of the law committee, has a reputation as a tenacious elec-tions lawyer.

Nahman said she has "expertise" in trusts and estates. In a telephone interview, Rosenblatt acknowledged she has never published a single article on trusts or es-tate law.

Several other close Manton associates also have received large numbers of Queens Surrogate's appointments.

William Driscoll, Manton's former chief-of-staff, has collected $34,850 in fees.

Steven Denkberg, whom Manton put in a part-time patronage job at the Board of Elec-tions, has received $13,356.

Blaise Parascandola, a close Manton crony since the 1970s, has received $23,400 - plus another $4,600 from Brooklyn Surrogate Michael Feinberg.

Several of the top recipients have a number of other guardianship appointments for which they haven't been paid yet.

Mindy Trepel, former law secretary to Laurino, was named to the $75,000-a-year pub-lic administrator's post by Nahman as soon as he took over as surrogate - without benefit of a screening panel or interviews with other candidates.

"I felt she was the best qualified," Nahman said.

Trepel has used $700,000 of estate money to hire seven employees, even though it's against the regulations for Surrogate's Court, according to city audits.

The husband-and-wife team of Madaleine Egelfeld and Michael Feigenbaum has pulled in almost $190,000 in fees - with $170,000 going to Egelfeld.

Egelfield was Nahman's law secretary when he was a Civil Court judge from 1982 to 1987.

Feigenbaum, who only recently married Egelfeld, was counsel to the Queens public administrator from 1989 to 1986. He was ousted from the post after he was accused of paying kickbacks from estate fees to politically influential people.

A federal investigation into the charges was later dropped.

Nahman said he was unaware of the scandal, which was prominently reported in 1986.

"I never paid much attention to Surrogate's Court at that time," Nahman said. He added, "Mike Feigenbaum is absolutely well qualified."

Neither Egelfeld nor Feigenbaum responded to phone calls requesting interviews.

Gerard Sweeney, Manton's former law partner and campaign treasurer, is the current counsel to the public administrator - appointed by Nahman.

Sweeney's law partner, Michael Reich, is executive secretary of the Queens Democ-ratic organization and has received 27 real-estate receiverships from nine differ-ent Queens judges.

Reich is also frequently appointed the auctioneer of property by Queens Supreme Court judges.

Sweeney has said he shares a cut of his court earnings with his law partners.

Ten years ago, Manton, in a published interview, said he had forbidden Reich and Sweeney from taking government jobs because he didn't "think it looks good."

Nahman has given guardianships to four Queens Democratic district leaders: John Seminero, John Umland, Augustus Agate and James Wrynn.

He's also doled out assignments to Queens state Democratic committee members Cath-erine Glover and Dennis Cappello.

Other politicians on the receiving end from Nahman include Staten Island Democratic Party Leader Robert Gigante, $18,350; Republican State Sen. Michael Balboni of Nas-sau County, $17,700; and City Council Minority Leader Tom Ognibene of Queens, $1,750.

Adam Falk, counsel to Queens Councilman Walter McCaffrey, has been paid $11,400 in fees while presumably working full-time for the city at $42,500 per year.

Louis Laurino and his son, Louis M. Laurino, partners in a Mineola law firm, to-gether have received $117,115 in guardianships from Nahman.

Louis Laurino was censured by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct for con-flicts of interest when he was Queens surrogate.

His son was once an associate in Sweeney and Reich's law firm.

The sons of other prominent politicians also have profited from Nahman appoint-ments.

Two sons of Queens-based City Council Speaker Peter Vallone have received multiple appointments, with one, Paul A. Vallone, collecting $17,750 in fees, and the other, Peter F. Vallone Jr., collecting $18,400.

Barry Goldstein, the son of former Queens Assemblyman Ralph Goldstein, has had 21 appointments worth $16,150.

Lee Mayersohn, a city tax commissioner and the son of Queens Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn, has received $4,250.

The wives of sitting judges and politicians also have been handed prime cuts of pa-tronage.

Bonnie Cohen Gallet, wife of former Bankruptcy Judge Jeffry Gallet, received $12,052 in fees before becoming law secretary to a Queens Supreme Court judge.

Catherine Glover received $9,800. Her husband, William, is counsel to Queens County Clerk Gloria D'Amico.

Lorraine Coyle, wife of Oliver Koppell, currently a candidate for state attorney general, has collected $7,200 in fees.

Nahman has also bestowed guardianships on 16 former judges, with ex-Bronx Supreme Court Justice Jack Turret collecting $55,350, and ex-Appellate Court Judge Joseph Kunzeman, a Republican, $73,850.

Other former jurists with Nahman appointments include Milton Mollen, Ann Dufficy, John Monteleone, Stanley Harwood, Ralph Sherman and Robert Groh.

Arthur Terranova, full-time executive director of the Queens Bar Association, has garnered $23,750 in surrogates fees.

Nahman, in justifying the appointments, said Terranova is active in a law firm. But when reached by The Post, Terranova acknowledged, "I don't have a law office. I don't have any law clients. I work full-time for the bar association."

Asked to explain his Surrogate's Court guardianships, Terranova said, "It's part of a tradition. Every former director of the Queens Bar Association has gotten assign-ments like me. It's a traditional salary supplement."