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.

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