Sunday, February 6, 2000


New York Post, February 6, 2000

Section: News

By Jack Newfield

DEAR Inspector General Sherrill Spatz:

Congratulations on your appointment as judicial patronage investigator for the state's chief judge. Your former colleague in the Manhattan DA's office, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, is sure you will do a great job.

Since I've been writing exposes on judicial patronage for 30 years, allow me to share my knowledge and suggest a few improvements to a system that is now more loophole than law.

The basic problem is that political organizations pick judges based on party loy-alty rather than merit. The same judges make lucrative appointments to the drones who picked them.

The courts are so politicized that almost nothing is decided purely on the merits. This deprives the public of protection and robs the judiciary of public trust.

Just look at the public record.

The law firm of Queens Democratic Party leader Tom Manton has received more than $400,000 in court patronage since 1997. One partner -- Frank Bolz -- heads the party's law committee. Another, Gerard Sweeney, is counsel to the public adminis-trator. A third, Mike Reich, is executive secretary of the Queens party organiza-tion. They should apply antitrust laws to Manton's Monopoly.

Ravi Batra is the law partner of Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Clarence Norman. Batra has gotten more than 125 court appointments since 1995, the year he became Norman's partner.

Perhaps the first thing you should do is take a good look at the activities of Steve Cohn, a judge's son who is a Democratic Party district leader and a judge-maker in Brooklyn. His influence may be legal, but it is also disturbing.

More than one lawyer has told me he felt it necessary to hire Cohn as "co-counsel" to have a chance at equal treatment for clients in civil cases in Brooklyn. One Manhattan lawyer told me he paid Cohn $17,000 in one case and $5,000 in another.

"I was losing both cases unfairly before I hired Cohn," he said. "As soon as I hired him, the judges began to decide motions in my favor."

The lawyer said Cohn did virtually no legal work -- he just showed up, nodded to the judge and chattered with his law secretary, whom he seemed to know very well.

This lawyer told me, "I'm ashamed of what I had to do ... But I have to do what I can to protect my clients."

Here are a few simple suggestions on how the system can be reformed to reduce fa-voritism, cronyism, nepotism and cynicism:

Create a list of lawyers based on merit -- lawyers with the qualifications to serve as honest receivers, guardians, referees and court evaluators.

Require judges to make all assignments from this list, at random, using a wheel -- the way jurors and lottery winners are picked.

Spitzer says the pool of qualified lawyers available for these jobs -- lawyers with no political affiliation -- is in the thousands citywide.

Prohibit all political insiders from getting on the approved list.

Ban all district leaders, all law partners of party leaders like Manton and Nor-man. This will knock out Batra, Reich, Bolz, Sweeney, et al.

Ban all politicians such as Sheldon Silver, Guy Velella and Tom Ognibene, who have gotten repeated appointments.

Also ban all children and wives of sitting judges. This would cover parasites like Lee Huttner, son of Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Richard Huttner, and Thomas Garry, son of Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice William Garry.

Propose sanctions with teeth for conflicts of interest by judges.

There was no reprimand or punishment for acting Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Jane Solomon when she gave a $350,000 receivership to Fritz Alexander in 1995.

The judge had been Alexander's campaign manager when he ran for a judgeship, and they had a romantic relationship in the past. But she saw no conflict in appointing him to one of the most profitable assignments of the last decade.

Solomon even refused to recuse herself after lawyers put her double conflict on the public record.

An appellate panel found nothing wrong with her conduct, a ruling skeptics might dispute as a whitewash. Just last week, Manhattan Surrogate Renee Roth was sharply rebuked by appellate judges for hiring her former assistant as a $300-an-hour refe-ree. This came after a Bar Association report had condemned Roth for giving 66 per-cent of her appointments to her campaign contributors.

Close the loophole on the amount lawyers can make from court patronage.

The rule is that a lawyer can get only one assignment of more than $5,000 during any 12-month period. Records show that lawyers like Batra, Bolz and Harvey Green-berg get a lot of assignments for $4,800 each.

They can pocket $70,000 a year while technically obeying the $5,000 limit. We need a strict annual limit.

Ms. Spatz, you have an opportunity to build trust in the courts.

Think of the patronage courtrooms in Brooklyn and Queens as rigged casinos in Las Vegas.

And keep the faces of the flesh-and-blood victims -- the widows, orphans, and hon-est unconnected lawyers -- fixed in your mind's eye.

Wednesday, February 2, 2000


by Maggie Haberman, Jack Newfield, Allen Salkin and Erika Martinez

Patronage, favoritism and nepotism are still a way of life for New York's judiciary.
More than a century after Boss Tweed's corrupt political machine ground to a halt, some politically connected lawyers and ex-judges are monopolizing millions of dollars in patronage from judges who owe their robes to party bosses.

The head of the state court system has pledged to appoint an inspector general and a blue-ribbon commission by Feb. 10 to once and for all clean up this system of enriching the well-connected at the expense of widows, orphans and bankrupt businesses, A continuing Post investigation of courthouse patronage has uncovered a "Dirty Dozen" examples of this judicial insider trading over the past three years, with highlights including:

Fritz Alexander, former deputy mayor and Court of Appeals judge, received a $350,000 fee from one court appointment by a judge "he had been seeing" and who was his former campaign manager, according to court transcripts.

Former Mayor Ed Koch received a $25,000 appointment and failed Senate candidate Geraldine Ferraro got one worth $23,000 from Manhattan Surrogate's Court Judge Renee Roth after both endorsed Roth in a hard-fought 1996 primary.

City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and his two lawyer sons pulled in $95,450 in court patronage from Queens judges.

Three scandal-tarnished ex-judges who took in nearly $250,000 in court appointments include a judge who was removed for lying to the FBI, another who was censured by the Commission on Judicial Conduct, and a third who was once named one of New York's worst judges by New York magazine.

Here are some of the city's top patronage profiteers.

A lion's share of Queens patronage goes to one politically-wired law firm -- Sweeney, Reich, Gallo -- whose partners include Thomas Manton, Democratic county leader; Gerard Sweeney, counsel to the public administrator; Michael Reich, executive secretary of the Queens Democratic Party; and David Gallo, Housing Court Advisory Council appointee.

Altogether, this one law firm, which did not return calls for this story, has taken in at least $400,000 in patronage since 1996, records show.
Many of the appointments came from Queens Surrogate's Court Judge Robert Nahman, who got his job through Manton's maneuvering.

Lawyer Ravi Batra has gotten more than $175,000 worth of judicial appointments since 1995, the year he became law partner with Kings County Democratic leader and state Assemblyman Clarence Norman.

Last year, Batra hosted a dinner for 150 judges at the Harmony Club on the Upper East Side at which he gave awards to two judges who had given him numerous receiverships -- Richard Huttner of Brooklyn and Stephen Crane of Manhattan.
None of the judges had to pay for their dinners.

Election lawyer Lawrence Mandelker, who played major roles in the campaigns of Mayors Giuliani and Koch, received $47,500 through two appointments from Judge Crane.
Mandelker has also collected a $25,000 retainer from the City University to defend its elimination of remedial classes.

Longtime Brooklyn Democratic Party player Arnold Ludwig reaped $71,750 through 35 judicial appointments -- but because of a legal loophole, it is difficult to know how many hundreds of thousands of dollars more in patronage he may be receiving.
Batra told The Post he paid Ludwig's firm "a lot of money" to perform legal work on Batra's court-appointed receiverships.

The Office of Court Administration, in a loophole that makes it nearly impossible for court-watchers to completely track the flow of money, does not require any central disclosure of fees paid to lawyers who work for receivers.
Ludwig, who had no comment for this story, helped spark several investigations into courthouse patronage by co-writing, with his partner Thomas Garry, a potentially self-destructive letter complaining that Batra had fired them as lawyers in a Cypress Hills Cemetery case even though they had long been loyal to the party organization.

Former Queens Surrogate Louis Laurino and his son, Louis Jr., racked up $176,652, much of it directly from a judge who had good reason to owe them a favor.
The senior Laurino conveniently resigned just after the filing deadline for candidates in the 1991 primary election, allowing the Queens Democratic party to install Nahman as his successor without the voters having a say

The Laurinos received $117,900 of their appointments from one judge -- Surrogate Nahman. Laurino Sr. was censured by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct for conflicts of interest while surrogate.

William Driscoll, party-boss Manton's former chief of staff, who now works as a campaign consultant, reaped $125,322 from 53 judicial appointments.

Council Speaker Peter Vallone, the son of a judge, and his two sons, Peter Jr. and Paul, together received almost $100,000 in legal appointments, all from Queens judges. Speaker Vallone is raising funds for a 2001 mayoral bid.

Arlene Stringer-Cuevas, mother of a state assemblyman and wife of the New York County clerk, enjoyed $16,110 in patronage through nine appointments in Manhattan and The Bronx.

John Monteleone, named one of New York's 10 worst judges by New York magazine in 1972 for leniency toward two Mafia defendants, made $44,000 through 13 appointments by Brooklyn judges.

In the 1980s he led the campaign for higher salaries for judges.
Monteleone said he was given the appointments because he is a malpractice expert.
inMichael Capanegro, a former boyfriend of singer Connie Francis who was convicted in 1977 of embezzling funds from the Communications Workers union during a strike, received $14,000 in ap-pointments from Queens Supreme Court Judge Edwin Kassoff.
Explaining that he received the appointments because of his legal expertise, Capanegro said, "In my area, I'm very well qualified."

Irving "Red" Levine, a former Brooklyn judge who was removed from the bench for case-rigging and lying to the FBI, has received $35,000 worth of court assignments since 1996. Thirteen of the 16 appointments were from Brooklyn Surrogate's Judge Michael Feinberg, for whom Levine raised money and provided advice during a bitter 1996 primary. In Feinberg's latest financial disclosure forms, the address of his campaign headquarters is the same as Levine's home address. Reached at his Florida vacation home, Levine had no comment on his lucrative appointments.

Harvey Greenberg, former executive assistant to Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, pocketed a tidy $119,201 -- much of it from appointments made by Feinberg, whose election campaign he helped run.

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