Monday, January 30, 2006
TWO JUDICIAL SCREENERS RESIGN
BENJAMIN SMITH, Staff Reporter of the Sun, May 7, 2003
In another sign of weakness from the embattled Brooklyn Democratic Party, two members of a panel that selects Brooklyn judges quit yesterday.
Lawyers Barry Kamins and George Farkas quietly resigned from the judicial screening panel yesterday, after the second panel-approved judge was charged with taking bribes to fix cases.
The resignations come after state and federal investigations into the place of money in the courthouse.
The 16-member panel, composed of lawyers close to Brooklyn Democratic chief Clarence Norman, typically recommends judges who are members in good standing with the party organization; the party's subsequent endorsement plays a crucial role in the low-profile judicial elections that follow.
Last summer, Justice Victor Barron pleaded guilty to bribery charges, and the Brooklyn district attorney charged Justice Gerald Garson in a similar case last month.
"If people feel that whatever is going on in there is bad enough that you don't want to be associated with it, then that smells," said Council Member David Yassky, a Brooklyn Democrat in the borough's "reform" faction. "This is a sign that pressure for reform is building and a sign that progress may be made sooner than we might have thought."
The executive director of the Brooklyn party, Jeffrey Feldman, declined to give a reason for the two lawyers' resignations, and said they would be replaced after the panel has finished its business for this year. "The panel is in the middle of the process," Mr. Feldman said.
Mr. Farkas and Mr. Kamins could not be reached for comment. Mr. Kamins, who represented Justice Barron in his bribery trial, is also a fund-raiser for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who is investigating the judicial selection process.
"They just got cold feet from all the press," said one Brooklyn Democrat. They resigned without any formal letter, he said. "These are not letter-writers."
Other members of the panel include Mr. Feldman and Ravi Batra, a lawyer who is a law partner of Mr. Norman, the county Democratic chairman.
Brooklyn reformers recently wrote Mr. Norman calling for replacing the screening panel with a board system similar to the one used in Manhattan. There, independent lawyers' groups suggest panel members. Other officials have pushed for replacing judicial elections with appointive judgeships.
But Brooklyn's Democrats are clinging to their courthouse privileges, as the courthouse is one of the last sources of power, and money, for local party organizations.
Judicial elections give the local parties a large say in judicial selection, and judges can steer lucrative appointments to party lawyers.
The Brooklyn party remains weaker than its rivals in Queens and the Bronx, however, and last year a judge who spurned party requests to reward a Democratic loyalist with a job as her clerk won despite the organization's endorsement of her rival.
"I think the screening panel has to work on building public trust and confidence, something that is lacking now," that judge, Margarita Lopez-Torres, said yesterday.
Judging the Judges
HERE'S WHO 'ELECTS' BROOKLYN JUDGES
The upper echelon of the Brooklyn judiciary sits on a rotting bench. Since last year, 10 of Kings County's top judges have come under official scrutiny for criminal or ethical violations. That's one in six. But by our reckoning, there are serious questions regarding at least half the borough's elected state Supreme Court justices. Some are unfit; others are only marginally qualified.
The fault for this rests with the Kings County Democratic Party's judicial screening committee and Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the party's boss. Shocked? Don't be. They've been bringing dishonor to the bench for years. At election time, Brooklynites had little choice but to rubber-stamp a slate of predetermined winners (we use the term "winners" loosely).
Consider the aforementioned 10: Reynold Mason, removed from the bench for ethical breaches. Richard Huttner, censured for misusing his office. Victor Barron, imprisoned for extorting a bribe. Edward Rappaport, under investigation for not reporting that he knew about Barron's crime. William Garry, Randolph Jackson, Joseph Levine, David Vaughan and Larry Martin, all slapped for not obeying rules on fiduciary assignments. (Martin also was publicly admonished for writing to other judges seeking leniency on behalf of his friends.) And Surrogate Judge Michael Feinberg, under investigation for allegedly looting the estates of the dead.
That these misfits could become judges is an outrage. But change is possible. Even in Brooklyn. Until now, the screening committee's membership was known only to Norman and the party's executive director. Under pressure from his own troops and this newspaper, Norman has revealed the names. Now we know why the list of 13 was hush-hush. It's an embarrassment. They are mostly Court St. lawyers from the clubby Brooklyn legal world, with histories not unlike those of the inept judges they selected. Here are the worst:
Jerome Karp chairs the panel. Last year, he told a Civil Court judge seeking a Supreme Court spot to get lost because only Norman picks the committee's candidates. Karp, who represents lawyers in hot water, also defends bad judges. Among them, former Justice Jerome Cohen, who was removed in 1989; Civil Court Judge Samuel Weinberg, who pleaded guilty in 1987 to racketeering, and Surrogate Bernard Bloom, who was censured in 1995. Also, Larry Martin (see above). It was Karp and his predecessors who put all these men on the Brooklyn bench in the first place. At least he stands by his products.
Ravi Batra is the vice chairman and employs party boss Norman in his law firm. Batra was at the center of a scandal over the Cypress Hills Cemetery, where Huttner funneled him all the legal work. That forced open the Brooklyn legal/judicial mess. Now, Batra is entangled in the suspicious term-limits lawsuit that would prematurely oust City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and five other Council members. Could the Brooklyn machine be using its handpicked judges to sink Miller? With this bunch, anything is possible.
Louis Rosenthal, a former judge, handles the estates of dead Brooklynites. Under the direction of Surrogate Judge Feinberg (another product of the committee and Norman), Rosenthal squeezes millions from the estates for legal work that he refuses to document. He also has given hefty commissions to Huttner's two sons. Rosenthal and Feinberg are under investigation for their misdeeds. Ironically, should Feinberg go down, Rosenthal will help choose his replacement.
Barry Kamins is a major fund-raiser for Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, another Norman lackey. When the Barron case fell into Hynes' lap, Kamins came in as Barron's lawyer and cut a sweetheart deal with the accommodating prosecutor. Barron, who could have blown the lid off courthouse corruption, was allowed to stay mum.
Ronald Aiello was Brooklyn's top judge until he was fired for padding the court's payroll with two of his relatives. A former head of the judges union, Aiello has publicly defended his old, corrupt comrades Rappaport and Huttner. Last year, he was put on the state lobbying commission by state Sen. Marty Connor, a Brooklyn hack who used government offices to run his legal practice.
Jeff Feldman, the party's executive director, runs the committee. He holds a $64,000-a-year state Senate job (thanks to Connor). His salary falls just below the level requiring disclosure of outside income. Feldman also partakes in the system: He made his wife a judge.
With a crew like this picking jurists, no wonder Brooklyn's courts are in disarray. These blatant conflicts of interest scream out for merit selection of judges. We rest our case - for now.
Indictment Against Jeffrey Feldman
TWO JUDGES TESTIFIED THAT THEY WERE FORCED TO PAY MONEY OR THEY WOULD BE “DUMPED” BY THE PARTY
Brooklyn, November 18, 2003 -- Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes today announced the indictment of Kings County Democratic County Committee (KCDCC) Chairman Clarence Norman and Jeffrey Feldman, Executive Director of the KCDCC, for coercion by extortion of two candidates for county-wide Civil Court judgeships in 2002. They are being charged with multiple counts of extortion, Grand Larceny, Attempted Grand Larceny and Conspiracy.
In May 2002, district leaders of the Kings County Democratic party met at the Park Plaza Restaurant (with Norman and Feldman present) and voted endorsements for the three county-wide judicial seats for the Civil Court of the City of New York subject to election in 2002. The district leaders endorsed the re-election of Civil Court Judges Margaret Cammer and Karen Yellen, and the candidacy of Housing Court Judge Marcia Sikowitz. Soon after, Judge Cammer decided to withdraw from the race, and she was replaced as endorsee by Robin Garson.
The indictment charges that in the summer of 2002, there were at least three meetings in which the candidates, along with some of their supporters and consultants, met with Norman and Feldman at their KCDCC offices to discuss their campaigns. Norman and Feldman set forth a proposal for a joint campaign for the three candidates. An ambitious program of newspaper ads, mailings, lit. drops, palm cards, and TV ads were discussed, with an estimated price tag of $100,000 to $150,000 per campaign. Most of the negotiation was between Norman and Feldman on one hand and Yellen’s consultants from The Advance Group on the other. Ultimately, the KCDCC made a non-negotiable demand of three joint mailings via Branford Communications.
Although the Advance Group felt it could find a cheaper alternative to Branford, the Yellen campaign agreed to the proposal after Norman allegedly stated that any candidate that did not agree to the Branford mailings would be “dumped” or functionally disendorsed and otherwise not supported by his Party. The candidates testified that they felt that the Party’s endorsement was very valuable as they had access to a ready workforce, they could provide legal assistance, and they could use the club’s workforce to distribute literature and palm cards on Primary Day, which was all crucial to their campaigns.
The agreement by the Yellen campaign to the joint mailings via Branford, upon pain of being “dumped” by the Party, gives rise to the first set of charges against Norman and Feldman: Attempted Grand Larceny in the Second Degree (attempt to extort more than $50,000) and Attempted Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree (attempt to steal by extortion).
Of the three joint mailings agreed to, only one actually took place. That was in August 2002. The plan for the two additional joint mailings fell apart because Robin Garson successfully challenged the ballot petitions of her opponent (and thus, was assured the nomination for one of the three seats), and Sikowitz simply ran out of money. The Yellen campaign paid Branford approximately $7,600 for the one mailing. This payment, resulting from the agreement coerced by Norman and Feldman, is the basis for the second set of charges against Norman and Feldman: Grand Larceny in the Third Degree (extortion of more than $3,000), Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree (larceny by extortion), and Coercion in the Second Degree (a misdemeanor coerced under threat of harm to business, calling, career, etc.).
The second part of this case concerns Norman and Feldman’s demands that Yellen and Sikowitz fund street operations in central Brooklyn (Norman’s assembly district and adjacent ones), budgeted for $16,000. This expense did not make sense to either Yellen or Sikowitz, who preferred to focus the use of their limited resources in other parts of Brooklyn. But here, Sikowitz said she felt bullied. Norman allegedly threatened that the Party would not do anything on Primary Day for the candidate who did not agree. Sikowitz agreed, but ultimately never actually paid the money because she simply did not have it. The Yellen campaign, however, after stalling, paid $9,000 in a check payable to William Boone (a political operative of Clarence Norman Jr.), after Feldman reiterated the demand and threat in early September, on the eve of the Primary.
The “central Brooklyn” proposal is the basis for the third and fourth set of charges against Norman and Feldman: as to the Yellen campaign, Grand Larceny in the Third Degree, Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree, and Coercion in the Second Degree; and as to the Sikowitz campaign, Attempted Grand Larceny in the Third Degree, Attempted Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree, and Attempted Coercion in the Second Degree.
Sikowitz and Yellen lost the Primary on September 10, 2002, to their opponents, Civil Court Judge Margarita Lopez Torres and Housing Court Judge Delores Thomas.
Attempted Grand Larceny in the Second Degree, a class D felony, punishable by 2 1/3 – 7 years’ imprisonment.
Grand Larceny in the Third Degree (two counts), a class D felony, punishable by 2 1/3 – 7 years’ imprisonment.
Attempted Grand Larceny in the Third Degree, a class E felony, punishable by 1 1/3 – 4 years’ imprisonment.
Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree (two counts), a class E felony, punishable by 1 1/3 – 4 years’ imprisonment.
Attempted Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree (two counts), a class A misdemeanor, punishable by 1 year in jail.
Coercion in the Second Degree (two counts), a class A misdemeanor, punishable by 1 year in jail.
Attempted Coercion in the Second Degree, a class B misdemeanor, punishable by 90 days in jail.
In addition, conspiracies were charged for each “substantive” crime charged above. The conspiracy counts are:
Conspiracy in the Fourth Degree, a class E felony, punishable by 1 1/3 – 4 years’ imprisonment.
Conspiracy in the Fifth Degree (seven counts), a class A misdemeanor, punishable by 1 year in jail.
Conspiracy in the Sixth Degree (three counts), a class B misdemeanor, punishable by 90 days in jail.
Contact: Sandy Silverstein
Pol, aide surrender on judge-buy charge
By NANCIE L. KATZ
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Brooklyn Democratic party boss Clarence Norman arrives at District Attorney Charles Hynes' office last night.
Brooklyn Democratic party boss Clarence Norman and his top aide surrendered last night on charges they made $100,000 the going rate for a Brooklyn judgeship.
Norman, who was indicted last month on separate grand larceny charges, carried buttermilk cookies and joked with reporters about spending his second night on a cot in Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes' office.
"Since I've been here before, I knew to bring my cookies and magazines," said Norman, who arrived on foot just after 9 p.m. with a half-dozen friends and supporters. "Why should I be angry? How many times do you have a second chance to spend the night in the district attorney's office?
"We all know this is nothing more than a bunch of nonsense."
Norman and Jeffrey Feldman, the party's executive director, are expected to be arraigned today on charges they shook down three judges up for reelection in 2002 after the party had endorsed them.
They were indicted on 22 counts Friday. The indictment was set to be unsealed today.
Each faces up to seven years in prison, if convicted on the top count of grand larceny.
Feldman arrived about 15 minutes before Norman, accompanied by his attorney, Ronald Aiello. "We are at a loss - a total loss - as to what crimes could have been committed by Mr. Feldman," said Aiello.
A source said Feldman allegedly told Civil Court judges Karen Yellen, Marcia Sikowitz and Margaret Cammer they each had "to come up with 100 grand or we're going to take this away from you."
The indictment also charges the pair warned Yellen in a separate incident that she would be thrown off the ticket if she did not pay certain favored consultants, another sources said.
Sources close to the case said all three women as well as a Brooklyn district leader are expected to testify against Feldman and Norman, who also is a longtime state assemblyman and controls judgeships in the heavily Democratic borough.
The dual surrender came a month after another grand jury declined to issue a formal charge on the alleged scheme to sell seats on the bench.
It also came a month after Norman was indicted for allegedly putting $5,000 in campaign funds into his own checking account, taking more than $5,000 in gas reimbursements for travel to Albany and for an elections law violation.
He faces up to seven years in prison if convicted of those charges.
Norman contends Hynes has been on a witch hunt for the leaders of the same party that helped him get into office - and that making judicial candidates spend money on their campaigns is not tantamount to selling judgeships.
Hynes' office refused to comment yesterday.
With Derek Rose
Originally published on November 18, 2003
Pay to Play
Only one problem with that argument: both candidates who played “Norman’s dirty game” lost the election. In that year, 2002, machine-backed Karen Yellen and Marcia Sikowitz were topped by Margarita Lopez Torres and Dolores Thomas. -Brooklyn Politics by Erik Engquist, March 14, 2005
FEINBERG STAYING PUT
But what about the investigation under way? "I don't know anybody in Kings County of any prominence who's not under investigation by one agency or another," Feldman said. Feldman meant that as a defense of Brooklyn politics, but it could certainly be construed more as an indictment of it. --- By Erik Engquist, As printed in the Courier Life Newspapers, September 16, 2002
WILL JEFF FELDMAN DO THE ABRAMOFF?
By Maurice Gumbs. January 4, 2006
"Words will not ever be able to express my sorrow and my profound regret for all my actions and mistakes. I hope I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and those I've wronged or caused to suffer. I plead guilty, your honor” (Lobbyist Jack Abramoff, January 3, 2006). According to the plea agreement, prosecutors will recommend a sentence of 9 1/2 to 11 years, providing he cooperates with federal prosecutors.”
Jeff Feldman, Executive Director of the Kings County Democratic Club, and chief advisor to County Leader Clarence Norman is facing the toughest decision of his life.
If he hasn’t done it already, within a few days or hours, Jeff will have to decide whether to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Abramoff and bargain for a reduced jail sentence or to hang tough and hope for a miracle.
Tampering with judicial elections through Bribery and Extortion is not an offense that escapes with just a token punishment. In fact, there may have been enough basis for a Federal RICO probe which considered conspiracy charges against Clarence, Jeff, and even Professor Boonie III.
Setting an excruciatingly painful example is evidently the only way to deter those who are intent on making a profit out of the Judicial system. So even with a reduced sentence, Jeff is likely to do at least 4 years in prison. But on the other hand, a conviction after trial could land him in the slammer for twice as many years.
According to reports, Jeff has retained one of the top criminal lawyers in the United States at the kind of fee which usually requires taking out a mortgage on a home. Attorney Branfman is a blue-blood lawyer usually retained by the rich and famous like Michael Jackson.
Jeff has already tested Judge Marcus with requests for Appellate review and dismissal of the charges against him. The Appellate Judges studied and rejected his arguments, agreeing with Judge Marcus' scholarly, well-researched brief justifying a trial. That statement of Law has now provided a clear and certain roadmap for the DA’s office to follow in its prosecution.
FOOTNOTES had always considered the bribery/extortion trial to be the only one of the 4 trials which was a toss-up. Two of the four have now been decided. Our assessment was that a third, the travel-voucher fraud had already decided when Assemblyman Roger Green pleaded guilty to an identical crime. Bet the bankroll on that one when it comes up. Short and bitter verdict from the jury.
We initially felt that the allegations by the former judges appeared to be a situation where judicial candidates violated the “caveat emptor” rule. Because they were judges they should have known better. In effect, they entered into a deal with individuals who were already known, or at least reputed, to be dishonorable and corrupt.
They chose to involve themselves with two or more shady characters in order to get an edge over their competition. However, apparently, the fact that these women may have been victims of a crime because of their own folly, does not change the fact that a crime was committed.
More to the point is the prosecution’s argument that these sitting judges believed they had no choice but to Obey and Pay. Or Obey and Sell a Piece of Your Court. Jurors do not live in a vacuum, and there is the strong possibility that some, if not all of them have heard the story of Surrogate Court Judge Margarita Lopez Torres.
That story is a gross and vivid confirmation that this type of intimidation and extortion by the County leadership indeed does exist. In fact, at this point in time, probably 90% of Kings County residents have been convinced that the Kings County Democratic Leadership and their cronies have totally corrupted Brooklyn’s Judiciary system.
There are sitting judges like Bernie Graham and judicial candidates like Ingrid Joseph who have chosen to remain silent. All it takes for evil to prevail is for honest men and women to remain silent. All it takes for Brooklyn’s Courts to remain tainted with corruption is for judges and judicial candidates to remain silent.
Ms. Joseph was the front-runner in a Brooklyn Civil Court race in 2004 when County Leader Clarence boldly and openly stated that he would take steps to punish her as a demonstration that candidates could not defy or disobey the County Leader. Like Judge Lopez-Torres, Ms Joseph could also have become a shining symbol if she had the courage and integrity to speak out.
Judge Graham who was the beneficiary of Joseph’s destruction could also have provided a profile in courage by describing the arrangements made with Carl Andrews, Moses Musa, and Clarence in order to inherit the support of the County. And Maxine Archer, another candidate in that race could also have come forward and explained her deal with Clarence.
Attorney Branfman cannot possibly take much pleasure in defending a client who is accused of intimidating and scamming judges. Branfman is no Ed Rappaport. Unlike Easy Ed, Branfman has an impeccable reputation to maintain. That reputation is hardly enhanced when he is knocked around by an unknown prosecutor in a nickel and dime bribery and extortion trial.
Branfman would not have had Clarence take the witness stand. He would not have depended on Diane Gordon to be his chief witness. His almost perfect record of victories was not accomplished by gambling. We have to believe that he will convince Jeff to take a plea.
We expect that attorney Branfman has been brutally blunt with Jeff and his wife Judge Marsha Steinhardt about the defendant’s situation. The following are some of the insurmountable roadblocks to an Innocent verdict for Jeff.
1. Thanks to the lost appeal, the Law governing this case has been already articulated by Judge Marcus. It is Judge Marcus who will send the jury out with instruction as to what constitutes Extortion and Bribery. It is his rules that jury members will bring to each other’s attention on the way to making a decision. And it is now clear from the two preceding cases that Marcus is quite proficient at explaining the Law to jurors.
2. For the first time in these trials a jury will get to see the actual victims of the crime committed. That is bad news for Jeff. Particularly when these victims will be women. Women who claimed that they were intimidated and abused by men who were twisting their arms and threatening them into giving up large sums of money. There will be several women on that jury, Black as well as White, who will identify with these witnesses from their own personal experiences. Whether it was with an auto mechanic, a bullying husband, a pocketbook snatcher.
3. These 2 or 3 female witnesses will be supremely credible. They will be judges with impeccable reputations, who are comfortable with appearances in Court. Any attempt to smear them is likely to be offensive to the jury.
4. A major setback for Jeff is the fact that William Boonie III, an alleged professor at Medgar Evers College will probably be called to the witness stand by the prosecution. Boonie was one of Clarence's team whom the judges had to give thousands of dollars for what the judges felt was a scam. Boonie’s testimony will once again bury the defendants. As a side effect, listening to this nutty professor will once more raise questions about whether he belongs in a College or a Comedy show.
5. By the time they are required to make a decision, these jurors will all be aware that Clarence Norman has already been convicted on two felonies. In fact, by that time, the sentencing phase for the first two convictions should be completed and Clarence might be arriving in Court from prison each day, and leaving in handcuffs for his cell after each session. Being a co-defendant with someone who has already been convicted of 2 sets of felonies will hardly be helpful to Jeff.
6. Finally, at some point it will become clear in the minds of the jurors that Clarence did not invent corruption, and is not the only one who has corrupted the judicial system. There was Grand Jury testimony by the witnesses about their conversation with Jeff during the “extortion”. As we recall, part of that discussion found Jeff telling the witnesses that he was just representing his “Principal.” And Jeff might be tempted to use the alibi that he was only a loyal servant or messenger for Clarence, the County Leader.
That won’t fly at this trial. At the Diane Gordon Stolen Check trial, Attorney Rappaport made a strong case for Clarence being simple-minded. So it won’t be surprising if the jury quietly comes to the conclusion that Jeff Feldman was really the brain behind the operation and the one who actually made the major decisions. Especially when it came to White candidates. And guess what? Black jurors particularly are never going to believe that Clarence, a Black man was giving orders to Jeff Feldman about arrangements to be made with White judges. No Way!!
So now we have a situation where two predominantly Black juries have convicted Clarence of crimes. In spite of the impressive presence of his father Reverend Norman, his wife, deacons, deaconesses, and other Church members gazing at them each day. These Black jurors have made their decision with sadness, and sometimes with tears.
Now along comes Jeff Feldman, a White man. No doubt there will once more be a predominantly Black jury. Attorney Branfman undoubtedly appreciates exactly what the Black members of that jury will be thinking. He will also probably predict that the White minority on that jury will understand and agree with their Black colleagues. Jeff Feldman on trial could have as much chance as a snowball in Hell... And his lawyer may already have given him Abramoff’s confession to read so he could develop some lines of his own.
2 Brooklyn Democrats Indicted In Judicial Corruption Case
Brooklyn's Tom Delay
Brooklyn's Tom DelayFrom the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats website (scroll down, near second photo):"At our January 19, 2006 meeting, we adopted a resolution that Jeff Feldman step aside temporarily as second in command of the Brooklyn Democratic organization until the case in which he is indicted is resolved."As you can imagine, stepping down, even "temporarily" before being convicted is a touchy subject. "Many many many of us, firmly believe not only in his innocence," Councilman Lew Fidler told me when asked for comment, "but that the allegations against him may not even really constitute an illegal or immoral act."So why step down?