Arm-Twisting Claims Investigated in Judicial Races

The New York Times
June 17, 2003 Tuesday

Arm-Twisting Claims Investigated in Judicial Races

A former civil court judge in Brooklyn has told investigators a story that suggests that the politics of the borough can be as rough and tumble for judgeships as for any other elected position, according to lawyers and others involved in the case.
The former judge, Karen B. Yellen, has told the Brooklyn district attorney's office that Democratic party officials pressured her to hire certain consultants and vendors to help in her effort to win re-election last year, the people involved in the case said. If she did not, the former judge told investigators, party officials said that they would not give her much support.
So, according to Ms. Yellen's account, she hired Branford Communications, a Manhattan firm that has done much work for the party over the years, to put together a mailing for her and two other judges for which Ms. Yellen's share was $7,600. She also wrote a $9,000 check to a political consultant, William H. Boone III, to help get out the vote in central Brooklyn, though she did not think he did any work to help her, people involved in the case said.
Ms. Yellen's spending was in vain. In an embarrassment to the Brooklyn Democratic organization, which has traditionally prided itself on its record of getting its candidates into office, Ms. Yellen and the organization's other choice, Marcia Sikowitz, lost the primary to two insurgents, Margarita Lopez Torres and Delores J. Thomas.Ms. Yellen, whose account to investigators was first reported in The New York Sun, did not return phone calls to her home or office in recent days. Mr. Boone, who is now the treasurer of the county Democratic organization, did not respond to a phone message left yesterday afternoon at his office at Medgar Evers College, where he is an assistant dean. A lawyer for the head of Branford Communications said that the company did not force anyone to hire them and did the work for which it was paid.
Pressuring candidates to pick certain political consultants or make contributions to the party is not a crime, according to legal experts, unless there is evidence that party officials share in the payments they help to arrange. But the practice does not distinguish the process of judicial nomination and election, which many people have long viewed as less political than other races for public office.
One of Ms. Yellen's opponents last year, Ms. Lopez Torres, formerly had party support but lost it, she said, after she refused to hire friends and relatives of party officials.
The Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, for several months has been investigating how lawyers become elected judges in Brooklyn. The investigation began after a matrimonial judge in Brooklyn, Gerald P. Garson, was caught on tape accepting cash and gifts from a lawyer and began cooperating with investigators, Mr. Hynes has said.
Ms. Yellen, 56, was elected to civil court, with the party's support, in 1991. Last year, she was renominated, but she said she was told she was expected to hire Branford, run by Ernest Lendler, to put together her campaign literature, people involved in her case said.
A lawyer for Mr. Lendler, Richard Guay, said yesterday that there was nothing improper about Mr. Lendler's mailer, which advertised Ms. Yellen and two other candidates and was sent to 91,000 households.
"With respect to Judge Yellen's campaign, Branford did all the work it was retained to do and did it well," Mr. Guay said. He added that Branford has done work for candidates challenging the party organization as well as for organization candidates.
As for Mr. Boone, people involved in the case said, Ms. Yellen said she was told that the $9,000 for him would be used to get out the vote in the mostly black neighborhoods of central Brooklyn. Her voter base was not there, though, and she protested, saying she would rather the money be spent in Jewish neighborhoods where she thought she had a better chance of pulling votes, according to the people involved in the case.
Ms. Yellen finished third in a field of four, 6,000 votes behind Ms. Torres, in an election where the top two vote-getters win.

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