'Regime Change' Should Be Goal of Judge Probe

The New York Sun
June 30, 2003 Monday

'Regime Change' Should Be Goal of Judge Probe

Although the Brooklyn judicial and political scandal is still unraveling, this is a good time to look at what's happened - and take a peek at where it's likely to go next.

It's a story about a system and a culture, not particular personalities. The goal of the series of articles I have been writing with Colin Miner is to provide sufficient information to reform how judges are selected, and to cause regime change in the clubhouse institution.

This is not about counting indictments; it is about making justice honest and impartial in Brooklyn, separating the clubhouse and the courthouse.
After reporting this story for a month, it seems that the Democratic Party of Brooklyn may be a racketeering enterprise under the definition of the state's version of the RICO Statute. This is the analysis that Brooklyn Assemblyman Jim Brennan gave me five years ago; it is more valid today than ever.

Under party boss Clarence Norman, candidates for judgeships and public office have been pressured to hire specific vendors, consultants, and Election Day operatives to keep the party's endorsement, and get on the organization's palm cards. This is a shakedown. It might be extortion. It is the party using its power to compel candidates to pay a series of tollbooths.

Three judges have told prosecutors they felt coerced to hire Ernie Lendler's printing company, William Boone III, or make "rent" payments or "contributions" to Mr. Norman's clubhouse, if they hoped to get elected.

Several candidates for high public office - including Ruth Messinger - have told similar stories to the Brooklyn district attorney's office. Conversely, the recent candidates who did not pay - Fernando Ferrer, Catherine Abate, Oliver Koppell, and Ms. Messinger - did not get the support of the Brooklyn organization.

Candidates who paid the right people - like Alan Hevesi for mayor in the primary, Mark Green for mayor in the run-off, William Thompson for controller, and Eliot Spitzer for attorney general - got endorsed. After Mr. Spitzer won, he hired one of Norman's designated consultants, Carl Andrews, for his staff. After Mr. Thompson won, he hired another of Mr. Norman's designated consultants, Jackie Ward, for his staff, at $80,000 a year.

This is the racket that needs repair and reform. It creates the appearance of auctioning endorsements.

When I asked Mr. Ferrer if he was asked for any payments during the 2001 mayoral run-off, he quipped, "It never got to that. Green made a preemptive bid."
The same mercenary system operates for judgeships. Even judicial candidates in uncontested elections have to raise $50,000 and hire clubhouse consultants who are Mr. Norman's cronies. Rachel Adams and Robin Garson are recent examples of this.

Judges who emerge from this culture tend to be political insiders lacking in character and impartiality. That's why the arrest rate among Brooklyn judges the last year has been higher than the arrest rate among the borough's general population. The Garson family of three judges - Gerald, Robin, and Michael - may end up looking like the Snopes clan of Court Street. Gerald is under indictment and his cousin, Michael, is being investigated for siphoning about $800,000 out of his elderly aunt's bank account.

The political system did not start with Jackie Ward getting $92,000 for five weeks of work, out of the $245,000 the Green campaign paid to Mr. Norman's clubhouse the same week he received Mr. Norman's endorsement for mayor. This has been a way of life during Mr. Norman's 13-year reign as party boss.

Between 1993 and 1998, campaign consultant Carl Andrews received $101,000 from candidates Mr. Norman endorsed. He got $38,000 from Mike Feinberg's 1996 campaign for Brooklyn surrogate. He got $8,000 from Eliot Spitzer's 1998 campaign for attorney general - and a staff job after Mr. Spitzer won.

William Boone collected $39,000 during these five years from candidates and committees backed by Mr. Norman. He also got $4,500 out of Mr. Green's $245,000.
A former judge, Karen Yellen, has told prosecutors she was coerced to pay Mr. Boone $9,000 during her losing campaign last year - and that he did no work.
Two other judicial candidates have subsequently come forward to corroborate Ms. Yellen's story of feeling extorted in their campaigns.

Between 1993 and 1998 winning judicial candidates - Victor Barron, Mike Feinberg, Karen Rothenberg, and Bruce Balter - all reported paying "rent" to Mr. Norman's club during their elections to become judges.

The $245,000 the Green campaign disclosed it paid to Mr. Norman's clubhouse fits this historical pattern. It is up to the grand jury to determine if it was a bribe for the endorsement.

I don't know the answer.
The more answerable question is: How was this money spent? Was it laundered through political clubs to pay for racist fliers and anonymous phone calls used to damage Mr. Ferrer's run-off campaign? Remember, Mr. Ferrer won the first primary by 5%.
None of Mr. Green's campaign filings have explained who paid for these fliers and calls. It may take putting all the key players under oath in the grand jury to get to the truth.

If they were paid for in cash, with washed money, that is the crime of money laundering. The Campaign Finance Board is still requesting receipts and cancelled checks from the Green campaign to account for this $245,000.

The great irony here is that when the New York Times endorsed Mr. Green over Mr. Ferrer in the run-off, its rationale was that Mr. Green was free of clubhouse influence.

The Times editorial appeared on October 10, 2001, after the Green campaign paid the $245,000. It read:

"The differences between the two men, which were noticeable before, have stretched to formidable over the last few weeks.

"Mr. Ferrer is a product of the Bronx Democratic machine, and his career has hewed closely to the party organization's political rulebook. Mr. Green has always been a political outsider, who had to fight for what he wanted, an idea man who specialized in problem solving."

We are still in the early stages of an investigation that District Attorney Charles Hynes says will last another year.
We need to keep our eyes on the prize - reforming the way judges are chosen, and separating the clubhouse from the courthouse.
The New York Times editorial page needs to catch up and make amends about how to reach this prize and who its real friends are.

The Daily News editorial page also needs to make some atonement, as it tries to win a Pulitzer Prize with uncalibrated braying about the Brooklyn judiciary, and a year of bashing Mr. Hynes when he was the only one prosecuting venal judges in New York City.

Margarita Lopez Torres has emerged as the symbol of an independent Brooklyn judiciary.

Last year, Clarence Norman tried to dump her off the bench because she had the guts to refuse to hire an unqualified law secretary that judgemaker and patronage baron Vito Lopez asked her to hire. Mr. Norman denied her re-nomination as a reprisal for this act of integrity.

Ms. Lopez Torres beat Mr. Norman's machine in the September primary. Yet, the Daily News' editorial page failed to endorse her in that election, when her career, and the principle of a merit-based judiciary, were on the line.

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