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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

History of the Brooklyn Surrogate Court

The Surrogate Court hears cases involving probate of wills, estates of people who die without a will, as well as handles unclaimed property of the deceased without wills, adoptions and certain guardianship proceedings.  

There is a Surrogate's Court in each county in the New York State.  A Surrogate Judge is elected countywide, and is required to be a resident of the pertaining county.  Each of New York's 62 counties has one surrogate, except New York County and Kings County which have two each. 

Surrogates are elected to 10-year terms, except those in the five counties within New York City where surrogates are elected to 14-year terms. In some counties, usually those with a small number of inhabitants, the judge of the 
County Court holds at the same time the office of surrogate.

A Court With History of Corruption 
Due to persistent corruption and mismanagement in the Surrogate Courts there have been frequent efforts to abolish the Surrogate's Court and redistribute its powers to the judges in the New York Supreme Court and the Family Court. The most recent efforts stem from the corruption scandal surrounding former Brooklyn Surrogate Michael Feinberg, who was removed from the bench in 2005.  In the past, Surrogate's Court Judges put into office by the democratic party bosses have been known to funnel millions of dollars a year to lawyers connected to the democratic party machine by appointing them to cases pending before the court.

In the past, election of a democratic party machine's judge to the Surrogate Court meant the many appointments made by the judge went to the party insiders who looted estates while propping up the party machine.  

In Brooklyn Surrogate Court, the New York Times wrote in 2012, "Richard Paul, the bookkeeper for the Brooklyn public administrator, was indicted for stealing $2.6 million from these estates, allegedly manipulating the check-writing process to get at the cash."  The New York Times quoted Monroe Freedman, a Hofstra University professor and leading expert on legal ethics, who said that "Judges who allow fraudulent pay-outs are 'a disgrace to the legal profession and to the state of New York...[and] should be removed from the bench and disbarred.'"  (The New York Times, 6/29/2012).  

Freedman said an entrenched system of favor-trading, with hints of bribery, has persisted for decades.That is the position held by Mr. Rosenthal, who like Judge Feinberg had been active in the Democratic Party and has also served as a judge, though he is now in private practice. According to the commission's decision, his father was the public administrator in Brooklyn from 1958 to 1964, though only about 5 percent of his own legal practice concerned surrogates litigation.Judge Feinberg appointed Mr. Rosenthal shortly after he became surrogate, and began to award him legal fees for handling estates without requiring documentation about the time and effort he put in. The judge also routinely approved legal fees equal to 8 percent of the value of the estate in question, despite the fact that fees are supposed to be limited to 6 percent except in exceptional circumstances.

In Queens, the democratic party machine is continuing to thrive thanks to its backed and elected judge in the Surrogate Court who doles out lucrative assignments to the party insiders in astonishing proportions.  Gothamist writes:  "while the Queens machine faced a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ocasio-Cortez, it has quietly chugged on. Gerard Sweeney, Frank Bolz and Reich, the three attorneys who live on Long Island but have effectively run the party apparatus for over 30 years, are still in charge...[they]...make millions in Surrogate’s Court.  Court records show that ...Sweeney continues to rake in Surrogate’s Court cash at a startling rate.  Since Ocasio-Cortez’s victory last June, he has collected at least $1 million in fees."(Gothamist, 2/20/2019).  

In 2011 the New York Times wrote:  "To enter [the Surrogate Court] is to stumble upon Ponce de Leon’s own spring, an eternal source of easy money for the politically wired. The Surrogate’s judge appointed the public administrator, Lois M. Rosenblatt, who is a fierce and battle-tested elections lawyer, Democratic division...[who] reappointed the court’s counsel, who for about a millennium has been Gerard J. Sweeney.  In 2010, Mr. Sweeney’s office pulled down $2.284 million administering estates. "  “Surrogate’s Court is the play,” notes a well-connected Queens Democrat who remains that way by talking anonymously.  'You can’t talk about what makes the machine tick without talking about surrogates.'" (The New York Times, 11/28/2011).  

Mayor La Guardia and the Surrogate Court 

In 1930's Mayor Fiorello La Guardia believed it was control of the Surrogate's Court of New York County, more than any other factor, that kept the Tammany Hall political machine alive through the lean years when he deprived it of city jobs and President Franklin Roosevelt denied it federal jobs.  Robert Kennedy called the Surrogate Court "A Political Toll Booth Exacting Tribute From Widows and Orphans." 

Articles on How Surrogate Judges are Elected
Brooklyn's Political Machine Gets Another Cog (The Indypendent, 4/3/2019)

It’s not exactly shocking when a reformer becomes a political insider, but the details still matter.

The Surrogate Court is where wills and estates are settled. Attorneys connected to the court via the office of Public Administrator collect lucrative fees. As in Queens during Joe Crowley’s reign, the Brooklyn Democratic machine plays an integral role in the process.Once a determined foe of the Brooklyn Democratic machine, Margarita López Torres is running in the June primary for reelection as one of two Kings County Surrogate’s Court judges — and she’s doing so with the backing of party boss Frank Seddio, who has close ties to that court.

After winning her first Surrogate term as an insurgent in 2005, López Torres contested the New York State law giving political parties control over judgeships (via its judicial conventions) in a battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Although it was unanimously struck down in 2008, the case prompted Justice John Paul Stevens to declare that the “Constitution does not prohibit state legislatures from enacting stupid laws.”

Now, with her first 14-year term expiring at the end of this year, López Torres is running for a second. But given that she will turn 68 later this year, if re-elected, López Torres will only be able to serve two more years because the mandatory retirement for New York’s non-Supreme Court judges is 70.

López Torres tells The Indypendent that “unless there is a change in the law,” she will indeed be forced to retire at the end of 2021 (and prompt another Surrogate election). She notes that the New York State legislators serve two-year terms, so her potentially abbreviated second term “is hardly cause for reservation.”

López Torres has the full support of Seddio, along with his progressive allies, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, City Councilman Brad Lander, Assembly members Bobby Carroll and JoAnne Simon, and clubs such as Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats and Independent Neighborhood Democrats.

The Brooklyn party machine “no longer harbors [an] animus towards me,” says López Torres, explaining that, unlike his predecessors Clarence Norman and Vito Lopez, Seddio “has never asked me to select [one of his people] for my staff.” She adds that Seddio “served as the other Surrogate judge with me for one and a half years, and thus is familiar with the qualities I bring to the bench.”

Seddio’s tenure on the Surrogate bench, however, was cut short when he resigned in 2007 amid an investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct into his misuse of campaign funds. Seddio retains close ties to the attorneys appointed by Brooklyn’s Surrogate judges to oversee the office of Public Administrator.

The party machine continues to control the judicial convention, which after the June primary will select a replacement on the Kings County Supreme Court for Harriet Thompson, who last year was elected as Brooklyn’s other Surrogate judge. Asked whether she would accept a nomination to Supreme Court (where the retirement age is 76), López Torres flatly declares, “No” — and says she’s made that clear to the party leadership.

One club that is not endorsing in the Surrogate race, New Kings Democrats, nonetheless plans to track the campaign closely and distribute explainers to its members. “People should go into the election knowing what they’re voting for,” maintains the club’s president Brandon West. “Any backroom deals made within the party are not something we’ll support.”

Geoffrey Davis, a Democratic district leader from Crown Heights, has not yet decided whether to back former party boss Clarence Norman’s preferred candidate, Meredith Jones, who has worked at the Surrogate Court. But according to Davis, López Torres has “failed to spot salient issues such as deed fraud and the erroneous sale of properties” that have plagued Brooklyn’s black community in recent years.

Meanwhile, current Civil Court Judge Elena Baron is also making a bid, and her consultant is Gary Tilzer, who ran López Torres’ campaign when she beat the party machine in 2005. Tilzer is surprised by the cozy relationship between López Torres and Seddio.

“The machine makes its living off the Brooklyn courts, but now Seddio and company are endorsing a candidate who went to the Supreme Court trying to cut off their control of picking judges? It makes no sense,” says Tilzer.

If nothing else, Frank Seddio certainly knows how to keep his bread buttered.

Surrogate judges oversee the estates of the dead and can offer rich rewards to connected lawyers. So when one of the 14-year judgeships is vacant, competition is fierce.  So fierce that the Brooklyn Democratic machine lost the last two surrogate primaries to insurgents. 

Not this year. Boss Frank Seddio — a disgraced ex-Surrogate himself — is seizing the valuable post without a challenge to his candidate, Harriet Thompson. A Civil Court judge, Thompson has already violated court rules by failing to complete the mandatory judicial campaign ethics training. Fellow incumbent Civil Court judges Loren Baily, Ingrid Joseph and Devin Cohen, all running for reelection, also failed to comply.

No matter. At next week's judicial nominating convention, Seddio's machine plans to tap them for state Supreme Court and then fill their Civil Court places on the November ballot with loyal substitutes, with no voter input.  So both democracy and justice will lose again in Brooklyn.

Former Bklyn Dem Leader
He’s retired, out of politics,” says Brooklyn district leader Geoffrey Davis regarding former Democratic party boss Clarence Norman. But then again, Davis adds, “Does anyone ever really retire?”

Since his return from prison in 2011, Norman has indeed steadily reasserted his influence. Starting with Ken Thompson’s successful 2013 effort to topple his nemesis, District Attorney Joe Hynes, Norman has played a key role in local elections.  This past May, Norman effectively chose the Brooklyn party’s candidate for surrogate court judge on this fall’s ballot.

Judge selection may not sound like a consequential move, but backing candidates is one of the party organization’s main functions. And picking judges has been a primary concern of the current Democratic boss, Frank Seddio.  Norman went to prison for a slew of campaign violations, including extortion in civil court judge campaigns.  His return to backstage influence raises important questions about the future of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party. 

That’s especially the case because many insiders predict that Norman, via his ties to the ascendant Hakeem Jeffries wing of the party, will exert plenty of influence when it comes to choosing Seddio’s successor.

Clarence Says Jail & Farewell (New York Post, 6/6/2007) 

A Court, Not Votes, Sustains a Political Machine in Queens (NYT)

 Power and money are found not so much in the voting booth as in the machine-controlled judicial conventions that pick judges, and in the courthouse on Sutphin Boulevard.  That is where you find Surrogate’s Court, otherwise known as widows and orphans court. This court appoints guardians who make handsome fees processing the estates of those Queens residents who die without wills.  To enter this court is to stumble upon Ponce de Leon’s own spring, an eternal source of easy money for the politically wired.  “Surrogate’s Court is the play,” notes a well-connected Queens Democrat who remains that way by talking anonymously. “You can’t talk about what makes the machine tick without talking about surrogates.”  
To peruse the list of guardians appointed by Surrogate’s Court is, in places, to take a stroll through the crypts of Democratic politics.

Is that the stink of corruption I smell in Brooklyn? (Daily News)

For a worst-case scenario of what can go wrong, look at the tawdry career of ex-Surrogate Michael Feinberg. Elected to the post in 1996, Feinberg got bounced off the bench in disgrace after the Daily News discovered Feinberg had funneled nearly $9 million in estate fees to lawyer pal Louis Rosenthal - far more than he was legally entitled to.
More recently, another surrogate, Frank Seddio, resigned this year after coming under investigation by the Commission on Judicial Conduct. Seddio, in apparent violation of rules governing candidates for the bench, gave more than $31,000 in campaign funds to political cronies and to his home base, the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club.

Latest Problems in the Brooklyn Surrogate Court

City Bookkeeper in 600g Scam  (New York Post,1/17/2012) A bookkeeper stole more than $600,000 in taxpayer money by creating a phony check from the Brooklyn municipal office that handles the estates of people who die without wills or next of kin, court papers allege. 

Quotes about the Surrogate Court from 

Two Real Progressives

Mayor Fiorello La Guardia Called Surrogate's Court: 

"The Most Expensive Undertaking
  Establishment in the World" 

"The Surrogate Court is A Political Toll Booth Exacting Tribute From Widows and Orphans"  - Robert Kennedy

"In the 1960s’ Senator Robert Kennedy came closest to stopping the looting of New York’s dead. Kennedy went to Albany to gain public support to reform the court. He was attacked by the legislatures and by Manhattan Surrogate Judge Samuel Di Falco. “The testimony of 
Senator Kennedy and Justice Silverman had been based “solely on hearsay, not on facts. . . The committee heard from Kennedy in silence and asked no questions, but after the Senator left, members of the committee, and some Surrogates called as witnesses, denounced him for repeating “hearsay” statements impugning the system.” 
                                                    –NY Times Nov. 30, 1966

This latest episode and the disclosure of Feinberg's abuses should serve as an impetus finally to eliminate the court that Senator Robert Kennedy called "a political toll booth exacting tribute from widows and orphans." Once informally known as "the widows and orphans court," the Surrogate's Court handles estates from people who die without a proper will. In doing this, it funnels millions of dollars a year to lawyers who serve as guardians.

Bronx   Judge Holzman, the Bronx surrogate since 1988, is in the midst of a disciplinary hearing in which he is charged with allowing his staff to run amok and to take fees that were excessive and unearned from estates that it was handling. Judge Holzman could lose his job as a result of the hearing. * Bronx Surrogate Judge Lee Holzman keeps his job despite breaking the rules(NYDN Ed) Politics plays key role in Bronx court appointments(Riverdale Press) 

Staten Island

The Brooklyn Surrogate Machine Judges 
Forced to Retire and Removed

In 1995 State Commission on Judicial Conduct Let Another Corrupt Brooklyn Surrogate Court Judge Retire
"In the absence of mitigating circumstances," they said, "removal would be appropriate for such conduct."But the commission said there were mitigating circumsrtances, like the 68-year-old Surrogate's age and his experience on the bench, the finding that his misconduct "was not motivated by selfish interests" and the belief that he "has been forthcoming, cooperative and contrite" before the commission.Panel Censures Brooklyn Judge for Lying - New York Times

Last week, Brooklyn Surrogate's Court Judge Michael Feinberg was removed from the bench because he committed misconduct by improperly awarding nearly $9 million in fees to attorney Louis R. Rosenthal, his long-time friend. The fees in question were taken from the estates of Brooklyn's dead, their widows and orphans.
In a unanimous decision, the state's highest court upheld Feinberg's ouster by the Commission on Judicial Conduct and ruled that his actions "debased his office and eroded public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary."
Feinberg never denied he gave the money to his friend -- in fact he freely admits he did -- but said the payments were justified and in keeping with long-time practice in Brooklyn Surrogate's Court.
Surrogate Feinberg was among a small group of judges, lawyers and politicians who make their living from a court that for over 100 years has been at the center of judicial, legal and political corruption in New York City. Yet it has survived many attempts to eliminate it.

How Bernie Bloom Became Surrogate (NYT, 1977)

Jimmy Breslin on the Brooklyn Surrogate Court Judge Picked by the Machine 
It was not Eduardo Daniel Gutierrez to die in a lake of concrete. The Brooklyn Surrogate's lawyer had to take his cut before his family recieved any of his wrongfull death settlement.

The Brooklyn Surrogate Court More Problems After Feinberg

More Corruption in the Brooklyn Surrogate Court Public Administration Office 
Estates official resigns after office mishandles $2.2M inassets (NYP, September 18, 2014)
The official who oversees estates of people who die without wills in Brooklyn — and whose office was cited for sloppy work by the city comptroller last year — has resigned, The Post has learned. Kings County Public Administrator Bruce Stein stepped down earlier this month, in part because of questions about his ability to perform the job, a source said. Stein’s office was slammed by former Comptroller John Liu in 2013 for mishandling more than $2.2 million in assets, including misplacing a fur coat and allowing $50,000 in cash to sit unclaimed in a safe deposit box for five years. The money was claimed only after auditors pointed it out. The auditors found shoddy work in more than half of the 50 cases that were examined. Stein was appointed to the role in January 2009, and was earning more than $123,000. He did not respond to a request for comment.

2012   A crooked Brooklyn bookkeeper convicted of stealing $2.6 million from the estates of people who died without wills expressed remorse Thursday for his crime before a judge sentenced him to six to 18 years in prison.  Corrupt Brooklyn courthouse bookkeeper stole $2.6 million ... New York Daily News, May 4, 2012

‘Sorry’ estate robber off to jail (NYP, September 18, 2014) A crooked Brooklyn bookkeeper convicted of stealing $2.6 million from the estates of people who died without wills expressed remorse Thursday for his crime before a judge sentenced him to 6 to 18 years in prison. A crooked Brooklyn bookkeeper convicted of stealing $2.6 million from the estates of people who died without wills expressed remorse Thursday for his crime before a judge sentenced him to six to 18 years in prison. Crooked bookkeeper Richard Paul.

City Bookkeeper Charged With Stealing $2.6 Million From Estates(NYT, 2012) An employee in the office of the Brooklyn public administrator and three others pleaded not guilty to what prosecutors said was a scheme that targeted estates without wills.

City Employee Arrested for Stealing from the Deceased
Special to the Sun | June 20, 2008
A former employee of a Brooklyn governmental office has been arrested and charged with illegally pocketing $13,268, some of it from a deceased person's safe-deposit box.
Arthur Orikher, who was employed at the Kings County Public Administrator's Office, could face up to seven years in prison, according to a statement issued by the city's Department of Investigation. The Public Administrator's Office administers the estates of individuals who die without wills or without families who can administer their estates.
Just three months after being hired to perform accounting duties at the office, Mr. Orikher began depositing counterfeit checks worth $9,969 into his personal account, the commissioner of the DOI, Rose Gill Hearn, said. Then, on April 30, Mr. Orikher stole $3,300 that had been collected from a deceased client's safe-deposit box.
"The charged conduct obviously violates the fundamental obligations and standards of personal integrity required of any public servant, to say nothing of one paid by the City to conserve the money and valuables of the deceased," Ms. Hearn said in the statement.

The audit showed that assets in over half of the fifty estates that were examined had been mishandled.  And that’s only 50 of 3,300 estates the administrator’s office has been responsible for since June 2011.  Among the missteps, Liu claims the administrator’s office left $50,000 sitting in a safe deposit box for five years, failed to credit an estate after selling a home for $140,000, and misplaced a $1,000 fur coat. Public Administrator Bruce Stein responded to Liu’s audit with an itemized refutation of its findings.

"The audit showed that assets in over half of the fifty estates that were examined had been mishandled.  And that’s only 50 of 3,300 estates the administrator’s office has been responsible for since June 2011"

KCPA Bruce Stein adamantly defended his office. Liu found that assertion unsatisfactory, noting that the KCPA and not the OCA is “responsible for substantively reviewing and approving estate expenses — including legal counsel fees. Accordingly, KCPA should have ensured that such expenses were authorized and appropriate. “  Liu countered that the Stein “may have prevented rather than detected the reported misappropriation of funds” had he instituted internal controls.
The public administrator oversees the estates of people who die without wills, and if no relatives claim the funds, the assets are transferred to the city Department of Finance.  Paul, who oversaw the process as a clerk for the public administrator, manipulated the checks to enrich himself and his pals between 2008 and November 2011.

A crooked Brooklyn bookkeeper convicted of stealing $2.6 million from the estates of people who died without wills expressed remorse Thursday for his crime before a judge sentenced him to six to 18 years in prison.

How Court Ordered Guardians Rip Off Judge Philips'  Slave Theater and Other Real Estate Holding, And Got Away With it
Tug of War Over a Civil Rights Legacy(NYT) The Slave Theater 
in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, once a hub of civil rights 
activity, is mired in a bitter battle over ownership rights. 
Clarence Hardy, the self-proclaimed chief of the Slave Theater 
in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, said Judge John L. Phillips Jr., 
the former owner of the neighborhood landmark, wanted him to 
occupy the theater. * Slave Theater could be sold to pay judge’s ‘debts’ (Brooklyn Paper) 

Democrats Clash in Brooklyn as Surrogate Judge Race Heats Up  (NYT, 2017)

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