Monday, December 15, 2008

Court of Appeals Considers Suspending Surrogate-Elect


The New York Court of Appeals has notified Nora S. Anderson, the surrogate-elect in Manhattan who was indicted last week on campaign-finance related charges, that it is considering whether she should be suspended until the criminal charges against her are resolved. In a letter dated Thursday, the Court invited Ms. Anderson to submit a brief opposing suspension no later than Dec. 22. The Court also authorized the Commission on Judicial Conduct to make a submission on the question by Dec. 22. The Court usually suspends judges who have been indicted with pay until the charges are resolved, but experts could not recall an instance of someone who had been elected as a judge being charged with a crime before taking office. Ms. Anderson, who won a three-way race in November, is slated to begin her term on Jan. 1. The Court could take up the question of her suspension before then, but any order would not take effect until Jan. 1, according to David Bookstaver, a court system spokesman. Ms. Anderson's lawyer in the criminal case, Gustave H. Newman, said Ms. Anderson is seeking to retain a lawyer to represent her before the Court. She "does not plan to resign," he added. - Daniel Wise

Monday, December 8, 2008

Brooklyn Special Add: Justice demands payback

Daily News Editorial, December 8, 2008

Justice certainly does take time. In 2002, the Daily News exposedhow then-Brooklyn Surrogate's Court Judge Michael Feinberg improperlyokayed $9 million in fees for his lawyer pal Louis Rosenthal, some $2million over and above what Rosenthal was due for his work on estates.

Feinbergwas charged by a state commission with misconduct and bounced from thebench in 2005. Last week, he was disbarred and Rosenthal's law licensewas suspended for two years. Just deserts.

Yet there remains thematter of the excessive cash Rosenthal pocketed from the estates of thedead with Feinberg's connivance. It is up to Attorney General AndrewCuomo to get that money from Rosenthal and to the estates ofBrooklynites and their rightful heirs.

Cuomo has plenty ofevidence: the 13,500-page record of the Feinberg removal proceeding,the unanimous Court of Appeals opinion ratifying the removal and nowthe disbarment and suspension of the bums. Go for it, Andy.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Not so fast, Nora

Daily News Editorial, December 7, 2008

It was a busy week for Nora Anderson, the Manhattan surrogate judge-elect who ran roughshod over laws and rules to claim a prize perch in the Surrogate's Court, which awards millions in legal fees to a select club of lawyers.

The week began with Anderson filing her final campaign accounting. The report shows that in the weeks since September's Democratic primary, in which Anderson grossly outspent two opponents - thanks largely to an illegal $202,000 contribution - she raised another $29,260.

Not that she needed the cash - she ran unopposed in November. But she put almost every cent ($28,378) in her pocket, leaving $7.01 in the kitty.

In theory, Anderson was repaying some of the $368,185 she loaned her campaign. In reality, she was skirting an ethics rule that bars successful judicial candidates from repaying themselves with campaign funds.

The Board of Elections certified Anderson's uncontested victory Tuesday, and she lost no time taking the oath of office Wednesday, solemnly swearing to support the Constitution and faithfully discharge the duties of the office of judge. Irony indeed.

Although the Jan. 1 start of her term is only 26 days away, Anderson might want to hold off on tailoring those black judicial robes and trying out the gavel.

Also last week, it turns out, a Manhattan grand jury investigating her campaign's slippery practices was hearing witnesses. And still waiting in the wings is the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, whose rules she has so brazenly flouted.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Grand Jury on Nora Anderson

Oliva Speaks to Grand Jury About a Client, Judge Anderson
By Azi Paybarah, Politicker, 12/5/08

Michael Oliva, the consultant who helped get Nora Anderson elected as a Surrogate Court judge in Manhattan, confirmed he spoke with a grand jury yesterday about a $225,000 loan his client received from one of her campaign contributors.

The loan was made by Seth Rubenstein, an attorney in Brooklyn who employed Anderson before her campaign. Oliva did not say what he told the grand jury.

State law requires candidates to repay all loans to the campaign by the time of their election. If not, the loan is considered to be a contribution. Anderson repaid most of the loan just before her election, which raised questions about where she got money to do that.

Not that those questions are stopping her plans. Anderson was sworn in at a quiet ceremony earlier this week, officiated by Manhattan’s other Surrogate Court judge, Kristin Booth Glenn, a spokeswoman for judge Glenn confirmed.

For more on the loan, here’s a letter from attorney Ravi Batra, who worked on a rival surrogate campaign, and who called on Andrew Cuomo and Robert Morgenthau to investigate the loan.

Azi Paybarah can be reached via email at

Friday, December 5, 2008

Feinberg Disbarred, Rosenthal Suspended

N.Y. LAW JOURNAL, By Daniel Wise, December 05, 2008

Former Brooklyn Surrogate Michael H. Feinberg, who was removed from the bench three years ago, was disbarred yesterday by the Appellate Division, Third Department.

In two disciplinary proceedings factually linked to Mr. Feinberg's, the Third Department also suspended Louis R. Rosenthal, the former counsel to the Brooklyn public administrator, for two years, and censured Stephen H. Chepiga, the chief clerk of the Surrogate's Court in Brooklyn since 1998.

Mr. Feinberg was disbarred upon the strength of the Court of Appeals decision in 2005 removing him from the bench for awarding Mr. Rosenthal $8.6 million in fees without requiring affidavits detailing the services he provided as required by law (Matter of Feinberg, D-69-08).

The Third Department found that Mr. Rosenthal had charged and collected "excessive fees" without following proper procedures (Matter of Rosenthal, D-68-08). In recommending Mr. Feinberg's removal, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct had found that Mr. Rosenthal consistently billed 2 percent more for his work than permitted, resulting in more than $2 million in excessive fees (Matter of Chepiga, D-70-08).

The Third Department decision appear on page 7 of the print edition of today's Law Journal.

Fabian G. Palomino, who represented both Mr. Feinberg and Mr. Rosenthal, did not return a request for comment. Mr. Rosenthal also did not return a request for comment, and Mr. Feinberg could not be located.

Mr. Chepiga's lawyer, Peter V. Coffey of Englert, Coffey, McHugh & Fantuzzi in Schenectady, said, "If you talk to anyone in the court system they will tell you that Mr. Chepiga is diligent, hardworking and a man of great integrity and truthfulness.

"He has unhesitatingly been retained in his position" as chief clerk, Mr. Coffey added.

All three decisions were issued per curiam by the same panel: Justices Thomas E. Mercure, Edward O. Spain, Robert S. Rose, Anthony T. Kane and Leslie E. Stein.

"The taint of favoritism is strong" in the relationship between Mr. Feinberg and Mr. Rosenthal, the Court of Appeals found in its removal opinion, Matter of Feinberg, 5 NY3d 206. The Court described Mr. Rosenthal as "a close personal friend and political supporter" of Mr. Feinberg whom the former surrogate appointed as counsel to the public administrator without considering any other candidates.

The counsel to the public administrator is responsible for handling Surrogate Court proceedings relating to people who died without wills and do not have close relatives to handle their affairs.

In disbarring Mr. Feinberg, who was Brooklyn's surrogate for eight years, the panel noted that an attorney may be charged with professional misconduct for the same acts for which he was disciplined as a judge.

Disbarment is necessary, the panel concluded, "to protect the public and preserve the reputation of the bar."

The principal Court of Appeals finding relied on by the Third Department that Mr. Feinberg had failed to familiarize himself with a 1993 amendment to the Surrogate Court's Procedure Act (SCPA), which requires the counsel to the public administrator to support his fee requests with affidavits detailing the services rendered, the time spent, and the method or basis upon which the compensation is computed.

Over five years and 475 proceedings, both the Court of Appeals and the Third Department had found that Mr. Feinberg had remained unaware of the 1993 amendment to SPCA §1108. That amendment had been enacted, the Third Department panel noted, after an investigation by the attorney general and comptroller had found abuses in the award of fees to public administrators' counsel.

The Court of Appeals had described Mr. Feinberg's "consistent disregard for fundamental statutory requirements of office" as demonstrating "an unacceptable incompetence in the law."

Counsel Suspended

With regard to Mr. Rosenthal, the Third Department found that he had collected "excessive fees" for his work by "regularly" requesting fees that reflected the same percentage amount of the total value of the estate he was handling.

In the conduct commissions ruling recommending Mr. Feinberg's removal, it had found that Mr. Rosenthal routinely requested fees pegged at 8 percent of the value of an estate.

The commission noted that surrogates in the city's other boroughs generally pegged compensation for counsel to the public administrator at 6 percent of the value of an estate.

In addition, the commission relied on agreement between the attorney general and Mr. Feinberg's predecessor, Surrogate Bernard Bloom, to limit compensation to 6 percent. The agreement was initially worked out in 1988 and renewed in 1994 (NYLJ, Feb. 15, 2005).

The Third Department also found that rather than submitting the required affidavits of service, Mr. Rosenthal had submitted his fee requests on Post-It notes affixed to formal decrees.

The practice did not change, the panel noted, until the Daily News in May 2002 published an exposé of Mr. Rosenthal's fees and the way they had been approved by the surrogate.

Even then, the panel wrote, Mr. Feinberg re-approved all of Mr. Rosenthal's fees after he retroactively submitted the required affidavits of service.

Clerk Censured

In censuring Mr. Chepiga, the Third Department found that, though he was aware of the agreement limiting fee awards in Brooklyn to 6 percent, he was "actively involved" in the process of approving awards set at 8 percent of estate value.

The panel described Mr. Chepiga's statement that he was unaware of the 1993 amendments requiring the filing of affidavits to support fee requests as being "somewhat disconcertin[g]."

But in deciding that a censure was the appropriate sanction, the panel cited his "unblemished disciplinary record" and letters attesting to his integrity submitted to the court by Kings County surrogates. Mr. Chepiga's lawyer, Mr. Coffey, identified the authors of the two letters as Surrogate Margarita López Torres and Justice Albert Tomei, a former interim surrogate who was appointed to fill in after Mr. Feinberg was removed.

Though jurisdiction over disciplinary matters normally lies in the department where an attorney has his principal business office, the Second Department issued an order transferring the three cases to the Third Department, said the court's clerk, Michael Novak.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Shame of city's littering pols

Friday, November 7th 2008

Milton Tingling
This probably wasn't the race Milton Tingling was hoping to win.

The Manhattan judicial candidate - who lost a September primary battle - can call himself New York's Litterer in Chief after he led the list of politicians caught putting up illegal posters.

Tingling's campaign for Surrogate's Court judge was hit with 1,757 summonses for hanging the forbidden signs, according to the Department of Sanitation.

And at $75 a pop, those tickets will cost the campaign a whopping $131,775.

He lost a bitter primary fight to Nora Anderson - but she followed him on the list of litterers.

Anderson came up No.2 with 1,538 summonses - which earns her campaign a $115,350 bill.

Kevin Wardally, Tingling's campaign consultant, wrote off the fines as the cost of doing business in the city.

"The campaign tried to do the best job it could to get Milton's name and face out there," said Wardally.

"I wouldn't say Nora Anderson had fewer signs," he said, adding that enforcement is a "very selective thing."

"Sometimes you get very few fines, and other times you get a lot," Wardally said.

Anderson could not be reached for comment.

Other top campaign sign offenders were Councilman Miguel Martinez (D-Manhattan) with 1,121 summonses, Councilman Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn), who ran for state Senate, with 500 summonses and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem), with 284 summonses.

City law prohibits signs from being posted on virtually every public surface, ranging from trees and lampposts to bus shelters and traffic medians.

Sanitation spokesman Vito Turso said enforcement agents respond to 311 complaints about signs. They also remove signs they spot along their regular routes.

"We have a poster squad," he said. "If we see them, we pull them."

Monday, October 27, 2008

No Competition for Seat, but Facing Investigation

By JOHN ELIGON, Published: October 26, 2008, NY Times

When Nora S. Anderson rode a well-financed campaign to victory in the Democratic primary for Manhattan Surrogate’s Court judge last month, it should have cleared a smooth path to the office. She will face no challenger in the Nov. 4 election.

Nora S. Anderson won the Democratic primary for Manhattan Surrogate’s Court.

Instead, her fund-raising efforts have drawn the attention of the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

Prosecutors have issued several subpoenas, including two to well-connected political players, in an investigation of Ms. Anderson’s finances and whether she improperly put money into her campaign fund, according to several people briefed on the case.

In April, Ms. Anderson, a Brooklyn lawyer, received a $225,000 campaign loan from Seth Rubenstein, her friend and campaign chairman and the head of the law firm where she works, according to financial disclosure reports. The loan was not repaid by the Sept. 9 primary and could be treated as a contribution under election law, which limits the contribution an individual may give a candidate to $32,000.

According to the most recent disclosure report, filed on Friday, all but $5,900 of the loan was shown as having been paid back. One matter under investigation is how Ms. Anderson acquired the money for the repayment, the people briefed on the case said.

“I guess the question was the loan, and how the loan was paid off,” said Michael Oliva, Ms. Anderson’s former campaign manager, who said he had received a subpoena for records and was interviewed by a prosecutor.

The district attorney’s office would not comment on the case. Ms. Anderson did not return telephone calls seeking comment, and Mr. Rubenstein declined to be interviewed.

Ms. Anderson, 56, has come under investigation before she even has won the position or taken the bench. As the handlers of wills, estates and guardianships, surrogate judges have the power to appoint lawyers to lucrative cases and their work can be highly scrutinized.

Ms. Anderson, a former chief clerk in the Manhattan Surrogate’s Court, defeated John Reddy and Milton Tingling in the primary, clearing the way to become one of two surrogate judges, at a salary of $136,700 a year.

A disclosure report filed 10 days after the primary showed that $197,000 of Mr. Rubenstein’s loan to her campaign was outstanding. If considered a contribution, it would far exceed the legal maximum.

Exceeding contribution limits is a misdemeanor under election law. But the district attorney’s investigation goes deeper, into how Ms. Anderson repaid the loan, people briefed on the case said.

In the weeks before the primary, large deposits made to Ms. Anderson’s personal bank account triggered suspicious-activity reports within the bank, according to a person briefed on the investigation, who requested anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak on the matter. The bank reported the deposits to the district attorney’s office, he said.

In August, Ms. Anderson made two large deposits to her campaign account under her own name, according to disclosure reports. One was listed as a contribution of $100,000, on Aug. 20; the other was listed as a $170,000 loan she made to her campaign, deposited on Aug. 26, the reports said.

A disclosure report filed on Oct. 2 noted that Ms. Anderson lent her campaign $153,589.33 on Sept. 22 and $44,596 on Sept. 26, the same days her campaign wrote checks to repay part of Mr. Rubenstein’s loan.

Intentionally exceeding contribution limits or concealing the source of campaign money could result in various charges, including filing false records, a felony. Such charges could be hard to prove; even if prosecutors find that Ms. Anderson received large sums of money in her personal account, they must show that those sums were intended as campaign donations, not personal gifts.

Mr. Oliva said he believed that she paid off the loans with her own money and that she had until the day of the general election to repay Mr. Rubenstein’s loan before it could be considered a contribution.

Mr. Oliva said his company, M & M Consulting, was subpoenaed for records pertaining to Ms. Anderson’s campaign finances. He said he was not able to produce any because he did not deal with campaign money.

James R. McManus, the head of the McManus Democratic Association, one of the party’s most influential local organizations, said he also received a subpoena for correspondence with Ms. Anderson. Although he endorsed her, Mr. McManus said, he had no written correspondence with her and did not contribute money to her campaign.

“I had nothing to do with her campaign,” Mr. McManus said.

While the campaign fund-raising rules for any office are voluminous, they are particularly strict for judicial candidates in New York State. According to the Judicial Campaign Ethics Handbook, candidates for the bench may not solicit their own campaign contributions or even know who is donating money. Their fund-raising must be handled by campaign committees.

If Ms. Anderson does take the bench, she will join a court that has had its share of scandals over the years. In 2005, Michael H. Feinberg, a surrogate judge in Brooklyn, was removed after the State Commission on Judicial Conduct found that he had awarded $8.6 million in fees to a friend without verifying that the lawyer had done the work.

In July, The Daily News reported that the city was investigating Lee Holzman, the Bronx surrogate judge, for fees he awarded to politically connected lawyers.

David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the State Office of Court Administration, said the rules governing the appointment of lawyers to handle estates or trusts were rewritten in 2003 and 2006 to make the process more transparent.

“Many of the alleged weaknesses in Surrogate Courts were addressed,” Mr. Bookstaver said. And statistics show that the Surrogates’ Courts have not been inordinately corrupt. Surrogate judges make up 6.8 percent of the state’s judges. Of the full-time judges disciplined by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct during the past 30 years, roughly 7 percent of them were with the Surrogate’s Court, said Robert Tembeckjian, the commission’s administrator.

“There’s no special disciplinary problem with surrogate judges as opposed to any other kind of judge,” Mr. Tembeckjian said.

He added that he could not say whether the commission would investigate Ms. Anderson.