Saturday, September 7, 1996

Another Office Is Issue In Surrogate Court Race

New York Times, By ALAN FINDER, September 7, 1996

The primary election race for an obscure but important judgeship, Manhattan surrogate, has become embroiled in a debate over an even more arcane office, that of the public administrator.

Public administrators, appointed by each county's surrogate, oversee the estates of people who die without wills or known heirs. Twice in the last decade, state officials have produced withering critiques of the Manhattan public administrator's office, saying that there was ''profound mismanagement'' in its operations.

In their first report, in 1987, the state officials -- Comptroller Edward V. Regan and Attorney General Robert Abrams -- determined that record-keeping was in disarray, property was warehoused chaotically and outside lawyers were awarded windfall fees for minimal legal work. The report also said that there were serious delays in completing cases and that money from estates was deposited improperly into accounts used to pay for some of the public administrator's office expenses.

After reviewing the administrator's operations again in 1992, the officials said that little had changed.

Now, four years later, Karen S. Burstein, a former State Senator and Family Court judge who ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general two years ago, is challenging one of the two Manhattan surrogates, Renee R. Roth, in the Democratic primary on Tuesday. Ms. Burstein says the state reports underscore the need for someone who will shake up an institution that has traditionally been a center of patronage.

But Surrogate Roth, who is seeking a second 14-year term, says that she was not responsible for the problems previously found in the Surrogate's Court and in the office of the public administrator. She contends that senior colleagues in the court a decade ago blocked some of the changes she tried to make. And she presents herself as a reformer, someone who has overseen management improvements and has helped clear up delays in resolving cases.

Surrogate Roth has been endorsed by many of the Manhattan Democratic Party's senior elected officials, and she was also recommended by a judicial screening panel.

New York County, the official name for Manhattan, is the only county in the state with two surrogates, judges who oversee wills, estates and adoptions; other counties have one surrogate. Manhattan's other surrogate is Eve M. Preminger.

In candidates' forums and in interviews, Ms. Burstein has sought to tie Surrogate Roth to the mismanagement documented in the state reports. She has suggested that Surrogate Roth often resisted change.

Ms. Burstein says, for example, that the surrogate defended the administrator's office and the Surrogate's Court before a State Assembly committee in 1988.

Ms. Burstein also says that when the Manhattan Public Administrator, Bruno Cappellini, resigned under pressure in 1988, Surrogate Roth let his successor, Ethel J. Griffin, hire to the lucrative position of counsel to the public administrator a law partner of the previous counsel, who had also resigned under pressure.

The challenger raises questions, too, about the surrogate's appointments of lawyers who serve as guardians to children and disabled adults in estate cases. Ms. Burstein contends that a circle of friends and political allies have benefited disproportionately. She says that many of those who have contributed to Surrogate Roth's re-election campaign have either received these appointments or work for law firms that have received them.

''This in some ways is the hardest kind of reform to make,'' Ms. Burstein said. ''It means taking on a whole culture, which is entirely resistant to change.''

''That's the fundamental difference between me and Renee Roth -- real reformers cannot go along,'' Ms. Burstein added.

But the surrogate said she tried internally to overhaul procedures a decade ago, only to have a senior judge block her efforts.

''I didn't do anything wrong here,'' Surrogate Roth said. ''I was the good guy. I inherited a mess, and when I could do something about it, I cleaned it up.''