Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Lowdown, Dirty Race

By Errol Lewis, Thursday, September 4th 2008

The hard-fought Democratic primary contest for Manhattan Surrogate heads into its final lap - the election is Tuesday - with the three candidates for the powerful judicial post acting like, well, politicians.

Nobody's throwing mud in the open, which would violate legal prohibitions on negative campaigning for judgeships.

But aides and supporters of John Reddy, Milton Tingling and Nora Anderson, the candidates for the specialized court which handles messy or contested wills and estates, have quietly pointed reporters toward the faults and defects of their rivals.

The portrait offers a look at an important public institution in desperate need of reform.

For decades, various courthouse or political clubhouse cliques have been bent on controlling - and perverting - the Surrogate's Courts, plundering the estates of the dead so that a handful of connected lawyers can rake in big fees.

The technique is simple. The elected surrogates in each county designate private attorneys to oversee the settling of wills and estates, and those lawyers can end up reaping handsome fees.

On average, attorney fees eat up about 15% of an estate, and the court in Manhattan handles about $1 billion worth of estates in any given year, creating an annual pool of $150 million in fees.

But problems arise when the lawyers aren't closely supervised. As the old courthouse joke goes, the client paying the bills is dead so nobody's complaining about excessive fees.

So one scandal after another has plagued the courts.

Former Brooklyn Surrogate Michael Feinberg got bounced from the bench for allowing a close friend to charge extra-high fees from the estates of the dead. One of Feinberg's successors, former Assemblyman Frank Seddio, resigned under a cloud last year shortly after taking office, when the Commission on Judicial Conduct raised questions about Seddio's use of campaign funds.

Bronx Surrogate Lee Holzman is being criticized for allowing attorneys to snap up $2 million in fees from an estate whose rightful heirs have been waiting more than a decade to receive what is rightfully theirs. With that in mind, here's how the race in Manhattan is shaping up.

The leading candidate, Nora Anderson, is backed by a batch of political clubs and snared a nod from The New York Times (the Daily News Editorial Board, of which I am a member, has yet to make an endorsement).

Anderson has borrowed $225,000 from her longtime employer, trust lawyer Seth Rubenstein, who is the grandson of a surrogate and the father of Manhattan lawyer Joshua Rubenstein, who heads the trust and estate section of a major law firm.

That's almost certainly a violation of Article 14, Section 114 of New York State election law, which specifies that a campaign loan "shall be deemed, to the extent not repaid by the date of the primary, general or special election, as the case may be, a contribution."

The $225,000 is far above the legal contribution limit. So Anderson, if she wins, will likely be in violation of the law.

John Reddy, another candidate, has worked in the Manhattan Surrogate's Court for 30 years. During that tenure, Reddy has seen two former law partners criticized in a state report for allegedly using unauthorized bank accounts to distribute estate money to other lawyers.

The third candidate, Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling, has no ties to the wills and estate business, but is backed by the Manhattan Democratic organization and Harlem powerbrokers like ex-Mayor David Dinkins and Rep. Charlie Rangel.

So it looks like the party favorite - the Tammany Hall candidate - just might be the one with the fewest ties to the clubby lawyers who feast on wills and estates year after year.

Go figure.

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