Judge Not…A Viewers’ Guide to the Kings County Courthouse Scandal

When a tightly organized group of people takes control of an electoral process it becomes a political machine. Once the members of this clique have some power they traditionally use it to enrich themselves further through a combination of patronage (handing out lucrative government awards to their cronies), nepotism (hooking up family members), and/or bribery (extorting money from people with legitimate governmental business). That is why there are also good government groups. These watchdogs work to prevent all of the political power from collecting in the hands of a few ruthless people. In New York good government types have championed causes like term limits for elected offices and matching funds for grass-roots candidates; reforms designed to make political power harder to hold. And thanks to their reforms, we Brooklynites have escaped Rudy Giuliani’s tyrannical grip. However, 60 of Brooklyn’s most powerful elected officials, namely the Justices of the States Supreme Court 2nd Judicial District (Kings County), are exempt from term limits and thus public accountability, simply because technically their seats are state offices.

The actual operation of the Supreme Court has always been obscure to the public. Legal matters are generally difficult for most people to understand and many of the proceedings are carried out in secret due to privacy concerns. But this body settles many of Brooklyn’s most important matters. And the oddest fact about Supreme Courts in New York is that, by law, the Justices are elected exclusively from local political party slates. That means that each county’s political party bosses, essentially the leaders of each borough’s reigning political machine, are literally the ones picking their county’s state judges. What is more, while these justices exclusively hear big money cases ($25,000 and up), they are only paid $136,700 a year themselves—a modest income for lawyers in NYC. All of these features lead to a situation where greed and political consideration can trump the law. And in such a shadowy place the temptation to practice the political payback, or the old school Brooklyn shakedown, must be great, especially if you are confident that your other friends in the club will protect you from prosecution if you are caught.

The current scandal began to surface in mid-January when Manhattan attorney Gary Berenholtz approached the Brooklyn district attorney office to report that a State Supreme Court Justice was leaning on him for a $250,000 bribe. Justice Victor I. Barron had been assigned to review a $4.9 million settlement that Berenholtz had negotiated for his client (it involved a baby, brain damaged in a car accident. The law requires a judge to approve settlements for the incapacitated). According to Berenholtz, Justice Barron first threatened to scuttle the settlement (and thereby Berenholtz’s $1.6 million attorney’s fee) back in June unless Barron made some money from the deal too. And Justice Barron hounded the attorney for the money every time they met, according to Berenholtz. Berenholtz said that eventually he agreed to pay a smaller $115,000 bribe in installments, but only after Justice Barron had approved the settlement and Berenholtz had collected his attorney’s fee. But after the settlement went through Berenholtz never contacted Justice Barron, hoping instead that the whole matter of the bribe would just go away. Then in January, an annoyed Justice Barron called Berenholtz to coordinate the first payment.

That is when Berenholtz shrewdly turned to the Brooklyn District Attorneys office for help. The office gave the attorney marked money to pay Justice Barron with and fit him with a “wire” to record the first payoff meeting. The two men had their encounter on January 18 in a robbing room in the Kings County Court House. Justice Barron locked the door behind them for privacy. Even so, bright and early in the morning on January 22, police arrested Justice Barron on bribery charges, returning later to search his home. In the tape’s transcript, released by the D.A.’s Office, Justice Barron instructs Berenholtz on the procedures for making the future installments of his cash “fee.” Reportedly there is an audible rustle of paper on the tape when Justice Barron receives the $18,000 bribe.

But one bad apple does not necessarily mean the whole bushel is rotten. Even Brooklyn’s district attorney Charles Hynes said that Judge Barron’s actions should not cast the rest of the State Supreme Court Justices in a suspicious light. But then around February 7, news broke that four other Brooklyn judges were also in trouble, judges put forward and elected by the same Brooklyn Democratic Party machine as Barron. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct is investigating whether back in June, State Supreme Court Justice Edward M. Rappaport failed in his ethical duty to report that someone (the attorney Berenholtz, I suppose) told him that Justice Barron was out shaking-down lawyers for bribes. The same commission investigated Justice Reynold N. Mason for reportedly continuing to practice law privately on the side. The commission reprimanded Justice Larry D. Martin for reportedly continuing to practice law privately on the side. The commission reprimanded Justice Larry D. Martin for reportedly trying to intercede with judges in another state on behalf of a family friend. And more shocking, Justice Richard D. Huttner was reprimanded by the commission for using his authority on behalf of his building’s condo board in a dispute with a tenant restaurant. Taken individually, each case would be unsettling; but in the wake of Justice Barron’s arrest, a truly disturbing picture of business as usual at the Kings County Court House was emerging.

Next, New York State’s chief judge, Judith S. Kaye, and chief administrative judge, Jonathan Lippman, stepped into the scene.  In a never-before-seen, take charge move they “promoted” popular administrative judge Michael Pesce out as a supervisor of the Kings County and S.I. courts.  The next day they replaced him with Ann Pfau, the state’s third highest-ranking Administrative Judge who had been Lippman’s right hand in Albany.  The print media smelled blood in the water, and on Friday, February 8, the Daily News published what amounted to a declaration of war against Brooklyn’s Democratic Party courthouse establishment.  In an editorial provocatively titled “Justice Betrayed Is Justice Denied,” the paper’s opinion editors pointed their cold, bony fingers toward our beloved borough and declared “Something is rotten in the County of Kings.”  The editorial applauded the appointment of Administrative Judge Pfau to “drain the swamp”; then, in the same tone, of righteous disgust, went on to name the 24 Brooklyn Supreme Court Justices they say also need to go (amounting to roughly half of the bench).  Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes was the editorial page’s next target.  The Daily News charged that as a product of the Brooklyn Democratic machine himself, D.A. Hynes is too conflicted to properly investigate the rampant corruption of Kings County Court House.  They even criticized Hynes for springing the trap he set for Justice Barron too quickly, before he could be forced to rat out other sitting Justices.  The editorial ends with a call on the Republican warlord Governor Pataki to appoint a special prosecutor to clean house in Brooklyn, bypassing Hynes altogether.  The Governor, though, has a poor record on such matters of oversight.

District Attorney Hynes (who incidentally placed third in the ’98 Democratic Primary for Governor) had his own, very different idea of what needed to be done.  Rather than request an outsider to prosecute the case against Justice Barron, Hynes announced that he will be prosecuting the case personally in order to demonstrate how seriously he views the charges against Justice Barron.  It will be the first time Hynes has prosecuted a case himself in 12 years as Brooklyn’s D.A.  At a press conference, Hynes addressed the charge that, as a local Democrat, he has a conflict of interest that should exclude him from prosecuting Justice Barron.  Hynes said if he had any conflict of interest in the matter, then he would not have had Justice Barron arrested in the first place.  But in the current limited term political landscape, with new faces in just about every locally elected office, there is no way Hynes could have squashed the investigation without putting himself in jeopardy.  There were just too many people Berenholtz could have turned to for help if Hynes’s office proved unwilling to protect him from Justice Barron, people not beholden to the Brooklyn political machine in any way.  Fortunately, you will have the opportunity to judge for yourself whether D.A. Hynes comes down hard on Justice Barron, or, in deference to the party bosses, handles him gently, the way one might handle a live grenade, because the trial will be televised on Court TV, starting around May 22.

In addition to the court’s dubious role in last year’s nursing home scandal, a story also broken by the Daily News, it came out recently that four more Brooklyn Supreme Court Justices are also being investigated by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct (bringing the count to 8): Joseph Levine, Lawrence Martin, David Vaughan, and William Garry.  Details of the investigations are sketchy at this point.  It also came out that a $300-a-day, part-time court administrator was pre-signing summons dismissal forms and leaving them for his clerks to fill in while he took the rest of the rest of the day, everyday.  The administrator, Claudius Matthews (a retired criminal court judge), was fired and the one of Kings County clerks was reassigned.  All of these additional cases lead one to question—how far can these scandals spread?  Certainly Barron’s conviction would immediately prompt a reopening of hundreds of his rulings and other judicial activities.  And more Brooklyn Justices could find themselves in hot water as the ongoing investigation progresses.

But Brooklynites as well as residents of the other boroughs run by similar political machines should be wary of solutions to the problem of local corruption put forth by the Daily News, solutions that depend upon the intervention of Governor Pataki.  In a recent Village Voice article, watchdog/reporter Wayne Barrett details how Pataki’s administration has failed to address the same types of corruption in his own administration.  In the article, Barrett criticizes Pataki’s championing of Roslynn Mauskopf to be the next U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.  Pataki appointed Mauskopf to be State Inspector General in 1995, following the federal convictions of one of his supporters in a fundraising scandal.  Mauskopf was supposed to probe corruption within the administration, but none of the numerous, well-documented criminal referrals from the New York State Attorney General or the New York State Comptroller have ever been seriously followed up by her office.  In fact, she has not indicted anyone.  As such, the attempt to have her appointed as the U.S. attorney (the job that Rudy Giuliani used as springboard to City Hall) seems like the same type of political payback we are used to seeing from the borough political machines.  From this example, it is easy to see how a total Pataki takeover of the Kings County Courthouse would simply be trading one scandalous political machine for another.

Contributor

Jonas Salganik

Jonas Salganik is a contributor to The Brooklyn Rail

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