By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
For several months, a federal grand jury has been hearing charges of widespread corruption at the state supreme court in Brooklyn, the Voice has learned. The investigation, led by the U.S. Attorney's office for New York's Eastern District, has been focusing on an obscure section of Brooklyn's state supreme court known as the Trial Assignment Part (TAP), where civil cases are assigned to judges. The assignments are supposed to be given to judges randomly, with minor variations allowed for scheduling conflicts and other practical matters. But the government is said to be exploring the possibility that some lawyers have been able to influence the process, steering cases toward judges who may be their friends, and who they believe will be more amenable to plaintiffs in civil lawsuits.
The lawsuits, incidentally, were frequently ones in which the city of New York was the defendant. So if the trials were manipulated, city taxpayers have borne the brunt. The judges currently under scrutiny are some of those who presided over TAP, and who may have allowed or perhaps abetted cronyism under their watch. Every clerk who has recently served on TAP has been subpoenaed, the Voice has been told. In an unusual move, the feds have been investigating the matter using powers authorized by the RICO statute, a weapon law enforcement traditionally uses to fight organized crime.
While the details of the grand jury investigation are not known, the Post reported last November that the FBI's Public Corruption Squad was probing the conduct of two prominent judges who served on TAP: Gerald Held, a supreme court justice since 1974, and Michael Feinberg, the Kings County surrogate since 1997.
The investigation has been conducted with the cooperation of the city's corporation counsel, frustrated with the city's getting shafted in civil lawsuits. The atmosphere at Brooklyn supreme court has been tense for months. "Every once in a while we look at the ceiling for microphones," one Court Street attorney jokes.
Held and Feinberg have had their share of controversy. Held, a Republican, has been cited on lists of the city's 10 worst judges in both the Voice and the Post. He has had one of the highest reversal rates of any supreme court justice and, in 1979, was severely rebuked by an appellate court for showing "poor taste" that was "exceeded only by his astonishingly poor judgment." Feinberg has a history of questionable conduct at TAP. When he was running for surrogate in 1996, the Postreported, he collected more than $73,000 in contributions from law firms while deciding whether their cases should be delayed, settled, or sent to trial. That pattern was harshly criticized by the good-government group Common Cause.
The 1996 contest to fill Brooklyn's vacant surrogate judgeship was one of the nastiest judicial elections in recent memory, pitting Feinberg, backed by Democratic county leader Clarence Norman Jr., against Lila Gold, who was supported by the late assemblyman Tony Genovesi. Last July, a report from the New York Bar Association revealed that Feinberg has awarded 54 percent of the guardianships to lawyers and firms that contributed to his campaign. Neither Held nor Feinberg returned Voicephone calls seeking comment.
Regardless of the outcome of the FBI investigation, reforms are already under way. Judith Kaye, chief judge of the court of appeals, has directed that, starting in January 2000, judges in Manhattan oversee assignment of all cases in which the city is a defendant. Many court insiders say the move is a sure indication that higher authorities have lost all confidence that cases can be handled fairly in Brooklyn.
"What this scandal shows," one insider says, "is that Brooklyn has probably the most corrupt court system of any city in the country."
Research assistance: Lou Bardel