By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Bernard "Mitch" Alter, a prominent lawyer who claimed he was working on behalf of Brooklyn congressman Edolphus Towns, allegedly demanded $140,000 from a civil court judge who asked him to help run her re-election campaign. But after Judge Maxine L. Archer, who was running unopposed, warned Alter that the demand amounted to a "shakedown" and "extortion," Towns's camp allegedly encouraged a relatively unknown lawyer to challenge Archer.
Alter emphatically denies he tried to con the judge. "No!" the self-described "hired gun" insists. "I did not demand $140,000 from her. She doesn't know what she is talking about." A top aide to Towns swiftly distanced the congressman from Alter's "private business dealings" with Archer, saying that if Archer's characterization of her conversations with Alter is correct, then Alter "used the congressman's name without his permission."
"Anybody who knows the congressman knows that's not his style," adds the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He does not do that!"
Until a Voice investigation uncovered details last week, the judge had vaguely alluded to an attempted shakedown in a campaign brochure she has been mailing to voters. "This summer," she wrote, "I am the only one of five judges up for re-election who is forced to engage in a heated primary campaign against a less competent person, simply because I refuse to be coerced or extorted by certain so-called political leaders, former political leaders, and their lawyers, who think they can keep on behaving like old-time bosses. They are running a more easily led person in an effort to punish me."
A confidant of Archer's told the Voice that in April Alter and Everett George, a political consultant, initially met with Archer at the Queens home of Archer's father, Norman, a retired attorney. Alter, Towns's former campaign treasurer, abruptly lashed out at the judge for not hiring three people at Archer and Archer, a law firm she ran with her brother, Michael. In the sleazy world of Brooklyn politics, such favors are expected in return for helping judges get elected. "Three people?" snaps Alter, who together with Towns helped Archer get elected to the civil court in 1990. "Boy! Oh boy! Oh boy! I have no idea what this woman is talking about."
It was at this point, according to the source, that Alter and George allegedly demanded $140,000, the kind of money they reportedly said would guarantee Archer's re-election. (Alter says George is on vacation and could not be reached for comment.) Archer was outraged. "I am an incumbent," she told her confidant. "I'm the judge, and I'm going to pay them $140,000 for a job that I already have?" Archer's reaction was to some extent understandable: the price of access to political and judicial clout in Brooklyn doubtless has risen, but how much is enough?
"Put it in writing!" Archer reportedly told Alter during a heated exchange. In a letter dated May 1, which was stamped "personal and confidential" and hand-delivered to Archer, Alter states, "I am answering a request made by you for a campaign budget for your re-election." In Alter's budget:
According to Judge Archer's confidant, shortly after she received the letter, Alter followed up with a phone call to Archer's father, saying he wanted a certified check for $60,000 within 48 hours or all considerations were off. The money, Alter allegedly told Judge Archer, was earmarked for Congressman Towns. Says the confidant: "Judge Archer's father told Mitch Alter that he was insulting him; that he'd insulted him for the last time, and would not use his services anymore." Alter denies he asked for $60,000.
Archer, says the source, later met Towns at a Democratic clubhouse in Brooklyn and asked him about the $60,000. "You know, Max, I've never taken any money from you. I don't want your money," the source quoted Towns as saying, adding that the congressman insisted he did not need her money since President Clinton was coming to New York to help him raise $250,000 for his own re-election bid in the 10th Congressional District. The congressman's aide acknowledges that Towns talked to Archer about her misgivings, but notes that Archer's main concern was that "Mitch's fee was too high"that she never mentioned the $60,000. "Ed Towns has never asked any candidate to contribute money to him," the aide reiterates. In an attempt to quell the dispute and clarify any confusion about his involvement, Towns set up a meeting. Archer's confidant says that Archer was unable to attend because she was given short notice.