Spoils System

How a Hefty Fee for an Ex-Governor Went Unnoticed

Brooklyn's well-oiled courthouse patronage machine has functioned so long and so smoothly that its rewards have quietly reached some prominent and unlikely players. Take Mario Cuomo.

New York has had no clearer foe of the system of choosing judges by election than Cuomo. The former three-term governor, who once declined a presidential invitation to seek a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, never missed an opportunity to call for merit selection of judicial candidates, instead of the all but blind elections by which jurists are now chosen. When Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes announced his grand jury probe into the borough's judge-picking system at a press conference last April, he invoked Cuomo's name along with his own as an inveterate advocate of allowing public officials, guided by panels of experts, to select who gets to sit on the bench.

Cuomo, who worked as a lawyer on Brooklyn's Court Street before rising to elective office, knows the system's merits and demerits from both sides. And on one occasion, a few years after he lost re-election to George Pataki in 1994, he shared in the spoils from the same political machine that's now under intense scrutiny from both Hynes's investigators and the press.

The occasion arose after two competing wings of Brooklyn's Democratic Party waged a costly and nasty electoral battle in 1996 over who would succeed Cuomo's old friend and former aide, Bernard Bloom, as judge of Brooklyn's Surrogate's Court. Cuomo backed Michael Feinberg, a product of Bloom's old political club. He did so, Cuomo said last week, at the urging of "friends who practice law in Brooklyn." He could not recall whether or not one of those friends was Fabian Palomino, a Cuomo intimate of 45 years and former aide who served as one of Feinberg's election lawyers and, after the election, became counsel to the lawyer in charge of handling cases for the public administrator, the office which deals with estates pending before the Surrogate's Court.

Palomino needed the work. After Cuomo's defeat, he took tough hits from the incoming Pataki regime and the press for his performance in the post in which Cuomo had installed him, chief of the Javits Convention Center, where the mob enjoyed a powerful grip on the trades that set up and took down shows, making business difficult and expensive for exhibitors. Palomino said he had no memory of asking Cuomo to back Feinberg. "I don't recall doing that," he said.

Cuomo never campaigned for Feinberg, he pointed out last week. He said he "may have made a small contribution through a political action committee that I control." Records show the donation was $500, made on March 21, 1996, from the Friends of Mario M. Cuomo Committee. It was a small amount in a campaign that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Nevertheless, a few months after Feinberg took office, the new judge called the former governor, saying he wanted him to serve as temporary receiver overseeing a $1 million fund.

The money was part of a huge estate, worth $32 million, that had been bequeathed by a wealthy businessman to an Orthodox yeshiva. Factions in the Lubavitcher Hasidic community in Brooklyn's Crown Heights were battling over its control, and Feinberg turned to Cuomo as a disinterested outsider to oversee expenditures to the school, where teachers and vendors hadn't been paid in months.

Over the ensuing months, Cuomo proceeded to do what court-appointed receivers are supposed to do—pay appropriate expenses and carefully record his actions. When he was finished spending the money, Cuomo also did what receivers do, which was to apply to the court for a fee to reimburse his efforts. In this case, Cuomo asked for $50,000 for himself—the maximum five percent allowed by law—and an additional $51,000 for his law firm, Willkie Farr & Gallagher, whose junior associates had handled much of the day to day administrative tasks, according to records Cuomo submitted to the court. This brought a quick objection from one of the factions in the case who said the $101,000 package was far too large, particularly since most of the work had been done by subordinates, not by the former governor.

"[T]he temporary receiver appears to have performed only a minimal amount of the work necessary to satisfy the terms and conditions of the Court's orders, while the majority of the work was performed by another individual," wrote Andrew Fisher, an attorney with his own powerful courthouse connections, in a March 2000 memo to the Surrogate's Court.

Judge Feinberg took the matter under advisement and then settled it in his own fashion. He awarded Cuomo the full $50,000 he had requested for himself, but reduced Willkie Farr's portion to just $15,000.

"I didn't do it for the fee," said Cuomo about the matter last week. "I was trying to be helpful. I give speeches and make more money than that. They had an awful internecine struggle there. I knew this community well. The point was to be a mediator."

Moreover, large firms like his, Cuomo said, "don't welcome these sorts of appointments. Their rates are so high; that's why I don't accept a lot of these things."

Still, Cuomo's receivership was one of the largest awarded that year by Brooklyn's Surrogate's Court, and, given the fame of the recipient, one of the most talked about among the lawyers who work along Court Street. The legal aspect of Cuomo's role in the matter—although not the patronage connection—was reported in stories in the Daily News and the New York Law Journal. Yet, three months after Cuomo's appointment, when the New York Postlaunched a tough, multi-part series in November 1997 called "Kings County Princes of Patronage," lambasting the appointments by Surrogate's Court and other Brooklyn judges, the ex-governor's dealings somehow went unmentioned.

The Post's articles were in many ways a precursor to the current crop of scandal stories. Feinberg was a key focus, as was his supporter, Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Clarence Norman. They pointed to the network of Norman favorites who regularly received big consulting fees from judicial candidates, a pattern now under close scrutiny by the D.A. The stories also pointed out that of Feinberg's first 63 appointments, more than half went to lawyers who donated money to his campaign or the Democratic Party. The Post named more than two dozen of these, singling out far less known figures than Cuomo, many of whom donated less and received smaller receiverships, including a lawyer on the staff of the city council who got what the stories tabbed as "one of [Feinberg's] most lucrative appointments—worth $3,500."

"They are part of the web of patronage and cronyism Feinberg wove during his 1996 election," the article stated.

The Post stayed on the courthouse perks story over the following months, running occasional pieces. In January 2000, the paper tackled the subject again in earnest, this time branching out to other boroughs as well and naming a "patronage dirty dozen" including former mayor Ed Koch, ex-congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, and then-Council Speaker Peter Vallone, all of whom received court appointments worth far less than Cuomo's.

Some people concluded, not unreasonably, that Cuomo's name never made the Post articles because the coverage was headed by veteran journalist Jack Newfield, who has reported on courthouse patronage practices for decades and is also a close and longtime friend of Cuomo's. From having worked closely with Newfield at the Voice and at the Daily News, I know he has never hidden his ties to Cuomo. His position at the time was that he was too close to the politician to write fairly about him.

Asked why Cuomo's well-paid receivership was never raised in the series, Newfield said he thought it had been. "I know we talked about it. We discussed it. I think it did appear." But a check of clips shows no such story. Other reporters who worked on the series also recalled discussion of the governor's Surrogate's Court dealings but said they didn't recall what had happened when it came to reporting it.

Cuomo said his omission was proper.

"If it was a list of patronage people and people who got awarded because of their contacts, then I didn't belong on it," Cuomo said.

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