Better to Know the Judge

As an adult home deteriorated, a veteran jurist and a lawyer shared cocktails and dinner

Of course he did no such thing. He immediately appointed a longtime Norman ally, East Flatbush Democratic district leader Marietta Small, as public administrator, a job that calls for competence and sensitivity in the handling of estates of the deceased. Small brought neither to the job. Two separate audits have chastised Small, who still holds her $91,000-a-year post, with bungling multiple cases and losing track of assets.

For the profitable job of counsel to the public administrator, Feinberg held no interviews, instead selecting his friend and neighbor Louis Rosenthal, whose closest experience in the surrogate business was his father's service as public administrator in the early 1960s. Rosenthal promptly began to collect an 8 percent fee for every estate that crossed his desk, 2 percent more than counsels in other boroughs. He did so without filing the required affidavits describing what he'd done to earn the money. This was not a problem for Feinberg, however, who rubber-stamped more than $8 million in payments to his friend.

Such pillaging probably would have rolled merrily along had not two Daily News reporters, Nancie Katz and Larry Cohler-Esses, exposed the scheme in May 2002. In the wake of their stories, the Attorney General's Office and the Commission on Judicial Conduct each opened investigations. Rosenthal was forced out. In late June, the state Court of Appeals upheld the judicial conduct panel's ruling that Feinberg should also be removed. The judge had admitted to the commission that he had only "skimmed" the rules of office, and somehow missed the one about required affidavits. The panel found him "incredible, evasive, and unreliable."

Norman's replacement candidate for the office is a protégé, Supreme Court Justice Diana Johnson, who attends Clarence Norman Sr.'s First Baptist Church in Crown Heights. He has a backup candidate, Judge Lawrence Knipel, who has gotten good marks on the bench but whose independence has been questioned since his wife is a district leader and Norman loyalist.

The third candidate is civil court judge Margarita López Torres, who has been tilting her lance at Norman's machine ever since he refused to back her for re-election in 2002. The reason? López Torres refused to accept a political appointee as her law clerk ("The Judge Who Said No," July 31–August 6, 2002).

In the surrogate's race, López Torres has pledged to do all the things Feinberg claimed he would nine years ago, and more. "I am going to structure the court in a way it serves the people," she said under a hot noon sun at a City Hall press conference last month. "The integrity of this court has been challenged," she said. "I will change that."

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