Better to Know the Judge

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

Another report of insider trading in the Brooklyn courts arrived in late July from the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct. This one produced more sighs than fury. Years after editorial pages had spent their wrath condemning Brooklyn's judicial politics as a school for scandal, here was another censure of another veteran judge for failing to reveal his ties to yet an other politically wired attorney practicing before him. Even the names were predictable.

Supreme Court Justice Richard Huttner, a clubhouse regular, had never told other lawyers in a case he adjudicated about his friendship with defense counsel Ravi Batra, former law partner of assemblyman and Democratic county leader Clarence Norman Jr. The panel reported that Huttner neglected to tell plaintiffs that while he was hearing their case he and his wife were having cocktails with Batra and his spouse, or that the judge had also attended a wed ding anniversary and a memorial service with the Batra family. Or that he and the attorney had shared "drinks, lunch, and dinner together on numerous occasions." Or that he thought so highly of Batra he had awarded the lawyer 11 separate fiduciary appointments.

What to do?

Huttner, 70 years old, caught a break. On the proviso that he will permanently retire on December 31, the panel "reluctantly" let him off with censure. Case closed. The report made for a four-inch wire service story in the Times; it never made it past the borough section in the Daily News.

But not since Judge Victor Barron, another clubhouse hack, was caught demanding $115,000 to fix the case of a maimed three-month-old baby has a story penetrated so near to the rotten heart of Brooklyn's judicial politics.

Batra's appearance before Huttner was on behalf of a wretchedly deteriorated adult home run by Norman's father, Re verend Clarence Norman Sr., pastor of one of Brooklyn's largest churches. In Baisden et al.v. Pacific House Residence for Adults, lawyers for the home's residents, most of them the formerly homeless with varying degrees of mental problems, were seeking to block Norman Sr.'s efforts to sell the building and evict them. At the time, Reverend Norman was trying, with Batra's help, to stay one step ahead of state regulators who were being forced to act on years of complaints of callous care and grievous conditions at the home.

When I visited Pacific House in the summer of 2000 while the case was before Huttner, residents were aimlessly roaming the streets ("A Ministry of Neglect," June 28–July 4, 2000). Several told me they were terrified about what would befall them. The most cogent understood exactly what was going on. One woman, Clara Taylor, had formed a residents' council, which had sought out legal services attorneys. Taylor had personally confronted Norman Sr. about the situation. The reverend had pled poverty. While the home collected $60,000 a month from the residents' disability checks, he said he was hobbled by a poor cash flow. Additional government grants had been denied after inspectors found rampant vermin, unsanitary bathrooms, and poor care.

Taylor had also cornered the reverend's son when the assemblyman attended a street fair near the home. She had pointed to a urine-soaked resident, sitting mumbling and untended on a nearby stoop. "I asked him if he would help. He said, 'I'm glad you're concerned,' and promised to speak to his father," Taylor told me.

But when I got Assemblyman Norman on the phone that summer he said that his only involvement was to ask his partner Batra to represent his father. Batra got results. Before Huttner, the lawyer was able to win his client sufficient breathing room to negotiate a sale of his property—minus its troubled residents, who were dispersed elsewhere in the city—to another politically tied organization. It was "a graceful exit," Batra told me then.

Later this month, after long delays, Assemblyman Norman is finally due to go to trial on the first of four indictments brought against him by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. The county leader stands accused of double billing for his gas receipts, failing to disclose a $2,700 in-kind contribution from a lobbyist, misfiling a $5,000 campaign check, and compelling judicial candidates to use favored vendors.

Several of the charges appear shaky. But on any moral scale, they are far outweighed by the outrage of Pacific House and the casual use of Brooklyn's Democratic judicial-political complex to defend it. Yet no law enforcement office looked to see if there were any penal code violations there. It was considered business as usual; a crassly cynical business perhaps, but not criminal. Meanwhile, conveniently for both Hynes and Norman, the first jury's verdict isn't likely to be heard until after the September 13th primary, thus sparing one or the other a major embarrassment.

That Tuesday, Hynes faces his first competitive race for re-election since he won office in 1989, with three challengers seeking his job. It is an important day for Norman as well. He's hoping his candidate for D.A., an undistinguished, clubhouse-bred state senator from east Brooklyn named John Sampson, can ride a tide of African American votes to unseat Hynes. Another important goal for the embattled leader is to try to hold on to the Surrogate's Court judgeship, the single most lucrative judicial post in the borough. The position had been held by another Norman candidate, Judge Michael Feinberg, who bizarrely won the open seat in 1996 on a reform platform. Feinberg even won the Times' endorsement that year, telling its editorial board he would have a panel "screen appointments and recommend changes in how the place was run."

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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