The Bronx Bomber

While rooting the Yankees to a new home, Democratic political fixer Stanley Schlein failed his other clients

He doesn't lack for fans. Former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, who used Schlein's legal talents for his mayoral campaigns and even the real estate closing on his home, calls him "a lawyer of extraordinary skill. He is a careful guy. An ethical guy."

But that talent and charisma have had zero effect on some of those who have encountered him in his role as a court-appointed guardian for those unable to care for themselves. His charm has been lost on the families of an injured Bronx construction worker, an ailing elderly Manhattan woman, and an aging Irish domestic servant, all of whom depended on Schlein to guard the well-being of their loved ones. If he attended to every little detail for his Yankee employers with a hawk-like intensity, he has been deaf to these other clients.

The fixer: Stanley Schlein
photo: Hiroko Masuike
The fixer: Stanley Schlein

A few weeks before he guided the Yankees to their victory at City Hall, some of those complaints, many of them years old, finally caught up with Schlein. They came in the form of a brief letter from Ann T. Pfau, one of the state's top administrative judges. The February 22 letter informed Schlein that he was being removed from the list of those qualified to serve as court-appointed fiduciaries�those named by the court to handle large sums of other people's money and oversee their property.

Such appointments are the stock-in-trade of every political organization. They are part of the portfolio of perks, patronage slots, and handsome lobbying fees that come with a strong party and the successful exercise of power. Judges, elevated to the bench with the party's approval, routinely name attorneys with clubhouse ties to serve as guardians, receivers, or referees. Many of the appointments are on behalf of the elderly or the infirm, those who have become incapacitated for one reason or another and are deemed no longer capable of managing their own affairs. The positions are highly prized because they usually offer a light workload and a virtually guaranteed payday that can range from a few hundred dollars to many thousands for each case.

As befitting his years of service to the Bronx Democrats, Schlein has long been a key recipient of appointments from judges who come out of the borough's political machine. Since 2000 he has received some $125,000 in fees. But that gravy train came to an abrupt halt with Pfau's letter. While offering no specifics, the judge cited his mishandling of property in two cases, that of a Bronx construction worker named Vincent Robinson, who lapsed into a coma after a construction accident, and an elderly Manhattan woman named Sylvia Friedland, who was institutionalized due to dementia.

"Accordingly, you will be removed from the list of qualified applicants by the Court as of the date of this letter," Pfau wrote.

Schlein refused to comment publicly about his handling of either case, or several others where complaints were lodged about his performance. "I am not going to talk about client matters," he told the Voice repeatedly during three lengthy talks conducted from his cell phone. "It's just not appropriate."

There had been occasions, he acknowledged, when he had failed to file required documents in a timely manner. "Mea culpa. I apologize," he said. "I take responsibility for that." But aside from those occasional lapses, he insisted that his wards had always received the appropriate care and attention. Moreover, he said that his attorney who represented him on the investigation had been told that if he chose, he could apply for reinstatement. Yet he had decided not to do so. "I said it is not worth it to me. I don't make a living out of this thing. It is not the core of my profession. I don't need the aggravation."

His real problem, he suggested, was a heightened sensitivity among judicial overseers to suggestions of political influence in the courts. "I know the county I come from," he said. "Other people may have conducted themselves differently. As for me, I have done everything I can to be a person of honor and ethics."

The family of Vincent Robinson, however, was unconvinced. Stanley Schlein entered their lives in 1998, eight years after an electric saw Robinson was using on a roofing job severed the femoral artery in his leg, causing massive blood loss and ensuing brain damage. Robinson's family received $2.4 million from a civil lawsuit. The family went to court to ask that a guardianship be created to allow them to make decisions about his finances. A Bronx Supreme Court judge named Anne Targum, who came out of the Bronx Democratic organization, appointed Schlein as an "evaluator" to determine if a guardian was warranted. When Schlein reported back that a guardian was indeed necessary, the judge promptly named Schlein to that post as well, allowing him to fully oversee Robinson's property and finances. It was one of 16 such appointments that Targum, who left the bench last year, gave to Schlein in the past decade.

Robinson's wife and adult children objected. Through their attorney, Brian Heitner, the family insisted that they were capable, with the help of professional advisers they would enlist, of handling the finances themselves. One of the things the family said they wanted to do was to build a new home that would accommodate Vincent Robinson so that they could take him out of the nursing home where he had been kept since the accident. There, he would be cared for by his wife, Esther, a nurse who had spent the prior seven years commuting daily to the Westchester facility to care for her husband's personal needs.

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