By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The haunting whisper in the courthouse corridors of Brooklyn was heard for so many decades it became an axiom, as unchallenged as it was unproven.
It wasn't just that a case could be fixed. The darker secret was that the bench itself had been bought, that its polyester black robes were on a perpetual special-sale rack, that smarmy party bosses, ensconced at 16 Court Street across from the supreme court they ruled, demanded cash tribute to "make" a judge. The district attorney, Joe Hynes, who first heard the rumor 36 years ago when he was a young prosecutor running the office's rackets bureau, said in 2003 that he'd have to be "naive to think it didn't happen," that it was "common street talk that this has been going on for eons."
So for four years, ever since a judge who'd been caught on videotape taking gifts agreed to wear a wire for a meeting with one of the alleged judgeship marketers, Hynes has searched for the fire suggested by what he calls "the smoke" surrounding this legendary allegation. At last he is on the verge of making the case that will shame New York. The saga of this sewer shakedown has all the heightened drama of a trashy novel, with envelopes of cash handed off just days after 9-11 in the shadows of the collapsed towers. When the disturbing details become fully known, Hynes's stunning prosecution may at last force the state legislature to junk the peculiar way New York State nominates the 14-year-term, $136,700-a-year judges who preside at all felony and major civil trials, as a federal court has already concluded we should.
If judgeships have been sold, as Hynes has apparently established, so, too, has the soul of the city.
Hynes is primed to prove that Clarence Norman, the chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic party for 15 years until he was convicted in the first of two unrelated cases in 2005, took at least $50,000 in cash and $6,000 in postage stamps to elevate Civil Court Judge Howard Ruditzky to the State Supreme Court in 2001. (While the price may have gone as high as $70,000, the Voice has only pinpointed $56,000 in payments.) Norman had the power to promote Ruditzky because Supreme Court nominees are selected by judicial conventions, an insider artifice that allows the Democratic boss in a Democratic county to handpick jurists, unrestrained by primaries that are the electoral path to most posts, including the Civil Court position Ruditzky then held.
Already facing two to six years in jail on the aforementioned unrelated charges and scheduled to go to trial on January 23 on other Hynes charges, Norman will now be indicted again for demanding payoffs in 2001 for the Ruditzky promotion, sources close to the investigation have told The Village Voice. One pivotal witness has also implicated Norman's longtime associate Carl Andrews. The New York Post has reported that Governor Spitzer has named Andrews to a top community affairs post similar to the one that he held during Spitzer's first term as attorney general, but a spokesman for the governor declined to confirm that. Andrews, who was on a five-month leave from Spitzer's office to do campaign work at the time of the alleged payoffs, was elected to the state senate in 2002 and was defeated last September in a Brooklyn congressional race.
The Voice has learned that Hynes's chief of investigations, Michael Vecchione, has built a case around four witnessesJeff Feldman, the executive director of the party; Norman Chesler, who's admitted making the $56,000 in payments to Norman; exSupreme Court judge Michael Garson, who taped a conversation with Ruditzky; and Ruditzky himself. The judge reportedly was granted immunity and testified before Hynes's grand jury for a few hours several weeks ago, acknowledging that he was forced to pay as much as $70,000 for the judgeship. In mid December, Hynes informed the New York State Office of Court Administration (OCA) about Ruditzky's immunized appearance. Ruditzky's grand jury testimony has been forwarded to the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which is considering his removal from the bench.
OCA had already reassigned Ruditzky during the summer to "ministerial tasks" in a "preliminary conference part," removing him from any possible trials, citing "health reasons." Ruditzky did not go to work Tuesday morning, and a woman left his Midwood home and drove off in an SUV with Supreme Court license plates.
But the story behind Hynes's historic case starts with the man who calls himself "PlusPlus," in memory of the two $25,000 cash payoffs he has told the grand jury he made, one right after the other, to Norman, who was then both Brooklyn boss and assistant speaker of the state assembly.
Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Howard Ruditzky