Prosecutors Target a Brand-New Judge

Another Manhattan bench press

New Yorkers who can tell you the precise number of electoral votes in Ohio and Indiana give only blank looks when asked how their own local judges are selected. This willful ignorance is the result of common sense and self-preservation. ¶ For one thing, most people have no great concern about judges until they're in front of one. For another, every now and again, some terrible story bubbles up about the foolish and wicked things done by those seeking and winning election to the bench. Each is a reminder to sensible people to have nothing to do with this awful business.

Just last week, a court delivered one of these lessons when it rendered the final verdict on the wretched career of an ex-judge of Surrogate's Court in Brooklyn. Michael Feinberg was a party regular, groomed for his post by the borough's top Democratic officials. His job as surrogate was to protect the property and interests of widows, orphans, and the deceased. He did this by promptly naming a law-school chum as counsel to handle these estates. Feinberg then let Louis Rosenthal collect fees far in excess of those legally allowed, while never bothering him with the silly requirement to provide reports of his work. This casual approach allowed Feinberg to approve payments of $8.6 million to his friend. The insider trading only ceased when the judge learned that a pair of reporters from the Daily News, Nancie Katz and Larry Cohler-Esses, were about to expose them.

Even though Feinberg and Rosenthal's schemes occurred while Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes was on a self-declared crusade against judicial misconduct, the pair somehow managed to escape prosecution. The Court of Appeals, however, removed Feinberg from the bench. It ruled that his conduct reflected "not mere lapses or errors in judgment, but a wholesale failure" of his sworn duty, one that showed "an indifference, if not cynicism toward his judicial office." Last week, another panel finished the job when it ordered Feinberg permanently disbarred from the practice of law, and handed Rosenthal a two-year suspension.

In the next few days, New Yorkers will get another tasteless episode of judicial lust and its consequences. This one comes out of Manhattan, where indictments are expected to be brought against an otherwise likable attorney named Nora Anderson who was elected last month as a county surrogate judge, the first such African-American. Also likely to be charged is Anderson's employer and mentor, an aged and veteran lawyer named Seth Rubenstein, who has one of the largest surrogate-court practices in the city.

Several people familiar with the case said that the charges would involve a series of hefty loans and gifts that Rubenstein made to Anderson that provided the bulk of her campaign's funding. The money, said one source, appears to show an "attempt to evade the state's campaign finance limits," compounded by the campaign's filings of allegedly false statements.

Prosecutors have interviewed key vendors who worked for Anderson's election. Campaign manager Michael Oliva last week publicly acknowledged that he had been questioned before a grand jury, but insisted that his client had done no wrong. "Everything was fully disclosed," said Oliva, who believes Anderson's victory put powerful noses out of joint, thus making her a target.

"Nora was a no-name candidate who came out of nowhere. We won the endorsement of 12 clubs in Manhattan. That really pissed everybody off," he said.

In the September primary, Anderson defeated two other contenders: Judge Milton Tingling had the backing of the borough's Democratic organization, while John Reddy Jr. was supported by another circle of surrogate-court regulars. In addition to her hard work and forthright demeanor, Anderson's win stemmed from the all-important endorsement of The New York Times. She got the Times's backing even after questions were raised—again by the Daily News—about the fact that much of her campaign expenses were being paid by a $225,000 loan that Anderson received from her boss.

The candidate swore to the Times—which repeated her oath in its endorsement editorial—that she would never steer work to Rubenstein should she win office.

That assurance was good enough for others as well. Alan Flacks, the indefatigable Upper West Side political watchdog, said that early in the campaign he put in a call to Anderson to learn more about her.

"I called Anderson, and Rubenstein returned the call," said Flacks. "He said he was authorized to speak for her. He was a real gentleman. On the issue of the money and appearing before her, he said, 'I know better. Of course I won't.' He talked like a proud Jewish grandfather."

In addition to the $225,000 loan, Rubenstein kick-started Anderson's campaign with a $25,000 donation back in April. Another Rubenstein associate, Janise Dawson, served as Anderson's campaign treasurer and gave $6,000. It wasn't until two weeks before the primary that Anderson made the first sizable contribution to her own campaign, giving herself a $100,000 donation on August 20. A few days later, campaign records show, she added $170,000 to the kitty, this time as a loan.

Around that time, sources said, a former prosecutor working at a large bank tipped his old boss, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, that several SARs—Suspicious Activity Reports—had been generated by the bank after large transactions were made involving Rubenstein and Anderson's accounts. These are the same kind of pesky reports that tripped up ex-governor Eliot Spitzer when he tried to secretly funnel money to high-priced hookers.

Prosecutors asked witnesses before the grand jury about a meeting that took place in August between Anderson, Rubenstein, and others. Oliva said he knew nothing about it. "I worked with her for almost eight months. She was never deceptive or dishonest," he said.

Rubenstein did not return calls, but another source who knows him acknowledged that the lawyer "gifted" Anderson more than $100,000, in addition to the $225,000 loan. "She put that in the campaign," said the source.

Things got awkward for Anderson after she failed to pay back Rubenstein's loan by the time of the primary election, a failure that automatically converts the loan into a contribution—in this case, one well beyond the maximum of $32,000. For her part, Anderson insisted that the general election deadline was the one that counted, and she made her final repayment of the $225,000 loan on November 3—the day before the vote, records show. Prosecutors have questioned whether those funds also originated from Rubenstein.

Old-timers will tell you that this is hardly the first campaign to miss the deadline to repay loans, and that criminal prosecutions are rare. "We don't have any record of something along these lines," said state Board of Elections spokesman Robert Brown. Anderson's allies are also happy to spin out scenarios suggesting that any prosecution by Morgenthau's office is just a way for the D.A. to protect his own political flank as he gets ready to seek re-election next year, at age 90.

If so, it's an excellent motive. The only thing more unseemly than watching judicial candidates raise thousands of dollars for their campaigns is seeing them squirm when their contributors come calling. Let lawyers and experts pick the judges so the rest of us can get back to handicapping the Iowa caucuses.

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