By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A few months after Spano helped engineer Lippman's 2005 cross-endorsement, his brother, Mike Spano, an assemblyman mired in the hopelessly outmanned Republican minority, quit the Assembly and joined a premier Albany lobbying firm run by Silver's former chief of staff, Pat Lynch, who is perceived to be the lobbyist closest to the speaker. When Nick Spano was defeated for the Senate in 2006, he formed his own lobbying company that Lynch invested in and allowed him to operate until this month out of her Albany suite. Mike Spano eventually went back to the Assembly, but he later became a Democrat at a press conference attended by Silver. Nick Spano, who reported half a million dollars in lobbying fees in 2007, denies vociferously that his aggressive support for Lippman has anything to do with his current business. But his ties to Lynch, and Lynch's hiring of his brother (who was hardly an influential Albany player), are a measure of his alliance with Silver, who Nick Spano says he "might have talked to" about Lippman's candidacy over the years "in social settings."
All the while that Spano was aiding Lippman's candidacy, he was reaping at least $79,739 in fees as a "court evaluator," a person paid to measure the mental competency of someone named in a legal petition. Though Spano isn't a lawyer, he has received 31 of these assignments and four other referee assignments. OCA regulations require the disclosure of these fees, but Spano's fees in 15 cases aren't listed on the office's printout. While Lippman's OCA had nothing to do with choosing evaluators (individual judges do that), it did collect applications for appointments; approved evaluators, like Spano, for the list; and set the qualifications for appointment, which appear to permit just about any professional to sign up.
Evaluators look into the eyes of the subjects of these court petitions, many of whom are elderly and in nursing homes, and decide whether they should retain control of property and other assets, the value of which they also consider. Spano sponsored the law that created this position, and he and other pols in Westchester, including then Senator Guy Velella, wasted no time collecting assignments. Velella, who has since been convicted on unrelated charges, was another social friend of Lippman's, and dined with him and Senator Lack and their wives at Rao's, the famously exclusive restaurant in East Harlem. Even one of the restaurant owners collected 19 appointments as court evaluator.
Lack, however, never dipped into the evaluator till, but he did collect 66 court appointments as a guardian or referee while chairing the Senate Judiciary, 26 of which were from Judge Prudenti, who spoke about her adviser role in Lippman's never-ending campaign at the 2006 induction. A Court of Claims judge himself by then, Lack was also present at the swearing-in and was saluted by Lippman, though he'd left the Senate after chasing a woman to her home in a road-rage dispute and ducking under the garage door when she tried to hide from him. "Do I think it's a terrible thing that people involved in public office receive this?" Lippman once told Newsday, referring to judiciary patronage. "No, I don't."
There's no indication that Lippman did anything more than oversee this grab bag of goodies—with evaluators often earning $3,000 for a couple hours of work. But if Lippman was so concerned about the appearances of being political that he effectively exempted himself from the requirement that he actually compete in the electoral arena, he might have been a bit more careful about the appearances of his alliances with the beneficiaries of this dubious bonanza.
The day after Lippman became a Supreme Court Judge, in 2006, he asked Judges Kaye and Prudenti to name him to the Appellate Term, a job he would perform in addition to the administrative post he retained. This assignment—which allowed him to hear appeals of some lower court decisions—was his only way of acquiring appeal experience without being formally elevated by the governor to the full Appellate Division.
When a vacancy developed in the Manhattan Appellate Division and Spitzer selected Lippman as the county's presiding judge, howls were heard because two of the most respected sitting judges on that Appellate Division were bypassed by the screening panel of lawyers that vets judicial candidates, narrowing the governor's choice.
The same thing happened in December, when the screening panel for chief judge excluded two sitting Court of Appeals judges, as well as all women and Latino candidates—giving Paterson an invitation he couldn't figure out how to refuse. The panel included four Kaye appointees and one from Silver. Panel member Leo Milonas was so close to Lippman he spoke at the induction. Lippman saluted Milonas then as "truly my friend for life," calling their friendship, which began when Lippman worked for him at OCA, "an unforgettable relationship that, to my great benefit, continues today in every way."
Reminded of that by the Voice, Milonas saw it as no reason to have recused himself from anointing Lippman, noting that he was "more qualified" to help pick a chief judge "because I know people." The panel's chair, John O'Mara, a Pataki appointee, sat with Lippman on the court's Capital Construction Board for years.