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An Orthodox Jew from Borough Park, Dear was a City Councilman for 18 years, serving for a decade on the Transportation Committee, until, in 2001, term limits forced him to seek a new job. He then served for six years on the city's Taxi & Limousine Commission.
In Borough Park, Dear was known as a fixer with the juice to make things happen, but he's also been ridiculed for his ham-fisted manner. In 1996, for example, Dear was a top fundraiser for Bill Clinton and Al Gore—at a fundraising dinner, Dear walked a New York Times reporter over to Clinton and said to him, "Tell her what you think of me."
Time and again, Dear has been criticized for dubious schemes: In the late 1980s, he started a foundation called Save Soviet Jewry, assigned himself a salary, and then proceeded to spend the organization's money flying himself and his family first-class on fact-finding missions to Russia and Israel. In 1993, Attorney General Robert Abrams made him repay the foundation $37,000. He was prohibited from ever starting a charity again.
And talk about tone-deaf: As chairman of the City Council's Human Rights Commission, Dear organized a trip to South Africa—but the Council's black members pulled out when they found the trip was sponsored by the white pro-apartheid government. Dear also got involved advocating for a group of ethnic Tamils that had fled the violence of their native Sri Lanka. In 1983, he went to Congress to chastise the government for turning a blind eye to the problems there. But he also got the Tamils to send him to Europe and to put $170,000 into a kosher restaurant he owned in Borough Park. According to the Tamils, he never repaid it: "If I was permitted to hit him, I'd break his head," one Tamil leader told the Times.
Taking money and not repaying it also got Dear in trouble with the Federal Election Commission. In 2000, when running for Congress for the second time, Dear's campaign treasurer took out ads in The Jewish Press costing $52,800, but never paid for them. The newspaper told the FEC that they didn't press the matter because of the close-knit religious community, where powerful ties mean a great deal. The Commission cited Dear for not paying for the ads, as well as for receiving illegal contributions from 325 individuals. Dear was never charged, but the money had to be refunded to the donors.
"It's like they rewarded him for being a crook," says Sandy Aboulafia, a longtime Midwood activist and political opponent to Dear.
After so many scandals, two failed runs for Congress, and a futile bid for the State Senate, Dear finally turned to a more attainable goal: municipal judge.
Many court observers predicted disaster.
On a recent morning, a woman and a collection agency attorney approach Judge Dear. The lawyer announces that after working out a deal together in the outside hallway, the woman is prepared to pay her years-old debt. The woman—whose records show a history of mental illness—earns only $300
a month from disability payments, but the lawyer announces she has agreed to pay a $100 monthly settlement to the collection agency. The woman, however, begins to have what looks like a panic attack. She starts shaking her head in an erratic way and sobbing uncontrollably. She manages to tell Dear that she never meant to make such an agreement.
"Look what you have done to this woman!" Dear says to the lawyer in a voice so loud that it fills the noisy courtroom. The lawyer begins to make excuses. He claims that the woman didn't seem out of sorts when they had cut the deal in the hallway and says he assumed she had other sources of income when she agreed to the payment.
Shaking his head, Dear stops the lawyer in mid-sentence and dismisses the lawsuit. He asks the court officer for an escort for the disoriented woman.
"You mean I can leave now?" the woman ekes out between sobs. "Yes," says Dear, and motions for the next case.
Around the courtroom, the people sitting on benches loosen their grips on their ragged file folders stuffed with credit card statements and Con Ed bills, stand up, and, one by one, break into applause.
"Money-grubbing!" one woman mutters.
"He ain't smiling‚ now!" another whoops. "Fair is fair!"
The Voice was told by numerous people at the courthouse that Judge Dear's sessions in debt court are out of the ordinary.
"He takes the issue seriously," says Sidney Cherubin, who runs a volunteer legal clinic the city created in 2006 to help the growing number of New Yorkers contesting false claims of debt. Dear is one of about a dozen judges who take turns on the debt court rotation.
Collection lawyers dread getting placed with Dear.
"He just rules from his biases, from his heart," lamented a frustrated attorney who preferred not to give his name for fear that it would impact him negatively in court. "He doesn't know the law," the attorney added.
Dear says that he prefers to be assigned to this tiny court, full of small claims with big effects on the lives of people of modest means. He refuses to allow the court to become an arm of the collection agency—which, according to statistics, is what has effectively happened in recent years.