News & Politics

Barrett: Court’s Slow Work Helped Lippman

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Following up on our report of Shelly Silver gaming Governor Paterson to put his old LES friend, Jonathan Lippman, in the highest courts job in the state:

The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct released a final determination today removing a Westchester judge who was elected in a 2005 cross-endorsement deal with  Lippman, the new chief judge of the Court of Appeals.

The rare removal of Supreme Court Judge Joseph Alessandro comes just 10 days after the state senate confirmation of Lippman — whose path to chief judge was inextricably tied to the electoral swap he made with Alessandro over the howls of many Democratic leaders just three years ago.

The timing could not have been worse. The 10-member commission issued its ruling on Alessandro on February 11, two days before Lippman was confirmed for a six-year term as the new chief judge. It took the commission two months after it heard final argument on December 11 to write its determination, and another 12 days to make it public.

A Court of Appeals spokesman said that the court can’t release a
decision until it receives a return receipt on a certified letter sent
to the defendant judge informing him of the findings. Robert
Tembeckjian, the administrator of the Commission on Judicial Conduct,
told the Voice that the two-and-a-half-month delay was “pretty much standard,” and that the record of the case was so extensive, it took a while to issue the final report.

Lippman,
a Democrat, was elected to the Supreme Court after all five parties
with ballot lines in New York agreed to designate him at their judicial
nominating convention. [See our recent feature
about Lippman’s unlikely rise to the highest levels of state politics.]
The only candidate in the state to get all five lines in 2005, Lippman
rode that election to the top judicial position in the state in record
time. Lippman is a boyhood friend of Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver,
who has used his political clout to help Lippman climb the judicial
ladder so quickly.

The Republican, Conservative and
Independence parties in the Westchester-based judicial district would
only agree to the cross-endorsement deal if the Democrats backed
Alessandro, who had already been rejected by the Bar Association as
unqualified. Alessandro was also tarnished by news stories about a
lawsuit against him filed by his own campaign treasurer, whose
accusations of defrauding her of $250,000 have now become the basis for
his removal. Despite the public record of Alessandro’s tawdriness and
the opposition to him among Democratic leaders in the district, Lippman
went along with the deal that was a critical steppingstone for him (the
day after he took office as a Supreme Court judge, he was elevated to
the appellate term, launching his campaign to become chief judge in
2009, when the sitting top judge, Judith Kaye, would be 70 years old
and forced to retire).

The commission found that Alessandro and
his brother Francis, a Civil Court judge in the Bronx, had engaged in
such “deceptive, deceitful and dishonest” behavior that they were unfit
to serve on the bench. The report found that Joseph Alessandro signed
an initial note when the treasurer loaned him a quarter of a million
dollars to help finance his 2003 campaign for a county court vacancy,
and then “altered” records to try to avoid repaying the debt.

Ironically,
the report reveals that Joseph Alessandro engaged in “misleading and
evasive testimony” before the commission on September 14, 2005, 12 days
before he and Lippman swapped endorsements. While that testimony was
confidential at that time, Alessandro moved the same day to file an
amended financial disclosure form with the Ethics Commission of the
Unified Court System, apparently prompted by questions raised by
commission investigators.
Lippman was then the chief administrator
of the state courts and worked with the Ethics Commission, which was
housed at his headquarters in Manhattan. The revisions in Alessandro’s
filings were dramatic since he’d failed to disclose a host of real
estate transactions.

Senator John Sampson, the chair of the
judiciary committee that hurriedly confirmed Lippman on February 13
(without asking him any questions about his rapid ascent or his
position on an array of judicial issues), had indicated that he was
going to hold the confirmation hearings around February 24. But Lippman
went to his office in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn on February 9
and Sampson decided to push the confirmation forward to comply with a
statutory deadline he’d earlier indicated he might ignore. Asked if the
timing of the release of the report was “unfortunate,” Tembeckjian
said: “I don’t make those kind of judgments. Things get done
when they get done.”

Research Credit: Dene-Hern Chen

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