Here come the machine's judges

If there's one thing a judge should have, it's a good memory. How else do you keep straight not only the facts of the case in front of you but also the past cases that could be precedents for your rulings? But Bill Hodges, a longtime Nassau GOP operative and current candidate for District Court judge in next Tuesday's election, has shown that his memory is faulty. And, when it's convenient, so are the memories of his buddies in the Nassau Republican machine.

And so are the memories of the voters, victims of their own apathy and the machine's propaganda. They are likely to keep in place one-party rule by what the New York Times recently called the last and largest surviving example, anywhere in the United States, of a Tammany Hall-type political machine.

The best way to understand a machine is to take it apart and study it, piece by piece. The Nassau GOP machine is notable for its staggering array of interchangeable parts and its politicizing of the judicial system. So here's an examination, based on campaign records and other public documents, of just one part of the sick shuffle of money, jobs, appointments and work among judges, lawyers and politicians in Nassau County.

You have to admire the chutzpah of machine boss Joe Mondello. You may want to feel sorry for the many other good people in Nassau who think they have no choice but to maintain the machine with regular doses of money and sweat if they want to make a living. But one outside observer nails it best by calling this frenetic buying and selling of people, power and money "a fucking cesspool."


The more things change...

Last June, when County Executive Tom Gulotta appointed Baldwin lawyer Bill Hodges to fill a vacancy on the Second Judicial District bench, not a whimper was heard from the Republican county legislators, who are part of the same machine. Gulotta also appointed Lisa Siano and Diane M. Dwyer to the district bench. Hodges replaced Anthony Marano, who had been appointed to a Supreme Court judgeship six months earlier.

Siano and Dwyer replaced Carnell Foskey and Joel Gewanter, who were appointed a couple of weeks earlier to Family Court.

This round of musical chairs in the year before an election is typical of the machine. It enables the Nassau GOP to, for instance, flood the county with bumper stickers urging that voters "return" Hodges and the other appointees to the judgeships the machine handed them.

How did Bill Hodges get so lucky?

Flash back to the late 1980s. While a zoning board member in the Town of Hempstead, Hodges allegedly represented clients in property sales in which the town granted variances. So did fellow board member Ray Mineo and board counsel Arthur Levine. Newsday, at the time in a dirt-digging mode, reported the situation, but all three denied that politics had anything to do with it.

"The people I sit with on the board are of the highest integrity," Mineo told Newsday back then. Levine added, "You have clean government here. This is minor, innocent stuff. We try to do everything right, open and above board."

Which must explain why, back in 1984, according to a 1989 Newsday story, Hempstead officials supposedly altered a consultant's rankings to grant a $4.6 million HUD contract to the company of a politically connected developer, Alvin Benjamin. A company official, Kurt Mohr, was a former town official during the reign of Alfonse D'Amato as town supervisor. Everyone denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of the action.

Bill Hodges, who presided over the town's housing authority in '84, told Newsday in 1989, "I have no recollection of that."

Tom Gulotta, who was the town's presiding supervisor in '84, told Newsday that he knew nothing about either the rankings or an extra $225,000 that the newspaper said was given to the company in connection with its work in the town. He blamed his executive assistant at the time, Ed Ward, saying, "I assume that people are going to act properly unless I learn otherwise." The newspaper's 1989 story reported that Ward told the town's planning commissioner to give the company the extra $225,000.

Ward told Newsday that Mohr "produced something" to justify his claims. But Newsday reported that neither Ward nor any other official who approved Mohr's request could produce any documentation supporting it.

Ward had worked for Mohr during D'Amato's reign in Hempstead. At the time of the Newsday story in 1989, Ward was special assistant to Joe Mondello, who at that time was Hempstead's presiding supervisor.

Where are they now? Ed Ward is a Nassau County legislator from District 19. Gulotta, of course, is the county executive. Mondello is still the party boss.

And Bill Hodges, carrying his poor memory with him, is about to become a judge.

 

But Hodges always remembers to keep up his contributions to the party. He gave $200 to the Nassau County Republican Committee on Aug. 11, 1998. Fifteen days later, he sent in $500. On Oct. 22, 1998, he gave $400 more. On Feb. 12, 1999, he chipped in $500 more.

What about fellow lawyers Ray Mineo and Arthur Levine? They're also regular contributors. For instance, Mineo gave $100 under his own name on Aug. 17, 1998, followed by $1,100 more in February and March of 1999.


Family ties

Political machines run smoothest when they're fed the right mixture of fuel (money) and oxygen (hot air works best). Back when Newsday had the heart of a lion, it tried to counter the machine's incessant propaganda of press releases, photo opportunities and carefully planned speeches with some heavy-duty investigative work. An August 1989 series entitled "The Last Political Machine" detailed many of the dense interrelationships of money and jobs that keep the machine running.

One exception to the patronage practiced by the machine's 70 or so "executive leaders," the series noted, was Robert Becker of Lynbrook. "Becker said he takes pride that neither he nor any member of his family receives anything," Newsday wrote in its series. "Becker said his insurance firm does no government business, he won't help relatives get municipal jobs and he doesn't accept the normal $197-per-meeting pay from his part-time post on the Nassau County Medical Center's board of managers."

The next generation of Beckers may not share their uncle's enthusiasm for a separation of powers. Fran Becker is a county legislator, and brother Hilary runs the family's real-estate business. According to campaign records and other public documents, the Becker real-estate appraisal arm has a $197,000 relationship with the county to help ease the load of the thousands of property-tax grievances filed against Nassau. And some of the people whose county appraisal cases the Becker firm has undertaken have contributed money to Fran Becker's campaign.

According to Nassau's list of "court calendar appraisal assignments," petitioner Marcella Lamanna was scheduled for an Oct. 6 hearing on her property-tax grievance, and the Beckers' real-estate firm was listed as the outside appraiser put on the case by the county. According to Fran Becker's campaign reports, he received a $200 contribution on June 2, 1999, from Alfredo Lamanna Trucking Inc. Alfredo Lamanna is the husband of Marcella Lamanna.

Fran's brother, Greg, is a deputy commissioner of the Town of Hempstead's department of planning and economic development. Among the vendors who do work for the town's department is the Valley Stream law firm of Minerva & D'Agostino, headed by veteran GOP lawyer Dominick Minerva. The department's records show that Minerva was paid at least $20,000 a month in June, July, August and September of 1999. According to campaign records, the Minerva firm gave $200 to Fran Becker's campaign on April 12, 1999.

Fran Becker says the contributions don't conflict with his job as a lawmaker. If the legislature voted on a matter affecting his family business, he says, "I would recuse myself."

But still, it looks like you guys in the machine are all connected in a cosmic sort of oneness, Fran.

"Don't say 'you guys,'" Fran Becker replies. "I'm not one of 'you guys.' I know there are perceptions out there, some of which aren't true. Dominick Minerva is a longtime family friend, to back when my grandfather was in Congress and my dad was mayor. I play golf with him. And does my campaign make it or break it on two hundred bucks from Lamanna? No. My integrity is very important to me. Anything my family has ever done is very, very ethical in every respect. My brother Hilary gets business from the county? I'm very proud of him for that."

Fran Becker even insists that the GOP machine's 14-5 veto-proof majority in the county legislature doesn't march in lockstep to Mondello's orders.

"As far as Mondello coming down to tell us to vote," he says, "that doesn't happen. But come down here for lunch some time, and we can talk. We can even talk about some things off the record."

Let me check with Mondello first, Fran.


No work, no pay — or vice versa

You've got your Mort Certilmans, your Jeff Forchellis and your Peter Bees and your Steve Eismans and your Mike Axelrods—all of them high-powered lawyers tied to the Nassau GOP machine at its highest levels.

Axelrod, for one, has gotten great deals while negotiating with his friends in county government on behalf of the unions that represent Nassau County's cops. And Nassau's cops and court officers and detectives and jail guards and their counterparts in many of the huge county's 64 villages have pumped in thousands of dollars to the machine's coffers and those of its candidates.

 

Then there are the low-end lawyers. Many of them scramble for assignments as court-appointed attorneys representing accused people who are too poor to afford legal help.

Is there a fixed rotation system for such assignments, as there is even in big, evil New York City? No, there's not.

But there is a system in which some of the lawyers who get goodly shares of such assignments are the same ones who make campaign contributions to judges. That is not to say that the lawyers who win these assignments get them solely on that basis. Many of them are highly competent. But of the 248 lawyers on the Nassau County Bar Association's list of approved names in its Assigned Counsel Defender Plan, 20 of them got 37.1 percent of the work. Among those 20 are some very hard-working and dedicated lawyers. Representing the poor is not the way to get fabulously rich.

The rates for such work—unchanged since 1986—are $40 an hour for in-court time and $25 an hour for out-of-court work. The lawyers submit vouchers to the program and are reimbursed.

In one of the more unfair parts of an unfair system, the little guys wind up giving even more to the judges than the big boys give.

For instance, Carnell Foskey of Lakeview is running for Family Court judge after the machine moved him from District Court. While he was on District Court, his campaign records show, he got $500 from lawyer Eliot Bloom on Sept. 23, 1997. During the calendar year 1998, Bloom worked on fourteen Assigned Counsel cases and received $3,031.25.

During the same year, lawyer Lawrence Andelsman worked on eleven cases and got $3,802.50. On Aug. 28, 1997, he also sent $500 to Foskey's campaign.

In Judge Tony Marano's campaign, Bloom gave $250 on Aug. 5, 1998.

But Marano's campaign got only $100 from Jeff Forchelli's law firm, such a heavyweight place that Al D'Amato's brother Armand used to work there.

Marano gave out nearly as much as he took in. Last year, his committee paid the Nassau GOP's main campaign committee $1,194.25 for the printing of palm cards and bumper stickers. (The machine owns its own print shop.) And Marano's committee paid another print-shop bill to the Nassau GOP of $173.20, on Oct. 6, 1998. And it sent $500 to the central committee on Sept. 29 as a "transfer in," followed on Oct. 6 by another "transfer in" of $300. Followed by yet another "transfer in" of $140 on Oct. 27. But among the many payments Marano's committee got from the central committee during roughly the same time was $2,784.14.

Marano's campaign also got $250 from Dominick Minerva's firm on Sept. 19, 1998. And another $250 from Mort Certilman's firm, where Joe Mondello himself hangs a shingle.

See, all the pieces of the machine really do fit together.


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