$140,000 for a Judgeship?
Bernard "Mitch" Alter, a prominent lawyer who claimed he was working on behalf of Brooklyn congressman Edolphus Towns, allegedly demanded $140,000 from a civil court judge who asked him to help run her re-election campaign. But after Judge Maxine L. Archer, who was running unopposed, warned Alter that the demand amounted to a "shakedown" and "extortion," Towns's camp allegedly encouraged a relatively unknown lawyer to challenge Archer.
Alter emphatically denies he tried to con the judge. "No!" the self-described "hired gun" insists. "I did not demand $140,000 from her. She doesn't know what she is talking about." A top aide to Towns swiftly distanced the congressman from Alter's "private business dealings" with Archer, saying that if Archer's characterization of her conversations with Alter is correct, then Alter "used the congressman's name without his permission."
"Anybody who knows the congressman knows that's not his style," adds the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He does not do that!"
Until a Voice investigation uncovered details last week, the judge had vaguely alluded to an attempted shakedown in a campaign brochure she has been mailing to voters. "This summer," she wrote, "I am the only one of five judges up for re-election who is forced to engage in a heated primary campaign against a less competent person, simply because I refuse to be coerced or extorted by certain so-called political leaders, former political leaders, and their lawyers, who think they can keep on behaving like old-time bosses. They are running a more easily led person in an effort to punish me."
A confidant of Archer's told the Voice that in April Alter and Everett George, a political consultant, initially met with Archer at the Queens home of Archer's father, Norman, a retired attorney. Alter, Towns's former campaign treasurer, abruptly lashed out at the judge for not hiring three people at Archer and Archer, a law firm she ran with her brother, Michael. In the sleazy world of Brooklyn politics, such favors are expected in return for helping judges get elected. "Three people?" snaps Alter, who together with Towns helped Archer get elected to the civil court in 1990. "Boy! Oh boy! Oh boy! I have no idea what this woman is talking about."
It was at this point, according to the source, that Alter and George allegedly demanded $140,000, the kind of money they reportedly said would guarantee Archer's re-election. (Alter says George is on vacation and could not be reached for comment.) Archer was outraged. "I am an incumbent," she told her confidant. "I'm the judge, and I'm going to pay them $140,000 for a job that I already have?" Archer's reaction was to some extent understandable: the price of access to political and judicial clout in Brooklyn doubtless has risen, but how much is enough?
"Put it in writing!" Archer reportedly told Alter during a heated exchange. In a letter dated May 1, which was stamped "personal and confidential" and hand-delivered to Archer, Alter states, "I am answering a request made by you for a campaign budget for your re-election." In Alter's budget:
- $35,000 was allocated for "petitioning, mailing, and Election Day operation" in the 40th Assembly District. The campaigning was to be "done in conjunction with Diane Gordon." Gordon is a former special assistant in the office of Congressman Towns. She is challenging nine-term incumbent assemblyman Edward Griffith, Towns's longtime friend and ally. (Towns says he asked Gordon to resign.)
- $44,000 was to defray the cost of similar activities in the 54th Assembly District, "which will be done in conjunction with Darryl Towns," the congressman's son, who represents that district.
- $7000 was to be set aside for the 39th Assembly District for campaigning "in conjunction with [State Senator] John Sampson and his operation."
- $54,000 was to be Alter's "consultant fee," including payment for "legals and coverage" in the 55th Assembly District, "supplemental district coverage and a person to work directly with you for the entire summer, and [for] Mr. Everett George as petition and field coordinator." (Alter acknowledges he wrote the proposal: "Am I trying to hide from this?")
According to Judge Archer's confidant, shortly after she received the letter, Alter followed up with a phone call to Archer's father, saying he wanted a certified check for $60,000 within 48 hours or all considerations were off. The money, Alter allegedly told Judge Archer, was earmarked for Congressman Towns. Says the confidant: "Judge Archer's father told Mitch Alter that he was insulting him; that he'd insulted him for the last time, and would not use his services anymore." Alter denies he asked for $60,000.
Archer, says the source, later met Towns at a Democratic clubhouse in Brooklyn and asked him about the $60,000. "You know, Max, I've never taken any money from you. I don't want your money," the source quoted Towns as saying, adding that the congressman insisted he did not need her money since President Clinton was coming to New York to help him raise $250,000 for his own re-election bid in the 10th Congressional District. The congressman's aide acknowledges that Towns talked to Archer about her misgivings, but notes that Archer's main concern was that "Mitch's fee was too high"that she never mentioned the $60,000. "Ed Towns has never asked any candidate to contribute money to him," the aide reiterates. In an attempt to quell the dispute and clarify any confusion about his involvement, Towns set up a meeting. Archer's confidant says that Archer was unable to attend because she was given short notice.
From then on, Archer's re-election chances seemed bedeviled. She told friends that all of her contacts who associated with the congressman disavowed their ties to her. She says she then discovered that Towns and Alter had thrown their support behind Betty Williams, an official at the Board of Education who has no judicial experience. "Why criticize me for looking for work?" asks Alter. "It's what I do. Nobody can say I'm tied to the county organization." Archer fought her former allies, objecting to Williams's petition to get on the ballot. Alter, who by now was representing Williams, tried to invalidate Archer's petition. "Why should she get away without a race?" sneers Alter, who has a track record of running insurgents against the county machine. Both candidates later agreed to withdraw their challenges.
Archer switched allegiance, putting her re-election hopes in the hands of Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the Democratic county leader who has been battling Towns for two years over the rumor that Towns intends to bequeath his congressional seat to his son Darryl. In 1998, members of the Coalition for Community Empowerment, the mostly black political machine in Brooklyn, called for "an end to the increasing tension and separation" between Norman and Towns. "There has been relative peace among elected officials in Brooklyn, and Congressman Towns and Assemblyman Norman are in communication with each other, and appear to have a working relationship," the coalition stated in a January 12 letter to Councilmember Una Clarke, who was engaged in her own squabbles with Congressman Major Owens. But the so-called truce between Norman and Towns has not held, and the fight over Judge Archer's candidacy could imperil any attempt at reconciliation.
Asked about Archer's charges that Alter tried to extort money from her, a Towns protégé, who asked not to be identified, replied, "The Mitch Alter types often act independently, and elected officials are often forced to defend guys like Mitch because of long-standing relationships." He says that despite Archer's break with Towns, the congressman's son still tried to help her. "Darryl Towns carried Maxine Archer's petitions even though she did not give him one red cent."
The once widely supported Judge Archer now has a host of political enemies because of the "prominent politician [she] now seeks to demonize," another Towns backer asserts. Archer, he suggests, panicked, and should have waited for Towns to act. "The judge may have been anxious and impatient, jumping ship too fast."
Questions about political bosses who demand huge sums of money from candidates who want desperately to get elected are not all that uncommon. In Brooklyn, that's the way Meade Esposito did things. But it would be surprising if powerful politicians like Edolphus Towns and Clarence Norman were unable to affect the outcome of campaigns in their districts on the basis of their own influence. However, that's how it's done, others contend, and what happened in the case of Judge Archer may be deceptive. "What did Norman ask of her?" Alter queries. "What did she agree to do for Norman? I haven't got 10 cents from the lady."
The process by which judges are "made" in New York is a complicated matter. "It has long been an open secret that New York City courts are patronage mills where party loyalty buys judgeships and judges reward party hacks with lucrative assignments," the Daily News said in an editorial condemning the practice.
In January, Mayor Rudy Giuliani encouraged the state's chief judge, Judith Kaye, to launch an investigation after two disgruntled Democratic Party officials, lawyers Arnold Ludwig and Thomas Garry, admitted that judges hand out assignments based on patronage. Ludwig and Garry complained in a letter that they were being frozen out of plum court work by another attorney, Ravi Batra, despite "unquestioned loyalty" to the party. Batra, who steered jobs to his own law firm, is a friend and former law partner of Clarence Norman. As county leader, Norman puts judges on the ballot, and questions about the county organization's alleged role in the selling of judgeships have been circulating for years. Even though it is clearly unethical, the practice may not be illegal.
In predominantly Democratic areas like Brooklyn, lawyers interested in becoming judges often align themselves with elected officials who assist them in running their campaigns. These candidates often piggyback on slates with politicians who themselves are seeking re-election or political bosses battling for control of key districts. And if a district is big enough, the judicial hopeful is injected in several campaigns. As a result, an unholy alliance is formed.
"Of course some Democratic politicians have broad electoral influence, making it much more likely that a judicial candidate would be elected if that candidate were to align himself to one of the powerhouses in the party," says a political consultant who has advised both Towns and Norman in the past. "In all cases, the candidate for judicial office provides his or her political benefactor with money for their races. So the phrase 'buying a judgeship' is misleading; it should be called 'financing a campaign.' "
What the judicial candidate is paying for is the expertise of the professional campaign staff of the elected official, the consultant emphasizes. He says the money goes to consultants and community workers who distribute flyers in housing developments, print palm cards and campaign posters, and organize town hall meetings. Once elected, judges pick loyal lawyers as receivers for properties that have been foreclosed. Such assignments bring hefty fees. These lawyers in turn hire other lawyers to help manage the properties, and they share in the fees.
One political operative says Towns was not upset about not "getting paid," but was only "covering his ass" when he backed Judge Archer's challenger. "As Clarence Norman's candidate, the judge will be campaigning against Norman's enemies," the operative explains. "Clarence Norman could point to Towns's lack of vision in not seeking to place a qualified candidate on the bench. Ed Towns will now be forced to match the wrath of the Brooklyn Democratic machine's candidate to ensure that his political allies are protected." A politician like Towns, he adds, would never leave his underlings exposed to a candidate who is supported by individuals seeking to destroy the political organization it has taken him years to build.
"He had to avoid the political ramifications," the operative argues. "If Towns did not run a candidate against the judge, her name would be on the ballot without opposition, and people who want to vote for a different kind of civil court judge would be left without a choice."
Judge Archer says she's the only choice. "If this candidate [Betty Williams] is elected, it's our community that will suffer, and justice will not be served," Archer declares in her campaign brochure. "Our community deserves a civil court judge who is dedicated to fairness and serves as an example to the communitya judge who is unwavering in objectivity and unbossed by any self-appointed, callous leaders or their bagmen."
Additional reporting: Amanda Ward
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.