Brooklyn Democratic boss Clarence Norman took over the cover of the Daily News once this week, and was the subject of a combined four full pages of scandal copy. Just a couple of years ago, the Post ran a series of exposés that detailed Norman’s seedy manipulation of Brooklyn courts. And when Rudy Giuliani came into office in 1994, his ranting about construction cost overruns at Kings County Hospital led to well-publicized probes that focused on Norman and led to the federal conviction of his former business partner. But Norman himself has survived every storm.
The county’s district attorney, Joe Hynes, is now preparing to try Supreme Court Judge Victor Barron, installed by Norman in 1998, for putting a $115,000 price tag on a civil settlement. Nearly a half dozen other judges—many of whom were anointed by Norman—have been implicated in a swirling Court Street scandal. Hynes however has been anything but aggressive about Norman, who routinely supports him, both for re-election and in Hynes’s periodic quests for higher office.
As solid as the News stories were, they did not point out the case their own facts made for criminal charges. Between May and August of last year, Norman, who is also an assemblyman, got the county party he controls to make three loans totaling $115,000 to the assembly committee he controls. He told reporters that the interest-free loans were used to pay workers in a variety of city campaigns last year. “The work of the Democratic county organization is performed by the local political clubs,” he said. “The various district leaders hire people to go out and give out flyers and to assist with the get-out-the-vote effort.”
The problem is that it’s a misdemeanor violation of Section 2-126 of the state election law for a party organization to spend one cent of its money on a primary, or for “any person representing or acting on behalf of a party or party committee” to do the same. Since all of these loans—the largest in county party history, according to its spokesman, Jeff Feldman—came during the primary campaign, every expenditure made by Norman’s committee designed to aid a primary candidate would constitute a potential misdemeanor. The loans cannot be explained, as Feldman claimed, by calling them “a bridge loan” designed to resolve “a cash-flow problem” with Norman’s committee, since Norman had no race in 2001 and started the year with a $108,193 balance.
Feldman also contends that these so-called loans—which Norman repaid only after he was contacted by the News—don’t violate state law because the prohibition covers only expenditures by a party committee, not loans. Presumably, any competent prosecutor could demonstrate that shifting the funds between committees was a transparent circumvention of the party’s spending ban.
While misdemeanor violations of the election law are punishable by up to a year in prison, the statutes also provide that a repeated practice of violation can constitute a felony. Since Norman’s committee did not report receiving two of the loans, it’s not possible to fully determine how much of the party funds were dispersed for primary activities. But clearly some were—for example, immediately after receiving the one reported loan, the committee paid $2133 to a printer and $8000 to two Norman campaign operatives, Carmen Martinez and William Boone.
Norman also richly rewarded Jackie Ward, a longtime political associate who’d been living in Cassett, South Carolina, for a year and a half. Three days after the first loan in May, the Norman assembly committee made a $9333 payment to Ward. And when the committee got a $40,000 loan on August 29, its first payment was to Ward—$4667 on August 31. Ward was paid $20,000 on the committee’s filings, with Norman claiming that $6000 of it was to cover expenses associated with her move to New York. Since the additional party loans totaling $75,000 were never reported as received, it can’t be determined if Ward got any of these funds as well, but sources indicate that she was paid tens of thousands more.
Ward also received $95,120 from another committee controlled by Norman, the Thurgood Marshall Democratic Club. Ward collected this extraordinary amount between October 5 and November 11, ostensibly for her consulting work in connection with Mark Green’s mayoral campaign. Green gave the Marshall club $245,000 to help in last year’s runoff primary and the general election.
Once Norman’s assembly chief of staff, Ward came back to the city from South Carolina at Norman’s request, according to two sources who know her well, primarily to manage the losing campaign of borough president candidate Jeannette Gadson. Between February and the September 25 primary, the Gadson campaign paid Ward $38,491, a far cry from the bonanza she got from Green, but still significant. Any Norman use of county funds to increase Ward’s compensation for the Gadson work would not only be a misdemeanor, it would also violate the city’s Campaign Finance Board Law.
The CFB has already indicated it is investigating the Norman transactions to see if candidates backed by him—like Gadson and Letitia James, who lost the Crown Heights-Fort Greene City Council race—were beneficiaries of in-kind consulting or other campaign services not paid for by their committees. Likewise, if one of the reasons Ward got so much of the Green money was that she’d been underpaid by Gadson, that, too, would violate CFB rules. A tally of the Green, Gadson, and Norman payments to Ward amounts to an astonishing $153,610 for nine months of work. Incredibly, she was also once the top campaign operative for the Norman candidate who should be investigating her, Joe Hynes.
Ward was hired in January as an $80,000-a-year special assistant to the only winner Norman backed this year, City Comptroller William Thompson. Carmen Martinez, who is the treasurer of Norman’s committee, also works for Thompson, and is paid $91,307 a year. The Post‘s Norman series, written by Maggie Haberman and Jack Newfield, revealed that in the ’90s many judicial candidates and others backed by Norman put another of his close associates, Carl Andrews, on their campaign payroll, often at exorbitant rates. While Andrews, who became a state senator in a special election this year, has recently received less in consulting payments, Ward appears to be continuing the practice.
But it’s not just shady campaign financing that has the media focused on Norman. It’s also shady judicial appointments. While the Barron story and others have dominated the news, no one has paid attention to Norman’s 2001 machinations in making a new supreme court judge, Howard Ruditzky. Ruditzky was a civil court judge, elected to a 10-year term in 1991. He ran with the backing of Norman’s county organization for re-election in the September primary last year. Though county-endorsed judicial candidates win almost automatic re-election, Ruditzky came in last in a field of four.
Within days of his rejection by the people, Norman decided to give him a supreme court judgeship, a far more important post that can be doled out by party leaders without any primary participation by voters. Court Street insiders could not think of another occasion—even going back to the sewer days of twice-convicted party boss Meade Esposito—when a losing civil court nominee was rewarded with the top plum.
Norman controls the judicial nominating convention that picks the Democratic candidates for 14-year terms on the supreme court. He also routinely garners third-party ballot lines for the candidates he designates, as he did for Ruditzky. At the last minute, Norman elevated Ruditzky, whose record was so spotty he was one of the few Brooklyn civil court judges to spend a mere six months as an acting supreme court judge, appointed by the Office of Court Administration in 1999 and quickly rotated out of the job.
All of this Norman intrigue is an invitation for investigation, a clarion call to Hynes, the once proud prosecutor who now appears to be just one of the boys.
Research assistance: Annachieara Danieli, Martine Guerrier, Lauren Johnston, Peter G.H. Madsen, Jess Wisloski