Brooklyn’s Democratic Party leaders—already besieged by the worst scandal in a generation over their judicial selection process—are poised to promote to the State Supreme Court a judge who has been sued for fraud and whose on-the-bench demeanor has been a frequent subject of courthouse derision. Civil Court Judge Lila Gold currently has an inside track for nomination to a much prized $136,700-a-year seat on the borough’s Supreme Court bench this fall, party insiders say.
Gold, 64, is finishing up a 10-year term on the lower court to which she was elected in 1993, when a rival Democratic Party faction backed her. The same faction supported her in 1996, when she mounted a hugely expensive but unsuccessful bid to become judge of the borough’s patronage-rich Surrogate’s Court, losing to the county organization’s chosen candidate. During the race, however, she proved herself an adept political fundraiser, collecting more than $500,000, most of it from businesses owned by figures in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community.
That fundraising prowess attracted the attention of top party officials; relations with the party were further smoothed over when she became a regular attendee at its political events.
“She has reached out to everybody and tried to impress on them that she is a loyal member,” said a party official allied with Democratic county leader Clarence Norman. Gold now has Norman’s support in her re-election bid, and she is currently unopposed in the party’s September primary election, making her victory a virtual certainty. Once she is re-elected, officials say, Norman’s organization is set to nominate her to the Supreme Court at the party’s judicial convention. Her vacated slot on the ticket for Civil Court will then be handed to another party loyalist.
That kind of brazen insider maneuvering has been the hallmark of Democratic politics in the borough for decades. But its performance this year, amid nonstop press reports of judicial chicanery and an ongoing grand jury probe, has even those long accustomed to the practice shaking their heads.
“These people are shameless,” said one party activist. “There is just an amazing arrogance to the whole thing.”
Even more surprising to many is that Gold, whose judicial temperament has generated courthouse buzz for years, is the organization’s designated beneficiary. Even in Brooklyn’s courtrooms, where judicial courtesy is often at a minimum, Gold’s conduct stands out.
“She is my nightmare of a judge,” said a fellow jurist who has observed her in action and listened to complaints from both defense lawyers and prosecutors. “To say she is harsh doesn’t even begin to describe it. She will put defendants in jail for failing to pay as little as $15 of the mandatory surcharges imposed on those convicted.”
Gold also has disconcerted both defendants and attorneys with her predilection for wearing colored plastic, dishwashing-style gloves while administering justice on the bench. She has explained to colleagues that she has a skin condition. But the condition only affects her in the courtroom; when she attends political dinners and functions, she doesn’t wear them.
In 1998, Jack Newfield and Maggie Haberman, writing in the New York Post, included Gold on a list of the city’s worst judges, citing her “irritability, nastiness, and irrational outbursts” in court.
The Post article asserted that Gold had been dropped from her previous position as a hearing officer in Family Court after complaints were lodged against her. Gold has denied it, saying she left the post voluntarily.
In the midst of the 1996 Surrogate’s race, Gold was hit with two civil lawsuits alleging fraud against her and a close friend who operated a for-profit educational company. In one case, the former owner of the Staten Island Register accused Gold of reneging on a deal to post $50,000 in municipal securities in an escrow account as collateral for a loan to Gold’s friend Howard Parkus.
In his lawsuit, Joseph Sclafani, ex-owner of the Register, claimed that Gold talked him into making the loan to Parkus. The money was to be used to help launch a business called High School Home Study Careers, Inc., which sold at-home study kits designed to help students pass high school equivalency tests. But Parkus stopped making payments on the loan in 1993, and when Sclafani tried to recover the debt from Gold, he found that the securities had been signed over to a woman named Jocelyn Feuerstein, who later served as treasurer of Gold’s Surrogate’s Court campaign.
“The transfers of the bonds were at the express direction of Gold without notice to, or the consent of, Sclafani,” the lawsuit alleged.
The lawsuit was later settled with Gold admitting no wrongdoing, but, in a deal negotiated by her campaign attorney, Jeff Buss, the money was repaid to Sclafani.
A second lawsuit was filed by a Staten Island woman named June Podolec who said she paid $40,000 to Gold and Parkus for the rights to sell the study kits. Podolec claimed Gold and Parkus never lived up to their promise to market the kits.
At the time, Gold denied any role in the deal, and the lawsuit was later dropped. Parkus, who has since died, told the Daily News‘ Tara George that the lawsuit was just part of “a political smear” by Gold’s opponents.
The race that year for surrogate was a particularly bitter battle between forces loyal to former assemblyman Tony Genovesi, the late leader of the Thomas Jefferson Club, who backed Gold, and those allied with Norman, whose candidate was Michael Feinberg, the eventual winner.
Gold, then a little-known Civil Court judge, stunned Brooklyn pols, first by jumping into the race and later with her massive fundraising. Gold’s campaign was initially funded by a $475,000 loan made by a man named Marcus Kohn who lived in Montreal. Gold’s campaign filings listed only a bank address for Kohn. The immense loan was the talk of Court Street, and repeated attempts by reporters at the time to reach the mysterious Kohn were unsuccessful.
Contributions, however, quickly began to roll in, many of them from businesses owned by or associated with operators of nursing homes and construction and building-material companies based in the heavily Orthodox neighborhoods of Borough Park and Williamsburg. A key fundraiser for Gold was businessman Leon Perlmutter, also a top money man for Governor Pataki.
Throughout the campaign, Gold ducked press inquiries about her funding, refusing to respond to messages left at home and with her office.
This campaign, Gold also isn’t talking—much.
Last Friday, the judge was seated in Part AP-4, a near-empty room on the sixth floor of Brooklyn’s criminal courthouse on Schermerhorn Street. She wore a deep scowl on her face and a pair of bright-purple latex gloves on her hands. Without looking up from her desk, she quickly remanded two shackled defendants brought before her.
When a reporter sat down in the courtroom, she sent an officer to ask what he wanted. Told he was seeking an interview, she had the reporter brought before her. She then peeled off the plastic gloves and pleasantly said that she wasn’t permitted to talk about anything. “OCA [the Office of Court Administration] has a mask of silence over me,” she said, passing her hand over her face. She was asked if she intended to seek a Supreme Court nomination. “I am running for Civil Court and that’s it,” she said. Then she smiled and added, “According to the rules, I can only run for one office at a time.”
As for the gloves, she said that she uses them on a doctor’s advice due to “contact dermatitis.” It isn’t necessary to wear them outside, she said. “Only in here, you see it’s very dirty around here,” said the judge. “You’ll notice that the officers wear them too, when they’re handling prisoners,” she added.