A smart lawyer with good connections is a handy person to have around, no matter his pedigree. That’s why, despite his steadily outrageous scofflaw behavior, the services of Bronx attorney and powerbroker Stanley K. Schlein remain in strong demand.
That Schlein, 60, is still at the top of his game was clear this month when he sat down at the elegant University Club in midtown across from Governor David Paterson and Senate Democratic leader Malcolm Smith. Schlein was there representing the three renegade Democratic senators who are demanding a fat share of the spoils before they agree to give their own party its long-sought majority in the state senate. He was holding all the aces.
The deal that Schlein helped win was so shockingly favorable to the so-called Gang of Three—awarding them committee chairmanships and leadership posts—that the rest of the Democratic caucus erupted in furor, forcing Smith to welsh on his handshake agreement with Schlein and his clients.
“Schlein is a very skillful negotiator,” said a Democratic legislator who sat in on portions of the meeting. “He outmaneuvered Smith and his own lawyer.”
Another delighted client happy to overlook his foibles is the New York Yankees, who keep Schlein on retainer as lobbyist, lawyer, and all-around fixer for issues dealing with city government. Public records show that Schlein has collected some $150,000 from the team over the past two years in legal and lobbying fees as he helped win political approvals for the new taxpayer-funded stadium that now stands where a wonderful public park once stood. Schlein’s remuneration is undoubtedly much more because he and his client don’t have to disclose his earnings from the local litigation he handles for the team when it needs a lawyer to appear in the Bronx courts.
Schlein remains the best man for this job because he has been in the Bronx judge-making business for decades. He is so revered in the courthouses on 161st Street that when he walks into court, the judges stand up for him—instead of the other way around. He earned this love and respect by being the leading point man for the Bronx Democratic organization, which picks most of the borough’s jurists.
Schlein’s political career was briefly interrupted when he and former Bronx Democratic party chairman José Rivera had a falling-out, leading Rivera to boot Schlein last year from his party posts. This is also why Rivera is now the “former” chairman. Schlein took his services to a group of party malcontents who quickly succeeded in ousting Rivera and his team from party power.
The new Bronx Democratic party chairman is a genial state assemblyman named Carl Heastie, who last week explained that he is delighted to have Schlein as his legal adviser. “Stanley is a very good election lawyer,” he said. “That’s what’s important to me.”
These well-tended clients make a point of knowing as little as possible about the rest of Stanley Schlein’s career, including the scandals that have surrounded him in recent years. For starters, there was his removal in 2006 as chairman of a panel overseeing civil service disputes. Schlein had enjoyed a post on the city’s Civil Service Commission as a patronage plum dating back to the early 1980s. Mayor Bloomberg was so pleased with Schlein that he named him chairman of the panel in 2003, a part-time job that paid $63,000 a year.
This ended when City Hall quietly let it be known that Schlein would not be re-nominated. No one was so impolite to say exactly why, but in January of this year, the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board announced that Schlein had agreed to pay a $15,000 fine for “misusing city resources.”
What he had done, Schlein acknowledged in a signed statement, was basically use the commission and its employees as his private law office. He had the office manager use computers, telephones, copiers, and fax machines to handle his legal work. He had her type and mail correspondence, prepare invoices, and even sit with clients to go over documents. Another office assistant delivered packages, greeted clients, and fetched materials from his car.
Lawyers need telephones, and the Conflicts Board found when it examined just two years of Schlein’s phone usage at the commission that he had made more than 2,000 calls for what the board delicately referred to as “non-city related matters.” The board refused to share those bills, but these calls were apparently easy to identify since many were long-distance, to Puerto Rico and elsewhere.
A less-charitable interpretation of this practice might have been theft of services, fraud, or even grand larceny. Just last week, days before Christmas, the city’s Department of Investigation found it necessary to arrest a Bronx woman on charges of concealing the presence of another income-earner in her subsidized apartment, thus defrauding the city Housing Authority of $19,000. This terrible crime prompted an entire paragraph of felonies, the worst of which is punishable by seven years in prison. In Schlein’s case, he was allowed to sign a stipulation, pay a fine, and continue on his way.
There was also no punishment handed out, other than his being told he couldn’t do it anymore, after the city’s court administrators found in 2006 that Schlein had mishandled several guardianship cases awarded to him by some of those Bronx judges that so admire him. Schlein was dropped from a list of eligible attorneys to receive such appointments, and that was that.
In fact, a Voice investigation that year into those musty folders in Bronx civil court found that “mishandled” was another polite euphemism. In a dozen cases, Schlein had repeatedly ignored the desperate pleas of family members and loved ones. There was the construction worker, brain-damaged from an accident, whose family could never get hold of Schlein when they needed him so that they could spend money from a lawsuit settlement to buy a wheelchair and clothes. Schlein somehow let a condo the victim owned go into foreclosure and be sold at auction. At the same time, he steered legal work from the estate to his friends in the Democratic Party.
There was the elderly incapacitated woman whose taxes Schlein never got around to filing and whose valuable stock certificates were allowed to expire. And there was Mary Johnson, 87, retired Irish domestic servant and devoted Catholic, whose life savings Schlein put in an account earning 1 percent at a bank where he was a major stockholder and which he also represented. Johnson was in a nursing home on Gun Hill Road, just minutes from Schlein’s home on City Island, but nurses never saw the lawyer at Mary’s side. Her family’s one request—that money be set aside so that her last surviving friend, another elderly retired domestic, could use a car service to visit her—went ignored as well.
When the article appeared, several lawyers commented that the court’s attorney disciplinary panel would be obligated to investigate. If so, no findings were ever issued.
Stanley Schlein remains a lawyer in good standing, negotiating with governors and senators. When the Voice asked for permission to use a photograph of Schlein from a recent charitable dinner for Easter Seals, the group’s vice president called to praise him. “This is the guy who makes Christmas happen,” said John McGrath. “He brings the kids toys from the Yankees, raises tons of money. This is an amazing human being.” Which is what the family of Mary Johnson thought as well.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 24, 2008