Saturday, February 16, 2008

Buy a Judgeship INC

You would think that the disgrace of Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Clarence Norman would have at least slowed the gush of money from judicial candidates to his successor in the party machine. Think again.

When the Brooklyn Democrats elected Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez their new leader in October 2005, the already-powerful politician pledged to restore order to a party rocked by judicial corruption. He was replacing Clarence Norman, a prodigious fundraiser who had been convicted of abusing party funds and was accused of pressuring judges to hire party-picked workers.Although not dogged by charges of malfeasance, the new leader has certainly continued his predecessor’s practice of vigorously shaking his borough’s money trees. And an examination of the Friends of Vito Lopez campaign disclosure file at the state Board of Elections reveals that his donors include almost every borough candidate for the bench.Since his elevation last year, Lopez’s committee has collected $193,760 — including more than $6,000 in contributions from 18 different judges and judicial candidates. During the period of 1999 to 2005, Norman averaged roughly $4,400 from similar donors. (For year-to-year comparisons of judge giving, see today’s LexMetrics.)The dynamics are most stark in this year’s Supreme Court race. Of the 20 non-incumbent candidates approved by the Brooklyn screening panel last July, 15 gave at least $250 to the Friends of Vito Lopez at a fundraiser held a few weeks before the evaluation.According to an individual who attended the event and who demanded anonymity, Lopez held the event in the backroom of a pizzeria in Williamsburg. “They’ll send out an invite, usually you have food, drinks, and try to get as many people’s support as possible,” she explained. “You don’t want to be the person who doesn’t go.” The five candidates who did not contribute to the judicial kitty did not receive the party’s nomination.One of those losers was attorney Mark R. Dwyer, counsel to Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan DA. “I’m not in the habit of making political contributions,” he said simply, declining to discuss what his failure to donate might have meant. When asked why he might have missed the Democratic fundraising boat, he responded, “I’ve never been involved in that circle.” Civil Court candidates also donated. These races are essentially settled during the September primary, because like the Supreme Court race, the party’s nod assures election victory in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough. In June, the Friends of Vito Lopez received contributions from both Dena Douglas and Jacqueline D. Williams — the two candidates who won the Democratic Party’s nomination to the Brooklyn Civil Court. Repeated calls to Assemblyman Lopez were not returned. In addition, several calls to his judicial contributors also went unreturned.Some observers feel that the Brooklyn scene didn’t change too much with the new leadership. Kent A. Yalowitz, an attorney at Arnold & Porter, spent months studying the Brooklyn Democratic machine. Yalowitz was one of the many attorneys leading Surrogate Judge Margarita Lopez Torres’s landmark lawsuit that overturned the Supreme Court selection system in New York.“It’s a fair inference that under the current regime, candidates need to curry favor with these people,” he explained. “From what I can tell, Assemblyman Lopez doesn’t represent a change in the philosophy.”The rules governing judicial campaign donations are in some ways more intricate than for other offices. According to Lee Daghlian, a spokesperson for the Board of Elections, most political campaign accounts can be kept open “forever,” but judicial campaign accounts must be closed shortly after the election. Additionally, incumbent justices are prohibited from contributing to political campaigns — a rule that Daghlian said has been in effect for at least 25 years: “It was for ethical reasons,” he said. “They wanted judges to be insulated from this process, particularly sitting judges.”This year, Lopez’s first test as party leader in Brooklyn, all five Supreme Court candidates backed by party leadership passed muster without a hint of struggle among the delegates who ultimately pick the justices at the convention. They will almost certainly win in the ceremonial election in November. And every successful Supreme Court candidate in Brooklyn, barring one incumbent, contributed at least $250 to a fundraiser for Lopez.
According to the 2006 Judicial Campaign Ethics Handbook, these contributions are permitted during a candidate's 'window period.' The window period commences nine months prior to the earliest of the following dates: (1) the date of formal nomination, or (2) the date of a party meeting at which the candidate would be endorsed, or (3) the date that the petition process begins.
If the person becomes a candidate in the general election, the window period ends six months after the general election. Otherwise, if the candidate loses the primary election, or fails to be nominated or endorsed in the applicable convention, caucus or party meeting, the window period ends six months thereafter.*
At the same time, the election window carefully limits the types of spending allowed: “During the judicial candidate’s window period, the candidate may (unless otherwise prohibited by law or rule) attend and speak at gatherings on his/her own behalf (including attending his/her own fund-raising event) and purchase two (2) tickets to and attend a politically-sponsored dinner or event, including a fund-raising event for other elected officials or candidates.”During the last seven years of election filings, several other judges ponied up to the Friends of Vito Lopez committee.In 2002, Brooklyn lawyer Eugene Hurkin and his household donated $600 to the Friends of Vito Lopez and, between 2001 and 2003, another $2,262 to the Committee to Re-Elect Clarence Norman. In 2001, his son, Allen Hurkin-Torres, donated $300 to Norman’s committee via his own election committee. That same year, Allen won a seat on the Supreme Court.Ironically, the recent federal ruling calling for reforms of the judicial nomination process might just increase the number — and amount — of judicial candidate donations to the Lopez machine. How that will affect Lopez’s relationship to individual members of the bench is an open question.In U.S. District judge John Gleeson’s January opinion in Lopez Torres vs. New York State Board of Elections, the judge overturned the state’s judicial selection system for the Supreme Court and ordered the state legislature to create a new one. Legislative action is expected early next year.In one scenario, the current system could be replaced by an open primary. That would probably jack up the price of judicial elections by hundreds of thousands of dollars.Conversely, the new system could follow the lead of other states — selecting judges based by merit systems, rather than elections, or creating alternative public funding for judicial races.In his 77-page decision, Judge Gleeson described Vito Lopez’s attempts to manipulate the career of Brooklyn Surrogate Margarita Lopez Torres: “If she hired [Vito] Lopez’s daughter, a recent law school graduate, as her court attorney, [Vito] Lopez would get Lopez Torres nominated to fill an upcoming vacancy on the Supreme Court that the party leadership had earmarked for a ‘Latino,’ ” Gleeson wrote, revealing the dark side of Vito Lopez’s

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