Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Surrogate Court Grave Robbers

re-posted from Parentadvocates.org
 
The subtitle of the article on the July 29, 2012 New York Post: "Judges' pals cashing in on estates in NY's crony-filled surrogates system". In NYS the grave-robbers are protected by Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman, Governor Andrew Cuomo, former Chief Judge Judith Kaye and her late husband's law firm, Proskauer Rose, which is protected by Attorney Michael Cardozo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Corporation Counsel and Mayor of New York City, respectively. My mom's estate was stolen from me on July 27, 1998 by court fixer Attorney Kenneth T. Wasserman and given to Public Administrator Ethel Griffin by retired Surrogate Judge Renee Roth, one of the Judges who would not comment on the article posted here. That's ok, Ms. Roth!!! We have the facts. Betsy Combier , Editor
           
How insiders snatch millions from estates in the scandal-scarred Surrogate Courts
By BRAD HAMILTON and MICHAEL GARTLAND, Last Updated: 10:59 AM, July 29, 2012
LINK

If you’re a lawyer in New York, there’s no sweeter deal than getting assigned to an estate case in Surrogate’s Court.

The work is often routine — selling assets, paying bills, contacting heirs — but the pay can reach into the millions.

Landing such a gig requires currying favor with one of the city’s seven surrogate judges, who handle wills and estates. They have the power to appoint lawyers and approve their sometimes jaw-dropping invoices.

The jobs often go to the judges’ friends, associates or campaign contributors, court authorities admit. Looting of the estates can sometimes result.

The most recent example involves Bronx Judge Lee Holzman, who last week faced removal from the surrogate bench after he signed off on legal work that was never done.

The bills, according to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, totaled $300,000 and went to the judge’s associate, lawyer Michael Lippman, a Democratic Party crony who ran Holzman’s campaign financing, raising $125,000, a court watchdog claims.

Lippman then got into money trouble himself, racking up $1 million in gambling debts and allegedly faking bills to cover his losses.

Prosecutors say they uncovered the cooked books and charged him with fraud.

Another alleged thief preyed on a lucrative and largely unsupervised part of the system — cases in which there is no will.

Such cases go to public administrators, who work with Surrogate’s Court judges in handling their finances.

In May, Richard Paul, the bookkeeper for the Brooklyn public administrator, was indicted for stealing $2.6 million from these estates, allegedly manipulating the check-writing process to get at the cash.

Judges who allow fraudulent pay-outs are “a disgrace to the legal profession and to the state of New York,” said Monroe Freedman, a Hofstra University professor and leading expert on legal ethics. “They should be removed from the bench and disbarred.”

Freedman said an entrenched system of favor-trading, with hints of bribery, has persisted for decades.

“They’re stealing from the client, which is one of the worst things you can do,” he said. “I can’t think of much worse. The judges are not only condoning it, but they’re helping lawyers do it.”

Even when there is no illegality, huge sums vanish.

A decade after Wall Street investment banker Ted Ammon was beaten to death in his East Hampton home, a group of politically connected lawyers pummeled his estate with $10 million in fees, records show.

That amounts to 20 percent of his $50 million fortune, well above the 6 percent rate that court administrators deem acceptable.

The staggering payments helped shrink the inheritance of Ammon’s adopted twin children — son Grego and daughter Alexa — to just $1 million each.

The hefty legal tab was rubber-stamped by Surrogate’s Court judges in Manhattan and Long Island.

One of them, former Manhattan Surrogate Eve Preminger, approved $4.3 million to a single firm, Schulte, Roth & Zabel.

That amounts to $9,710 per day between February 2002 and July 2003.

Preminger had personal ties to the firm. She privately worked with Schulte’s pointwoman on the case, lawyer Susan Frunzi. The two wrote a textbook, “Trusts and Estates Practice in New York,” together.

The judge also owned stock in JPMorgan Chase, which she approved as estate executor.

The bank picked Schulte, then submitted its own bill for $1.6 million.

After Ammon’s widow, Generosa, died of cancer in 2003, the matter moved to Surrogate’s Court in Suffolk County, where Gerard Sweeney, an insider with the Queens Democratic machine, made a windfall.

He and another lawyer, Michael Dowd, were executors to the estate of Generosa Ammon, but also got appointed as lawyers by the Suffolk judge, John Czygier.

Together they scooped up a cool $2.2 million.

Sweeney hired Eisner LLP, an accounting firm that charged $123,000 for just one month of work in April 2004.

State court authorities long ago recognized serious problems in the Surrogate’s Courts.

They conducted two blue-ribbon panel reviews, in 2001 and 2005, and found that there was “an opaque system that operates on the basis of connections and cronyism” and that its own rules were being ignored.

So in 2002, they pushed through reforms, barring court employees and political party leaders from getting fiduciary appointments.

Any lawyer who earns more than $75,000 in a given year on a single case he’s appointed to now must wait a year before getting a second appointment.

There’s also a “sunshine” provision that demands the court system publish the names of appointees and their fees on its official Web site.

But that hasn’t stopped the tide of scandal.

Former Brooklyn Surrogate Michael Feinberg was forced out in 2005 and disbarred for approving excessive fees of 8 percent to a law-school friend.

His successor, Frank Seddio, stepped down in 2007 amid a probe by the watchdog Commission on Judicial Conduct into allegations he sent campaign cash to political cronies.

A commission committee voted to boot Holzman last week, but he’s fighting to keep his job.

His defense is to claim that other surrogates did the same thing — namely, signing off on fat payments without examining invoices, a practice that court authorities say is not OK.

His examples, listed in rebuttal to the charges, include former Manhattan Surrogate Renee Roth, one of the four Ammon judges, who was ripped by the city bar association for handing two-thirds of her lucrative legal assignments to attorneys who funded her election.

Has anything really changed?

Not according to former Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Felice Shea, who was hired as a referee on the Holzman matter and dryly concluded last week that in Surrogate’s Courts “statutory compliance and transparency are not the norm.”

Court spokesman David Bookstaver said the new rules have greatly improved the system.

“They certainly lend themselves to much greater accountability and transparency and have gone a long way to increase the public’s understanding and confidence in the Surrogate Courts,” he said.

Preminger, Roth, Frunzi, Sweeney and Dowd did not return calls for comment.

Before his death in 2001, Ammon doted on children Grego and Alexa, who are now 21, but they stand to inherit far less than what has been paid to the court-approved experts — just $500,000 in cash each, plus $1million for them to share in a trust named after the widow Generosa.

That trust has only one other asset: the East Hampton home where their father was killed by Generosa’s husband, Danny Pelosi.

But the house, valued at $9 million, cannot be sold until their former nanny, Kathryn Ann Mayne, dies.

She gets to live there for free for as long as she wants.

Additional reporting by Alex Freeman

brad.hamilton@nypost.com

Bronx Surrogate Court Judge Lee Holtzman Found Guilty of Official Misconduct By The New York State Commission On Judicial Conduct

Oh - in 1994 the husband of former Judge Eve Preminger was disbarred. He was re-instated in 2010 with the recommendation of Federal Judge Laval, who told the disciplinary committee that Friedman's
disbarment was "unfair".

A Lawyer Is Disbarred For Lapses Of Ethics
By SETH FAISON, NY TIMES, Published: March 23, 1994
LINK

Correction Appended

A prominent Manhattan lawyer was ordered disbarred yesterday for unethical conduct that included making false statements after a Federal judge accused him of improperly slipping a piece of evidence to the jury, then trying to blame his co-counsel when the judge found out.

A panel of five judges from the New York State Supreme Court's Appellate Division based its decision to disbar the lawyer, Theodore H. Friedman, on what it identified as 13 instances of unethical conduct growing out of two personal injury cases. The panel decided the instances "were not simply inadvertent or solitary peccadillos" but "consisted of a pattern of professional misconduct."

"For this court to impose any other sanction would ignore our responsibility to the legal profession and the public," wrote the judges, led by Judge Francis T. Murphy. Jury Verdict Ignored

In making its decision, the appellate judges overruled a disciplinary committee of the First Judicial Department of the Appellate Division, which recommended that Mr. Friedman, a negligence lawyer, be suspended for two years. It also ignored a jury verdict in 1988 that acquitted Mr. Friedman of charges that he tried to bribe potential trial witnesses in a wrongful death suit against New York City.

Mr. Friedman and his lawyer, Michael S. Ross, said they were stunned by the decision to disbar and would appeal. Mr. Ross said several prominent Federal and state judges wrote letters to the panel to attest to Mr. Friedman's good character, including Judith S. Kaye, chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals.

"A jury heard the same charges for four weeks and rejected them in a half-hour," Mr. Friedman said last night. "I don't know how a court could come to so contrary a view. I hope that an appellate court will correct this error." To Be Struck From Rolls

While the Court of Appeals determines whether it will consider the case, Mr. Friedman is to be struck from the rolls of the New York State Bar on April 22.

Mr. Friedman, 62, was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1957, a year after he graduated from Harvard Law School. He is not a member of the bar in any other state, said his wife, Eve Preminger, a Surrogate's Court judge in Manhattan.

"I am shattered by this horrible miscarriage of justice," Judge Preminger said last night. "As his wife for 30 years, I can say that my husband is the most honorable lawyer I know. As a judge, I would hope that the court would go beyond the referee's findings and examine the total record, which exonerates my husband."

Several lawyers and acquaintances of Mr. Friedman's described him as a highly successful lawyer who has collected millions of dollars in contingency fees -- payments based on a percentage of the award or settlement -- by representing clients in personal injury suits against individuals, companies and governments.

In 1992, he won a $58.77 million suit for a New York family whose son was seriously injured in a car accident near Cannes, France. He also represented the family of Libby Zion, who sued New York Hospital after she died mysteriously in 1984.

Frank Rosiny, chairman of the New York State Bar Committee on Professional Guidelines, said that fewer than 100 lawyers are disbarred each year in New York State, where more than 100,000 lawyers currently practice. Another lawyer said that most lawyers who are disbarred have been convicted of criminal wrongdoing, like stealing money from a client, unlike Mr. Friedman, who was accused of ethical lapses.

The earliest incident cited by the judges stemmed from a case that was filed in 1978 by Mr. Friedman, who was representing a woman whose husband died in a ship collision. The trial began in 1981 before Judge Pierre S. Leval in Federal District Court in Manhattan.

During the trial, Judge Leval denied a request by Mr. Friedman to include an expert's report as an exhibit, but said Mr. Friedman could refer to it in his summation. After the jury decided in favor of Mr. Friedman's client, it was discovered that the report had been sent with other exhibits to the jury room during deliberations.

Mr. Friedman swore in an affidavit that his co-counsel, Frederick J. Cuccia, was responsible for sending the exhibit to the jury, but Mr. Cuccia was out of the country at the time. Mr. Cuccia later denied responsibility, and the judges ruled yesterday that Mr. Friedman knowingly made false statements in his affidavit.

Most of the instances of unethical behavior reported in yesterday's ruling stem from a second case, in which Mr. Friedman represented the wife of a man who fell down an elevator shaft in 1979 in her suit against New York City.

An investigator hired by Mr. Friedman, Elliot Goldman, was accused of trying to bribe a potential witness in the case. Mr. Goldman was convicted of bribery and solicitation of perjury in 1987.

Mr. Friedman was also indicted for trying to induce a witness to lie in court, but he was acquitted in a Manhattan court in 1988.

Correction: March 24, 1994, Thursday An article yesterday about Theodore H. Friedman, a Manhattan lawyer who was ordered disbarred for unethical conduct, referred incorrectly in some editions to the post held by his wife, Eve Preminger. She is a judge in Surrogate's Court in Manhattan, not a State Supreme Court justice.

Without A Prayer For Relief

4 comments:

  1. If you are interested in a follow up story, I too have been victimized by Surrogate Court. One for the record books that leaves the Astor case in the dust.

    I have a case started in 2006, and it is now 7 years and they are just being the accounting process. The Trustee took $3,000,000. I’m on my 4th judge. The COURT’S ATTORNEYS have negligently and prejudiciously impeded the progress of the case. Attorneys' and accounting fees will exceed One Million and the trust has been dissipated.

    I have been advised by a former head of the Trust department from Simpson Thatcher that he has never seen or heard of a case like this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am interested. Please email me at psg2103@gmail.com

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