A few years ago, when long-serving Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Victor Barron was arrested for soliciting a $100,000 bribe from a lawyer, a colleague who worked in Barron's court remarked, "That's Brooklyn."
He had no idea how prescient the comment was. Over the summer, New York residents have been treated to an inside view of the borough's courts that even lawyers seldom see.
Shortly after the arrest of Barron, Charles Hynes, Brooklyn's district attorney, launched a corruption probe that has yielded some startling results. While many have suspected for decades that money put into one end of Brooklyn's political machine will emerge as a judgeship at the other, we now have confirmation. We also know that in some cases, the money spent in exchange for a seat on the borough's bench can be a wise investment.
As Hynes' investigators began to speak to current and former judges, they learned that as far back as the 1960s, significant amounts of money were required to gain party backing for a judgeship. Former State Supreme Court judge Thomas R. Jones admitted to investigators that in the late 1960s, he brought a bag filled with $35,000 in cash to party bosses sitting in a room behind a dry cleaner. He received his judgeship shortly after.
Even failed judicial candidates have started to talk. Karen Yellen, a judge sitting on the city's Civil Court (a court subordinate to State Supreme Court) told investigators that if she were to maintain the party's backing, she would have to hire certain political consultants and use specified companies to print her campaign materials. The inference, it seems, is that some of the money her campaign paid to the mandated consultants and printers would flow back to the party.
But the money doesn't simply flow from aspiring judges to the borough's political machine, it flows from lawyers to judges as well. According to a guilty plea taken this summer, the husband in a divorce case arranged payment of $10,000 to Judge Gerald Garson. Garson, to whom the case was assigned, then awarded the husband exclusive custody of the couple's two sons. In a conversation taped by authorities, Garson also says to the husband's lawyer, Paul Siminovsky, "I'll award him exclusive use on it [the couple's house]," and "She's [expletive]...You're in good shape either way. And your schmuck doesn't deserve it."
According to court papers, Garson actually developed an organization that would help to steer cases — with their potential for new bribes — to his docket. Arrested along with Garson was Nissim Elmann, who is a storeowner by trade but who is alleged to have trolled the Brooklyn courthouse for new clients for Siminovsky. Hynes alleged there were even two individuals in the matrimonial clerk's office who helped route cases to Garson's part, and Garson's court officer and retired clerk were arrested in the sweep, too.
Beyond the natural outrage that comes from learning that people sworn to uphold the law will break their oath the minute someone pays them to, there are the lives wrecked by Garson and his ilk. Consider that Garson awarded sole custody of two children to their father and gave the man the couple's house as well. This wasn't based on the law or the facts of the case. In fact, Garson as much as admits that it is the result of the bribe he has received in connection with the case, saying to the lawyer, ". . . your schmuck doesn't deserve it."
Were Garson not caught, those children might have spent the rest of their lives never seeing their mother.
The Brooklyn district attorney's office said the probe has yielded so much that even with the Garson arrests, it will take months to sort out the web of money and bribes between the borough's political machine, its judges and lawyers. Garson alone is alleged to have received cash payments and even a trip to Bali; every case the judge presided over is now being reviewed.
Said Hynes, "Would I be shocked that judgeships are for sale? Too much smoke, you know, would lead me to be naive to think that maybe it doesn't happen."
Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994, representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He is the author of The New Immigration Law and Practice, to be published in October.