New York Daily News on Corrupt Surrogate Courts

To clean up corrupt Surrogate Courts, wake up and vote

The New York Daily News Errol Louis  – August 14th 2008 

Every couple of years, like clockwork, scandal hits New York’s Surrogate Courts, which sort out the estates of people who die without a will or leave a will that’s unclear or contested. In the wrong hands, the system lends itself to abuse. The elected surrogates have the power to appoint private attorneys to look after large sums of money. A rogues’ gallery of chiselers and crooks has flocked to the courts over the years, running up bills and draining money that rightfully belongs to the heirs and descendants of the dead. That’s why Manhattan Democrats need to pay attention to the upcoming primary for surrogate.

Most people don’t think about the court until the headlines report high-profile cases like Brooke Astor’s $132 million estate or the late Leona Helmsley’s nutty attempt to leave $12 million to her dog. But the reality is much less glamorous than those headlines. Last month, Daily News investigative reporter Nancie Katz uncovered a mess in the Bronx, where Surrogate Lee Holzman allowed politically connected lawyers to run up more than $2 million in fees while 37 heirs waited – some for more than a decade – and collected nothing. To make matters worse, some of the Bronx estate money was improperly placed in risky investments that tanked. Taxpayers may end up covering the $20 million loss. And then there’s Brooklyn, where ex-Surrogate Michael Feinberg was removed from office in 2005 for improperly allowing one of his pals to take excessively high fees from estates of the dead.

The scandals are nothing new. As far back as the 1930s, corruption problems led the city Bar Association to call for the Surrogate’s Court to be folded into the general court system – an idea still worth considering. Sen. Robert Kennedy mounted his own reform effort in the 1960s. And 40 years after his death we’re still trying to protect widows, orphans and the dead from predatory pols and lawyers. Which brings us to the Democratic primary for a 14-year term as Manhattan surrogate. All three candidates for the office describe themselves as reformers, although none has a clear claim to that title.

John Reddy, who has worked in the Surrogate’s Court for 29 years, was the protégé of a lawyer who got mixed up in a court scandal, but claims he was part of making things better and says “a pro-active surrogate who knows the system can make the court run better.”

Nora Anderson, an attorney in private practice, has been running a spirited campaign with the help of campaign manager Michael Oliva, a savvy strategist who has won several insurgent judicial races in recent years. But Anderson’s outsider/reform credentials have taken a serious and perhaps fatal hit in the form of a $225,000 campaign loan from Seth Rubenstein, a Brooklyn trust and estate lawyer with deep family ties to the business (his father served as Brooklyn surrogate in the 1950s, and his grandfather worked in the same court). Anderson will have to work hard to prove that, if elected, she will not be politically and financially indebted to Rubenstein.

The third candidate, Milton Tingling, is a Supreme Court justice endorsed by Harlem powerbrokers like ex-Mayor David Dinkins and Manhattan Democratic boss Denny Farrell. Tingling also snagged Gary Tilzer, a longtime gadfly and reformer, as a campaign strategist. “The two other candidates represent firms that have controlled the court for the past 50 years,” said Tilzer, who has campaigned against court corruption for decades. “It’s not Tammany Hall controlling the Surrogate’s Court, it’s families and connected friends.” Actually, it’s the people who have ultimate control in a democracy. All the more reason Manhattan Dems should think long and hard before picking the leader of a court that has eluded reform for generations. elouis@nydailynews.com

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