Saturday, February 21, 2009

New York Surrogate-Elect Indicted

Judge-Elect Is Indicted Over Donations to Her Surrogate’s Court Race
The New York Times by JOHN ELIGON - December 11, 2008

The Democratic primary was nearing and Nora S. Anderson, a candidate for judge in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court, was running low on campaign money. She had campaign materials to print and mail, and staff members to pay, prosecutors said.

Toward the end of August, Ms. Anderson got just what she needed. Two payments totaling a quarter of a million dollars were deposited into her campaign account, and in disclosure reports filed with the state, Ms. Anderson, a lawyer, said she had made a loan and a donation to herself.

But the money did not come from her own funds, prosecutors said on Wednesday. The actual source, prosecutors said, was Seth Rubenstein, a lawyer who was Ms. Anderson’s boss, friend and campaign adviser.

Ms. Anderson and Mr. Rubenstein conspired to conceal the money trail, prosecutors said, to avoid exceeding the individual donor limit of $33,122.50. State law allowed Ms. Anderson to contribute as much of her own money to her campaign as she wished.

“They took fairly elaborate steps to evade the law,” said Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney.

Ms. Anderson, 56, went on to beat Justice Milton Tingling of State Supreme Court and a lawyer, John Reddy, in the primary and was unopposed in the general election last month. She was in court Wednesday, but as a defendant, not a judge.

Ms. Anderson and Mr. Rubenstein were indicted in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on felony charges of filing false documents and falsifying business records. If convicted, each faces up to four years in prison.

They also face misdemeanor counts of knowingly and willfully violating contribution limits, punishable by up to a year in jail.

“Here you have $250,000 coming from Rubenstein made to appear like it was coming from Anderson,” Mr. Morgenthau said at a press conference. “That’s the crux of the case.”

Gus Newman, Ms. Anderson’s lawyer, said his client was innocent and still deserved her seat on the bench. An indictment does not require her to step down, prosecutors said.

“Before these charges she had a totally unblemished reputation,” Mr. Newman added. “When all the facts come out in the courtroom, it’ll be clear that Nora’s reputation will be restored and that she’s totally innocent of any wrongdoing.”

Ms. Anderson and Mr. Rubenstein pleaded not guilty before Justice Bruce Allen. Both were ushered into the courtroom in handcuffs. Ms. Anderson wore black stilettos, a dark blue pinstriped suit, a Burberry coat and a pearl necklace. Mr. Rubenstein wore his thinning gray hair pulled back in a ponytail and a dark suit with a red tie.

Both ignored reporters’ questions as they left the courthouse.

The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, is expected to decide whether to suspend Ms. Anderson before the end of the year, said David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration.

The court may discuss a suspension now but cannot take action until Jan. 1, when Ms. Anderson’s term officially begins. A felony conviction would most likely result in her removal from the bench by the Court of Appeals.

If Ms. Anderson resigns, it will be up to Gov. David A. Paterson to appoint someone to take her place until the general election in November, Mr. Bookstaver said. If she were to take the bench but is then suspended, the state’s chief administrative judge, Ann Pfau, would appoint a temporary replacement, Mr. Bookstaver said.

Surrogates’ courts are no strangers to scandal. In 2005, Michael H. Feinberg, a surrogate in Brooklyn, was removed after the State Commission on Judicial Conduct found that he had awarded $8.6 million in legal fees to a friend without verifying that the friend had done the work. Judges in surrogate’s courts, as the handlers of wills, estates and guardianships, have the power to appoint lawyers to lucrative cases.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office began investigating Ms. Anderson after receiving a tip over the summer, said Daniel J. Castleman, the chief assistant in the office.

As part of the investigation, prosecutors also examined a $225,000 loan that Mr. Rubenstein gave Ms. Anderson in April. The loan could have been considered a contribution that exceeded limits because it was not repaid by the primary, Mr. Castleman said. But Ms. Anderson repaid that loan with her own money shortly after the primary, he said, and the office did not file charges in relation to that.

The focus of Wednesday’s charges was two large deposits made to Ms. Anderson’s campaign account in August.

The first, for $100,000, was posted to her campaign account on Aug. 20, one day after Ms. Anderson deposited a check from Mr. Rubenstein for the same amount into her personal bank account, prosecutors said.

The second payment, for $150,000, was wired into Ms. Anderson’s campaign account on Aug. 26, the same day Mr. Rubenstein transferred that exact amount of money into Ms. Anderson’s personal brokerage account.

Mr. Rubenstein’s lawyer, Frederick P. Hafetz, said his client did not commit a crime.

“Mr. Rubenstein acted totally within the election law,” Mr. Hafetz said. “We are confident he will be vindicated at trial.”

Mr. Reddy, one of the defeated candidates, said, “I take no joy in any of this,” but declined to comment further.

Ms. Anderson, working as a lawyer for Mr. Rubenstein’s firm, has handled only Surrogate’s Court cases for the past decade, said her lawyer, Mr. Newman.

Even as she was being investigated, Ms. Anderson was preparing to take the bench.

She took the oath of office during a private ceremony last week, according to Janet Mishkin, the principal law clerk for Kristin Booth Glen, one of the two judges currently serving in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court.

It is customary for judges to hold private swearing-in ceremonies before they take the bench. But the oath does not become official until Jan. 1, after it is filed with the city clerk’s office.

If she were to take the bench, Ms. Anderson would replace Renee R. Roth and serve alongside Judge Glen, who administered the oath.

Mick Meenan contributed reporting.

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