Friday, December 19, 2014
First in a series

Politics plays key role in appointments

A 'Press' special report

By CUNY Graduate School of Journalism investigative reporting students in conjunction with Riverdale Press editors
Marisol Díaz/The Riverdale Press
Bronx Supreme Court

This series was reported and written by a class on investigative journalism taught by Tom Robbins at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Contributors include: Lindsay Armstrong, Carla Astudillo, Sean Carlson, Tristan Hallman, Jacob Hodes, Alex Robinson, Rachel Sapin, Jorteh Senah, Joe Stepansky, Emma Thorne, and Kate Trafecante. Adam Wisnieski and Kate Pastor of ‘The Press’ provided additional reporting and editing.

Despite years of reforms, in some Bronx courtrooms, it is still just as helpful to know the judge as the law. Sometimes, it’s even more so.

That’s the finding of a Riverdale Press review of discretionary appointments by local judges and the legal practices of politically connected attorneys who often appear before them.

The review found that in spite of repeated efforts to divorce the courthouse from the political clubhouse, links between judges who must seek election and the lawyers who help them win ballot lines and votes, remain strong.

Those ties surface glaringly, the review found, when judges are called upon to appoint attorneys to serve as legal representatives for those unable to care for themselves, or to handle estates and foreclosures.

• As a Supreme Court judge, Nelida Malave-Gonzalez, who was elected in November as the Bronx’s new judge of the surrogate court, repeatedly tapped leaders of the Bronx Democratic County Committee, commonly referred to as the Bronx Democratic Party, to serve as court-appointed counsels, designations that yielded tens of thousands of dollars in fees. Since she began making appointments in 2010, Judge Malave-Gonzalez’s most frequent appointee, records show, has been Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who has represented Riverdale and Kingsbridge in Albany for 19 years and who serves as chair of the Bronx Democratic Party’s county committee.

• Howard Vargas, a past executive director of the Bronx Democratic Party who currently serves as the party’s legal counsel, has won 87 appointments from local judges since reforms went into effect in 2003. Mr. Vargas’ court designations over the years have included about two-dozen appointments as a receiver for troubled multi-family properties in bank foreclosures, although records show that several of the buildings continued to deteriorate under Mr. Vargas’ administration.

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