A Press Special Report
Public records blocked by court
Courthouse Patronage: Fourth in a Series
By Jacob Hodes
This series on courthouse patronage in the Bronx was reported and written by a class on investigative journalism 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.
Every year, Bronx judges appoint hundreds of attorneys to handle vital matters for incapacitated people or distressed property.
These individuals, known as “fiduciary appointees,” are well-paid for their time, earning a total of $2.6 million in the Bronx last year.
Despite reforms put in place in 2003 to stem the tide of political patronage, many top appointees are also well-connected, with strong ties to the Bronx Democratic Party and the political organizations that help judges win election, a recent investigation by the The Riverdale Press found.
These abuses are neither new nor unique to the Bronx.
What is unique to the Bronx is the difficulty one encounters when trying to obtain records that can shed light on whether court-appoint fiduciaries are qualified to fulfill their responsibilities to the vulnerable in their care.
Under state law, such documents should be available to the public.
Article 81 of the state’s Mental Hygiene Law, which covers many of the relevant cases, states that “the court shall not enter an order sealing the court records in a proceeding under this article, in whole or in part, except upon a written finding of good cause.”
Still, The Press was unable to obtain any records involving fiduciary appointments from the Bronx County Clerk’s office for more than a month. All of the files were sealed, clerks said.
Top officials at the clerk’s office confirmed this policy, citing concerns about sensitive financial and medical information contained within some of the documents.
After being turned down, The Press visited courthouses in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Nassau County. In each of those offices, similar case files were available upon request and without redaction.
David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the state’s Office of Court Administration, confirmed that such records should be available to the public. “If they were told that [the files] were not public, [they] were told incorrectly,” he said.
Keywordsbronx courts, patronage, fiduciary appointees, office of court administration, Frederick Rossetti, bronx county clerk's office, Stanley Schlein,