Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/313 Tue, 17 Oct 2017 18:39:47 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Thanks to a Push, Democratic County Organizations Slowly Grow Digital Footprint http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7138:thanks-to-a-push-democratic-county-organizations-slowly-grow-digital-footprint http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7138:thanks-to-a-push-democratic-county-organizations-slowly-grow-digital-footprint new queens democrats

The New Queens Democrats recently formed (photo via NQD on Facebook)


When Sahand Shahrabani moved to Forest Hills, Queens in 2013, the recent college graduate had one goal: to get involved in local politics. But a Google search turned up eerily sparse results for Democratic clubs in the borough and no trace of the Queens County Democratic Party.

“They don't have Facebook and there’s no website. I was definitely surprised and disappointed by the lack of web presence,” said Shahrabani, now 29.

During the 2016 presidential race, Shahrabani joined Queens’ People for Bernie group and met two other progressive Queens dwellers, Jesse Rose and Sam Schachter, with whom he would soon create the New Queens Democrats, the first progressive reform political club in the borough.

As part of their platform, the New Queens Democrats called on the Queens Democratic organization to embrace email communication and post useful information, such as events and resolutions, on an official webpage. “Our party is a modern one and our methods of communication should reflect that,” wrote the club’s founders.

Their rallying cry may have reached the ears of Queens’ Democratic Party establishment, led by Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley, because a representative for Queens Democrats told Gotham Gazette that the organization is in the midst of building a website, set to launch “very soon.”

“Expanding how the Queens County Democratic Organization communicates with its membership and the public is a large priority for Congressman [Joe] Crowley,” said Mike Reich, executive secretary for the Queens Democratic Party. ”Currently our robust outreach is done via email and the organization will continue to build on ways to engage members of the community in the digital space.”

Technologically, the Queens Democratic organization follows only shortly behind the city’s four other Democratic county committees, including the Kings County (Brooklyn) Democratic Party, which launched a website in 2015, and the New York County (Manhattan) Democratic Party which went online in 2013.

Bronx and Richmond County (Staten Island) Democratic parties also have inviting websites that have been in operation “for years,” according to representatives from both organizations.

There is no uniformity across the county committee sites, and many are missing essential information, like committee event calendars, a directory of district leaders and county committee members, district leader part maps, party rules, minutes from meetings, and party calls. They also use old fashioned postage to announce rare and under-attended committee-wide meetings and do little to promote the events on social media.

While for over a century the tight-knit, transactional style of party leadership has helped county dynasties retain power, if in the current digital age party organizations fail to modernize and engage the next generation of voters and activists, self-taught crops of Democratic organizers threaten to upend the old order. Without better digital presences, there may soon be too few people active in the party to keep a hold on power.

New Queens Democrats, which in several months has modestly grown to nearly two dozen members, is now focused on supporting other progressives who want to run for county committee, a massive body of representatives from each election district that meets biennially, but has few concrete powers aside from helping to select candidates for special elections and nominating judicial candidates. In New York City, where most elected seats are guaranteed to be Democratic, the county committee vote effectively decides the winner of most special elections, and is part of the pipeline of party operatives and officials.

The new Queens club is modeled after two other political clubs, the Manhattan Young Democrats and the insurgent New Kings Democrats in Brooklyn, which have successfully infused the Democratic apparatuses in their boroughs with progressive committee candidates and nudged the organizations in a more transparent, tech-friendly, outreach-focused direction.

The county committee system was originally designed to give ordinary New Yorkers a voice in their party organization, but with little understanding or available information of how the arcane system works, few take advantage of it in a meaningful way, and in each borough, thousands of seats are vacants at any given time. In 2009, the Manhattan Young Democrats launched the city’s first “open seat project” to get more people to run for county committee and fill these vacant posts.

Unlike government agencies, Democratic county organizations are privately run, often dynastic entities, operating autonomously from the state Democratic Party, according to John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany.

“The parties can select and recruit and organize themselves any way they want,” said Kaehny. “If they want to be backwards and insular and uninviting, protect the status quo and refuse to be dynamic and invite new blood, they can.”

When county organizations are reluctant to embrace technology or lack a web presence, it suggests that they are more focussed on maintaining old power structures that have existed for decades than engaging with the public, according to Kaehny.

How the organizations choose to engage with the public is  “a reflection of what the leadership is and the priorities of the leadership,” he said.

Manhattan’s Democratic party is fractured, but it is also likely the most transparent and inclusive of New York’s Democratic organizations. In part, this shift is attributed to the efforts of the Manhattan Young Democrats -- which published one of the first county committee explainers on the internet -- and Ben Yee, an open government advocate who has won awards for his transparency work at the New York State Senate.

Yee, who got his start working on former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, joined the Manhattan Young Democrats in 2009, where he was instrumental in creating the open seat project. That year, MYD recruited and elected 70 young people to Manhattan's county committee, and that number has multiplied each year since.

“We were running people for this thing and we weren’t really sure what the body did -- we just knew it was a governing body -- because all this stuff was very difficult to find out. You couldn’t Google this at all. It was just ridiculous,” said Yee.

While at first, Democratic party leaders may have seen the rapid influx of committee members as a nuisance, some soon learned to embrace the enthusiasm and volunteer work coming from the Manhattan Young Democrats.

“We kept running people, we kept being super active, we kept posting things that they weren’t really able to control,” said Yee. The first two years, they were like ‘this is annoying,’ the next two years, they were like ‘this is still annoying,’” but by year six, Yee says he asked to be third vice chair for the county Democratic party and they said “sure.”

Yee, who has since been promoted secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party and is currently running for state committee, and a friend, Chris Bailey, put together a robust website for the Manhattan Democratic Party in 2013, and Yee has taken it upon himself to make sure it is updated regularly. “There’s definitely been an opening up” in the party, said Yee.

While occasionally he faces pushback from the county leadership, led by Chair Keith Wright, over what information can be posted -- the minutes from meetings may need to be reviewed by a lawyer before posting, for example -- Yee says for the most part, the party leadership is appreciative of his efforts.

“Over the years, they’ve realized that this is really beneficial for us. It’s just about finding the line and the rationale for not publishing things, and sometimes the reason is valid, and we work around it,” said Yee.

Resistance, Yee says, stems from fear of culpability for misstatements and to some extent maintaining power, but party leaders have largely seen transparency as a net gain for the party, especially with regard to the influx of younger people and talent.

Since the Democratic Party is so powerful in New York, county organizations don’t feel compelled to act as organizers. In swing areas with more balanced party enrollment, like Westchester County, Democratic organizations tend to be more dynamic and ambitious in their outreach efforts, said Yee.

Naturally, New York City’s Republican committees, which hold a miniscule degree of influence in most parts of the city, appear to be more focussed on outreach to the general public. While Manhattan’s Democratic district leaders struggled to maneuver the petition printing backlog during the most recent petitioning process, the Staten Island GOP is willing send a free packet of petitions to anyone interested in volunteering for one of its endorsed candidates.

In stark contrast to the Queens Democratic organization, Queens’ GOP committee has eight full-time staffers and five to six volunteers on its digital outreach team. The aggressive engagement strategy includes Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, complete with hashtags for every day of the week, and responsiveness is a top priority, according to staff members.

While Democratic party leaders were difficult to reach by phone, Michael Conigliaro, executive director of the Queens County GOP, eagerly organized a conference call with the office’s boisterous digital outreach crew, requesting that Gotham Gazette list all of their names (Fred Darowitsch, Ryan Kelly, Michael Janis, Angela Ferri, Gabriel Miller).  

Noting the strides made by the Manhattan county Democratic organization, Yee believes the Democratic Party as a whole needs to “get its act together” in terms of engaging voters and transparency if it wants to be successful as an electoral force.

“The Democratic Party is actually, in my opinion...drifting farther and farther away from its base because it’s literally getting more and more out of touch -- fewer and fewer people understand how the Democratic Party works,” said Yee. “The Democratic Party needs to refocus on the fact that it serves people and unless it does that and opens up the process so that regular people can have an input into the governance of the party, it’s not going to be very successful in the future.”

The other Democratic county party websites are not without merits. The Bronx Democrats, chaired by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, is effective at digital engagement, utilizing Twitter and Facebook and sending out weekly e-newsletters to constituents about events held by elected officials.

"It's very important to the chairman to ensure that our constituents are engaged. We are proud to have a party that came out strongly, we are proud to have the highest Democratic turnouts in America and the chairman is proud to engage with the constituency and be as transparent as possible," Yves Filius, political coordinator at the Bronx Democratic Party.

However, the site, which was launched by former county boss turned Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie “more than five years ago,” according to Filius, is not particularly designed to court new talent or explain the county committee system. It includes an elaborate photo spread of Bronx elected officials but no committee meetings on its calendar.

Like other county machines, the Bronx party continues to be known for backroom deals when it comes to elected seat swapping or maneuvering so that county-aligned candidates get the posts the establishment wants. In Queens, there has been extensive recent reporting in the news media about patronage.

The Staten Island Democrats, which operates in an area represented by several Republican elected officials, including Borough President James Oddo, appears more outreach-oriented, with a website inviting Staten Islanders to run for office, and promoting a leadership initiative, but offers little information about the county committee process.

Nationally, cities are turning to technology to make government services and information more accessible. In New York City, agencies are bound by Local Law 11 -- signed in 2012 by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- which mandates that most digital data managed by the city be made available to the public through a single web portal. A manual published by the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) outlines technical standards and guidelines for city agencies.

While Democratic organizations are not bound by these regulations, they can take a cue from these guidelines and strides made by city governments to become more user friendly, according to David Moore, a civic technologist who launched New York City’s Councilmatic, an interactive online tool for understanding the activity and legislation that moves through the City Council.

“We’ve seen city websites become better designed and more easy to navigate. This should be a goal for the county,” said Moore, pointing to “Council 2.0” and a 2015 redesign of the New York City Council’s website, spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito in 2015 and designed to make more data publically accessible and the city’s main governing body more responsive.

While setting up a Democratic county party website is a good first step, “it is crucial to demystify the process more; they could use some testing to see how they are able to explain how this very old school county committee process works,” said Moore.

If the state Democratic party is interested in better engaging the grassroots, they should designate funds towards creating baseline standards for digital outreach on the county level, according to Moore.

The 2016 presidential election energized voters all over the city, including many younger ones, and there is an abundance of grassroots organizations and engaged New Yorkers.

“There is so much interest in local engagement now after the 2016 local elections, that volunteer for social media, web development, should be easy to find, in counties as huge as Brooklyn and Queens, for example,” said Moore. “The county committees should be on the record soliciting and supporting outreach to get more people aware of their work and their responsibilities.”

One such organization is Gowanus Gathering for Action, a group of progressive organizers in Central Brooklyn, which has taken interest in the county committee system and was surprised at how little information was available.

Web designer Jonathan Crocket is working with the group to create the County Committee Sunlight Project, which allows people to search for their election district, and find out where committee vacancies are located through a color-coded, interactive map.

"We are living in a different time now, and people need to interact with their party. The Trump administration has not materialized overnight. People don't have a say, and when they don't have a say, they resort to more radical dispositions," said Crocket, who hopes to eventually advance the project to include state-wide committees.

Brooklyn Democratic Party website came to be in a similar way, with some prodding from progressive reform-minded district leaders Josh Skaller, who is party of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and Nick Rizzo of the New Kings Democrats.

“When I came in, it was a campaign pledge of mine, and I found out that they were already working on it,” said Rizzo of a website for the county party. “So in 2014, they knew they were already behind and this was something they had to do.”

When then-Assemblymember Vito Lopez stepped down from his party boss post amid a sexual harassment scandal, and was replaced by current Chair Frank Seddio in 2012, it created an opportunity for culture shift throughout the organization and the website was part of that, according to Rizzo.

The Brooklyn Democrats site includes directories of district leaders and county committee members -- though the lists are not always up-to-date -- and two full-time staffers who are responsible for maintaining the site and updating it with event listings.

“I think it was pretty painless, and that’s a credit to Frank Seddio,” said Rizzo. “I understand that it doesn’t seem like a priority for a lot of old school politicians, but it it sends a message that we are listening and we care.”

One thing that has not been modernized at the old office is the move from snail mail to email -- 41 out of 42 district leaders do now posses an email address -- but like everything, “it’s a process,” said Rizzo.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Thanks to a Push, Democratic County Organizations Slowly Grow Digital Footprint Sun, 27 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Lawyers of Color Largely Shut Out of Queens Surrogate’s Court Business http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6995:lawyers-of-color-largely-shut-out-of-queens-surrogate-s-court-business http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6995:lawyers-of-color-largely-shut-out-of-queens-surrogate-s-court-business Court room 
(photo: Karen Neoh)


For decades, the judicial courts in Queens have been plagued by nepotism and patronage charges, with judges accused of awarding lucrative appointments to a select few.

Some of the highest earners of guardianship appointments, doled out by Surrogate’s Court for those who die or become incapacitated without wills, frequently have ties to the County Democratic Party machine, headed by Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley.

A demographic breakdown of the highest earning beneficiaries of Surrogate's Court appointments over the past seven years suggests that a pattern of favoritism may be creating a systemic barrier to entry for lawyers of color, and even amplifying racial disparities throughout the judicial system.

Assignments are bestowed by Surrogate Judge Peter Kelly, who was elected to a 14-year term in 2010 after being nominated by the Queens Democratic Party and faced no opponent.

Of 929 lawyers who are eligible for Surrogate’s Court assignments, and the fees that come with them, only 153 have received appointments from 2010 through 2016, the vast majority of them -- 129 -- are white. A similar ratio exists on the eligibility list: of 929 lawyers, about 850 of them are white.

Of nearly $7.2 million issued to attorneys over seven years of Surrogate’s Court appointments, around $6.4 million (88.1 percent) went to white attorneys, but just $699,249 (9.7 percent) went to black attorneys; $137,325.00 (1.9 percent) went to Latino attorneys; and just $21,795 (.3 percent) went to Asian attorneys.

A year-by-year analysis of the data reveals a widening racial gap regarding the frequency and size of appointments. In 2015, almost 92 percent of the guardianship money paid made by the court went to appointees who were white, up from nearly 82 percent white just five years earlier. In 2016, percentage of money earned by whites dipped again to 88 percent.

Of the top 10 Queens Surrogate’s Court earners over the last seven years, all were white. Of the top 20 earners, 19 were white.

Topping the list is Scott Kaufman, Rep. Crowley’s longtime campaign treasurer and business partner to Crowley’s brother Sean, who has raked in nearly $300,000 from Surrogate’s Court in seven years. Kaufman is currently being investigated by the state courts inspector general, for exceeding the $75,000 cap on how much one appointee may earn in a year, and then continuing to earn appointments the following year, despite being ineligible according to court rules, The New York Post reported on Monday. (Kaufman maintains that he is in compliance with the rules and that no one has contacted him regarding an investigation.)

The ninth highest earner is Albert F. Pennisi, a regular financial contributor to the Queens County Democratic Party, whose law license was suspended for five years in 1990 for his role in an illegal kickbacks scheme.

Fifteenth on the list is the son of former Surrogate’s judge Louis D. Laurino. The elder Laurino was censured in 1988 by the Commission on Judicial Conduct after the agency found he had rented offices to three lawyers to whom he granted lucrative appointments. He also was accused of pressuring a lawyer to hire his son, as well as a nephew, and making an improper political contribution to the late, scandal-scarred Queens Borough President Donald R. Manes, according to The New York Times.

Queens Surrogate’s Court judges have long been selected by the borough’s Democratic Party Chair, an arrangement that many see as responsible for the court’s rampant patronage. Judge Kelly, who worked alongside his predecessor Judge Robert Nahman as Acting Surrogate for several years before taking the bench, ran unopposed in 2010. Kelly’s sister, Ann Anzalone, is Rep. Crowley’s district chief of staff and a Democratic district leader.

Kelly and Crowley are both white, as are most of the Queens Democratic machine leaders, and while both men have expressed intentions to diversify Queens’ judiciary courts, the money trail shows little headway. Presented with data on the stark lack of diversity of lawyers receiving Surrogate's Court assignments, a spokesperson for Crowley’s office said the party has no influence over the diversity of Surrogate’s Court appointees -- the lawyers that receive assignments from the judge.

"The Queens Democratic Party is committed to diversity in all areas of our community. The party does not, nor should it, have a role in the selection of lawyers, but has made a commitment to nominating a diverse slate of judges to stand for election," said a spokesperson for the Queens Democratic Party.

‘A Road to Nowhere’
Queens is often hailed as one of the most diverse places in the world; more than a quarter of borough’s population identifies as Latino, another quarter is Asian, and about 18 percent is black, according to 2015 U.S. Census data.

The borough has become home to more people of color; from 2010 to 2015, the number of Latinos in Queens grew by nearly 5 percent, and the borough’s Asian population rose by over 16 percent.

But when it comes to the borough Surrogate's Court, diversity among guardianship appointments appears to be declining, and for those lawyers of Asian or Latino descent, appointments are almost non-existent.

In order to get appointments, lawyers must be on the Office of Court Administration’s eligibility list, which itself is lacking in diversity.

To determine the ethnic identities of those on the list of eligible lawyers as well as the 153 who received court appointments over the last seven years, their names were run through a VAN/Votebuilder database, which creates voter profiles based on voter registration, geographic information, public records, and a variety of other resources.

Of 929 eligible attorneys, 830 were identified as white, 45 as black, 29 as Asian, and 15 as Latino. Nine more could not be easily identified by VAN’s database.

Getting on the eligibility list is not particularly difficult -- lawyers must take a three-hour “guardian ad litem” course with the New York Bar Association and fill out a form demonstrating their competence in the material, then renew their eligibility every two years to remain -- but an apparent bias in the way the assignments are distributed may discourage lawyers of color from even applying.

When they do get on the list, it often proves to be “a road to nowhere” for lawyers of color, as one attorney, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, put it, so they choose not to renew their eligibility.

A review of all payments disbursed by the Queens County Surrogate’s Court between January 1, 2010 and the end of 2016 found an inverse relationship between the changing demographics of the borough and the racial identities of the court’s beneficiaries.

Of the 153 attorneys who received Queens County Surrogate’s Court payments during the seven-year review period, 129 (84 percent) were white, 17 (11 percent) were black, four (2.6 percent) were Asian, and three (1.9 percent) were Latino, according to the data.

The percentage of total money paid to black, Latino and Asian lawyers remains lower than the percentage of payments made to black, Latino and Asian attorneys -- a sign non-white attorneys are receiving less lucrative appointments and possibly making less for the same work.

One former appointee, Jimmy Wu, was for years the sole Asian attorney assigned “guardian ad litem” cases by the Queens Surrogate’s Court judge. He was assigned to act as a guardian for incapacitated immigrant seniors with no known family members in the United States. The jobs were so complex and the money so insignificant that it amounted to pro-bono work, he said.

"A lot of people don't want to take on these kinds of cases. I knew the community needed help so I was willing to give time to it," said Wu, who added he was likely chosen because he speaks Chinese dialect, and previously worked for the court system.

The most recent case Wu took on, is still not fully resolved, though he now lives California, where he works as a pro-tem judge in San Mateo County Superior Court. Wu said that at the time, he was not aware that he was the only Asian appointee.

"If I was the only one, there should be more," said Wu. “I was told ‘Wait until we trust you and you'll get bigger cases,’ but after five or seven cases, I got tired of waiting.”

Currently, there are at least 29 Asian attorneys on the eligibility list, but aside from Wu, only three were paid for Surrogate’s Court work during the seven-year period, most of them in 2016. Most years, there was just one, or zero, Asian attorneys in the pool of appointees.

These four Asian attorneys also received disproportionately small appointments. Despite making up 2.6 percent of the total appointees, Asian lawyers benefited from just .3 percent of money paid out by Queens Surrogate’s Court from 2010 through 2016.

Similarly underrepresented are Latino attorneys. Over the course of seven years, just three lawyers identified as Latino were paid for appointments. One of them, who received a handful of small payments in 2010, like Wu, appears to have stopped renewing his eligibility, according to the current list. That leaves just two out of at least 15 eligible Latino lawyers who are actively receiving appointments. One of them, Jose Araujo, is also the Queens Democratic Board of Elections commissioner, creating an inherent conflict of interest, and potentially a quid-pro-quo relationship, as Gotham Gazette has reported. In other words, this year there is just one Latino lawyer receiving court appointments who does not appear to have a patronage arrangement with the Queens Democratic machine.

Recognizing that Latino lawyers are underrepresented on the list of those eligible, Judge Kelly did reach out to the Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County in 2015, and held a Q&A session in an effort to recruit a more diverse pool of applicants -- a gesture that was appreciated by members of the organization.

“Our organization is dedicated to increasing the representation of attorneys of color in all areas of practice in Queens. We respect the autonomy of judges and we will continue to work with all parties to make Queens more diverse,” said Catalina Cruz, president of the Latino Lawyers Association.

Perhaps these efforts paid off, because there was a slight uptick in total Surrogate’s Court payments going to lawyers of color in 2016. Judge Kelly did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Widened Racial Gap
While the number of guardianship appointees who are black is somewhat more representative -- 17 black lawyers have been paid by the Queens Surrogate’s Court from 2010 through 2016, and 41 are currently eligible for appointment -- overall, the cases they have received are fewer and less lucrative than those assigned to their white peers.

Of the $7.2 million in payments issued to attorneys over seven years, around $6.4 million (88.1 percent) went to white attorneys, but just $699,249 (9.7 percent) went to black attorneys.

Additionally, the year-by-year trend indicates that the racial gap in Queens Surrogate’s Court payments is widening, both in number of appointments per year and profitability of the cases assigned.

From 2010 to 2016, the percentage of money paid to white attorneys grew from 81.75 percent in 2010 to 87.79 percent in 2016, down slightly after peaking at 91.9 percent in 2015. At the same time, the percentage of Surrogate’s Court assignment money paid to black attorneys has declined from 14.44 percent in 2010 to 7.19 percent in 2016, after previously falling to 6.86 percent in 2015.

The percentage of number of Surrogate’s Court payments made to white attorneys rose from 77.98 percent in 2010 to 85.39 percent in 2016, after peaking at 90.02 percent in 2015.

Meanwhile, the number of fees disbursed to black attorneys declined from 18.38 percent in 2010 to 9.82 percent in 2016, after previously falling to a low of 8.27 percent in 2015.

Leaders of New York City’s minority bar associations, like the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, say the organizations were founded to help mend systemic problems that lead to racial disparities and create a pipeline to opportunity for more lawyers of color.

“Institutionalized bias happens across all kinds of structures,” said Paula Edgar, president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association.“Whether there is explicit bias or implicit bias, it seems to me that there should be a focus on shifting the commitment to diversity. Because Queens is a diverse borough and we should have representation in the court and access to opportunities to reflect the diversity of the borough.”

Lack of Diversity in the Judiciary
On a larger scale, New York State’s judiciary has failed to keep up with the changing demographics of the state, according to a 2014 report from the New York State Bar Association.

“The composition of the government, including the judicial branch, must reflect the composition of the governed or risk losing credibility. The lack of judicial diversity in certain regions of New York is incompatible with the egalitarian ideals of our democracy,” the report cautions.

In Queens, where nearly half the population is foreign born, the court system’s lag in diversity has had rippling consequences.

In March, The Daily News reported that “at least four Queens judges have made empty threats to potential jurors with limited English skills, telling them they have to take language lessons or return to court to prove their proficiency.”

Two of the four judges – Ira Margulis and Kenneth Holder – were elected to their offices as official nominees for the Queens Democratic Party, meaning that they were effectively picked by the Queens Democratic boss, Rep. Joe Crowley.

Margulis was a Queens Democratic Party pick in 2003 and again for his Queens County Civil Supreme Court position in 2011. Holder was a Queens Democratic Party pick for Queens County Civil Supreme Court in 2007, when he moved up from his Civil Court position.

Campaign finance records show that neither Margulis nor Holder had their own campaign committees the year they were elected, meaning they would have been reliant on the Queens Democratic organization for campaign assistance.

Amidst all the scrutiny of Queens Surrogate's Court this year, two state legislators from Queens quietly introduced a bill that would gut court oversight by giving Surrogate's Court judges the power to waive annual reporting requirements for court-appointed guardians based on their previous years of service.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Lawyers of Color Largely Shut Out of Queens Surrogate’s Court Business Tue, 13 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Crowley Appointee to Board of Elections Sees Spike in Queens Court Profits http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6944:crowley-appointee-to-board-of-elections-sees-spike-in-queens-court-profits http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6944:crowley-appointee-to-board-of-elections-sees-spike-in-queens-court-profits crowley voting

Rep. Joe Crowley photo: @JoeCrowleyNY


The Queens Democratic Board of Elections commissioner, who in the past has come under fire for conflicts of interest, is quickly becoming one of the highest earning recipients of Queens court patronage, Gotham Gazette has learned.

In 2014, Jose Miguel Araujo, then the newly elected BOE president, was fined $10,000 by the city's Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) -- the maximum penalty for nepotism -- because he gave his wife Rita Patron Araujo a job as a temporary clerk between 2010 and 2012.

The fines issued against Araujo and other BOE employees followed a scathing 2013 Department of Investigation (DOI) report, which found the agency to be rife with nepotism, incompetence, and overall dysfunction.

"The imposition of the maximum legal fine on the Board’s President should send a powerful message that this conduct will not be tolerated,” DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said in a statement at the time of the fines.

Despite the incident, Araujo was renominated for the position by the Queens County Democratic Party and reconfirmed for a four-year term by the City Council in 2016. Since then, his law practice has become one of the top earners of Queens Court patronage doled out by the Queens Surrogate’s Court and Queens Supreme Court, raising questions about his impartiality as a BOE commissioner and other conflicts of interest this outside business might present.

Before he became a commissioner, from 2005 through 2007, Araujo earned significant payments from the Queens Surrogate’s Court, which settles estates of Queens residents who die without wills. The appointments required Araujo to act as a “guardian ad litem,” to advocate for individuals incapacitated by age or mental illness. After Araujo joined the BOE in 2008, the appointments stopped. Several payments trickled in again in 2011, but after the 2014 COIB fine, the appointments escalated from both Surrogate’s Court and also Supreme Court, which gave Araujo work as a court evaluator or counsel for guardians of incapacitated individuals.

Of the roughly $140,000 Araujo earned from Queens court appointments since 2005, half of the money -- $69,513 -- flowed to Araujo’s practice in the last two years, according to records obtained from the New York State Unified Court System.

Rita Araujo, the commissioner’s wife, has had financial difficulties in her past -- a records search shows she is named in 15 nonpayment eviction lawsuits by a previous landlord between 2000 and 2007 -- and Jose Araujo said during his 2014 COIB deposition that he put her on the BOE payroll to qualify her for health benefits. By 2015, the couple was able to purchase a home in Brookhaven, Suffolk County for $203,000, without a mortgage.

The couple’s additional income appears to be no coincidence -- current Queens Surrogate’s Court Judge Peter Kelly owes his position to Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley, the chair of the Queens Democratic Party who nominated Kelly before he ran unopposed for a 14-year term in 2010. Kelly’s sister, Ann Anzalone, is Crowley’s district chief of staff and a Democratic district leader, a locally elected party official that comes with no salary but some political clout. As party chair, Crowley also appoints the Queens Democratic representative to the Board of Elections.

In most boroughs, Democratic judicial candidates are nominated by the party heads and must pass the scrutiny of an independent judicial screening panel before they make it on the ballot. In Queens, the Democratic Party does not require a screening for judges and the party’s pick is rarely opposed. For half a century, Queens Democratic Party heads have successfully avoided a primary for the powerful Surrogate’s Court post, but if a rogue lawyer did challenge the party’s preferred candidate, it would be helpful for Crowley to have a friendly Board of Elections commissioner, were anything related to ballot petitions or other matters to arise. This is also the case for virtually all other elected offices, where the county party runs a preferred candidate, whether for seats in the City Council, state Assembly, state Senate, and so on.

The fact that Queens court appointments are notoriously handed out to a select few lawyers by judges that have the backing and support of Crowley’s machine makes the arrangement particularly questionable, according to one election attorney who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"There doesn't seem to be any reason that [Jose Miguel Araujo] should to be sitting there as a commissioner while he is getting all these appointments. No one can say getting a job as a surrogate in a particular county is unrelated to the politics of the county," said the lawyer. “They have to like you, or you're not getting that job.”

The Queens judicial courts have been plagued by charges of cronyism and patronage for decades. Surrogate’s and Supreme Court judges, hand-picked by party leaders, assign lucrative and easy cases to a small group of lawyers with connections to the Queens County Democratic Party machine. However, besides Araujo, no other sitting Board of Elections commissioner has been handed court appointments since being confirmed to the BOE.

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government watchdog group, said the Queens Surrogate’s Courts have been used as a reward system for the party machine for too long and that it’s time for the proper authorities, in this case New York State’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, to step in. “The scandal and corruption risk around Queens Surrogate’s has reached a level of outrageousness that’s unacceptable," he said. "It’s turned into a kind of a punchline in good government and political circles."

A Board of Elections commissioner taking payment for these court assignments may also violate the city’s conflict of interest law. Chapter 68 of New York City’s Charter limits the types of outside work public servants who practice law can pursue. For example, public servants may not use their city positions for “financial gain, contract, license, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect” -- which would be the case if Araujo’s influence at the BOE was the driving force behind his recent appointments -- according to a 2001 advisory opinion from COIB. They also may not represent private clients that have business dealings before the City, according to the same opinion. While Surrogate’s Court and Supreme Court are state agencies, if a Surrogate's Court estate proceeding results in a property sale, that sale would be conducted by the Queens Public Administrator's Office, which is a city agency.

The Queens public administrator also has ties to the Democratic party machine. The sole counsel to Queens Public Administrator Lois Rosenblatt is Gerard Sweeney, who takes a hefty percentage of each sale referred by the courts. Sweeney -- who in the 1990s was the party’s law chair, charged with ensuring party favorites wound up on the ballot while insurgents were disqualified -- no longer holds an official position in the Queens County Democratic Party, but was described in a recent Daily News article as its “most important strategist, helping guide the party’s political machinations on the homefront as it jousts for influence in City Hall and Albany.”

Sweeney has reportedly earned $30 million since 2006 for administering these sales referred by Surrogate’s Court, according to the Daily News. Meanwhile, Rosenblatt was herself fined $3,000 earlier this month by the COIB for nepotism.

In at least one case, Araujo did represent a client who had business before the public administrator. On November 10, 2011, Araujo was appointed “guardian ad litem” in Queens Surrogate's Court for the estate of Josephine Ralton, a 92-year-old woman who had died in 2009 with no clear heirs. Eight days later, the Queens Public Administrator sold Ralton's luxury Forest Hills apartment. Araujo received a $3,000 payment from Queens Surrogate's Court for his work on the case, according to court records.

Reached by phone, Araujo first denied having received court appointments in recent years. After being reminded that in fact the bulk of his appointments occurred in 2015 and 2016, he said some of cases were done pro-bono because of his “expertise.”

But court records show that only a single appointment throughout Araujo's career has ever gone unpaid - a guardianship for Dorothy Noto Lewis, a BOE employee, in April 2016. When Gotham Gazette pointed out that Araujo had in fact earned nearly $70,000 from Surrogate’s Court and Supreme Court in the last two years, Araujo cited the court’s rules, which limits how much one attorney can earn from court appointments in a calendar year, saying he is “capped out at a certain amount.”

Araujo said he sees no potential conflicts of interest which could arise from holding the part-time but influential job as Board of Elections commissioner while also benefiting from Surrogate’s appointments. "There is no conflict for me. I'm able to distinguish between the two and I’m able to recuse myself if necessary, but that hasn't happened and it hasn't been necessary," he said.

Like other BOE commissioners, Araujo’s work includes voting on whether candidates are eligible for the election ballot. This often includes petition signature validation and cases of petition fraud or irregularity. Commissioners also supervise recounts and oversee numerous issues that impact the voter turnout for elections, including the viability and location of poll sites.

These calls are supposed to be impartial, but the notoriously complex system often favors the incumbent or party’s prefered candidates, while outsiders -- who may be less experienced in electoral requirements or lack resources and access to select election lawyers -- are booted off the ballot.

Araujo maintains that the uptick in court appointments was merited because he is an expert in kinship cases. Meanwhile, he chose to keep his Board of Elections commissioner job, which comes with influence and a salary not to exceed $30,000 per year, according to a city listing.

As the election attorney put it, “There are many, many attorneys who could be appointed to do this job. It would be fair to say that if someone is getting these kinds of referrals from Surrogate's Court [and Supreme Court], they shouldn’t be on the Board of Elections. It’s not like BOE commissioners earn $250,000 a year and people are falling over themselves to get that job.”

A spokesperson for Rep. Crowley, the Queens Democratic Party chair, declined to comment on the distribution of Queens court appointments.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Crowley Appointee to Board of Elections Sees Spike in Queens Court Profits Sun, 21 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000