Bellantoni and Lovett

Well, well, well, the rumor was true after all.

Former Westchester County Judge Rory Bellantoni is working for, or at least with, Jonathan Lovett, the controversial civil rights lawyer from White Plains.

Bellantoni’s last day as a judge was Monday, June 8. This morning, he was spotted with Lovett at the Mount Vernon city courthouse.

The Republican ex-judge never told me where he was going after leaving the bench, but a few weeks ago I asked Lovett point-blank if Bellantoni was going to work at his firm, and he told me “No.”

That comment was included in a news story about Bellantoni’s departure.

Today, my colleague, Jonathan Bandler, confronted Lovett after seeing him and Bellantoni together. Lovett claimed that he didn’t lie. You see, he explained, the question was if Bellantoni was going to work at my firm, which at the time was Lovett and Gould. That firm no longer exists; Lovett split from his longtime legal partner, Jane Gould, and now is working with Bellantoni and two other attorneys.

Isn’t this why people don’t trust lawyers?

There are some interesting connections between Lovett and the ex-judge. In February, Bellantoni granted disability benefits in February to suspended Harrison police officer Ralph Tancredi, one of Lovett’s clients. Lovett successfully defended Tancredi against domestic violence charges after the officer’s ex-girlfriend refused to testify against him.

Both Lovett and Bellantoni have gotten public accolades from the Westchester Guardian, the local tabloid run by strip-club owner Sam Zherka, another controversial figure around these parts. Zherka lauded Bellantoni’s 2007 decision to overturn the 1997 murder conviction of Richard DiGuglielmo, based on the recanted testimony of one eyewitness.

The town of Harrison and the Westchester District Attorney’s office are appealing Bellantoni’s rulings on Tancredi and DiGuglielmo, respecitvely.

The FBI director defends operations like the Newburgh terror case

It’s likely that the big issue as the case of the so-called Newburgh Four goes forward will be: What was the engine for the alleged plot? Was it self-propelled, as in, the four accused Muslim converts acted on their own with the FBI’s informant merely the investigators’ eyes and ears into the plot to blow up synagogues in the Bronx and military airplanes at an Air National Guard base in New Windsor. Or was it informant-driven, meaning that the FBI’s informant led the four into a plot that would never otherwise have jelled or moved forward.
The actions of the informant and how he was managed by his FBI handlers will be explored if the case goes to trial. The day after the four were arrested, the Iman at the Newburgh mosque where a couple of the accused worshipped said other worshippers complained to him about a man who was offering money to those who would join him in some undertaking. FBI director Robert Mueller III defends the bureau’s practice of using informants at mosques to gather information on other worshippers and clerics in an AP story carried on the web site

Sam’s sentencing

If Judge Kenneth Karas’ comments during the sentencing of Sam Israel’s ex-girlfriend Deb Ryan yesterday were any indication, the convicted fraudster turned fugitive is not going to find a smiling face waiting for him on the bench when he steps into Courtroom 521 at the Brieant Courthouse next month.

Karas decided against sending Ryan to jail for helping Israel flee in part at least because he believed Israel took advantage of Ryan.

Noting that federal sentencing guidelines called for four to 10 months in jail for Ryan, Karas asked Assistant U.S. Attorney what Israel’s guidelines called for. Krissoff said she thinks it’s 12 to 18 months.

The judge said taking advantage of people like Ryan is what people like Israel do. Commenting on the $300 that Ryan is alleged to have sent Israel in jail, landing her a state charge to go with her federal charge, the judge again said that was Israel at work.

“I think it more speaks to the sad and pathetic way that Mr. Israel operates,” he said.

Ominously for Sam, the judge said he’d have more to say on that when he sentences Israel on July 15.

Other notes from yesterday’s sentencing:

* Ryan has been left penniless by her relationship with Israel. She lost not only her own savings in Israel’s hedge fund fraud (savings accumulated from what once was a flourishing interior design business), but also the small inheritance she received upon the death of her mother in 2001. She also went into debt helping Israel with his legal fees. That’s why Karas declined to impose a fine on her, saying to do so would have been cruel.

* After she came clean with federal authorities 10 days after Israel fled, Ryan offered to act as a lure to bait Israel into coming out of hiding. Her lawyer, Richard Strassberg, said after her sentencing that no plan was ever put into operation, but she made the offer and was ready to help snare him.

* Karas’ decision to sentence Ryan to home confinement and probation rather than jail might seem to some like he went out of his way to cut her a break, but that’s not actually the case. The probation department, which prepares a lengthy pre-sentencing report for defendants convicted in federal court, recommended that sentence.  Neither federal sentencing guidelines nor the probation department’s recommendation are binding upon judges. But they do take them into account when determining a sentence.

Speaking of the DA …

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore won this year’s Stephanie E. Kupferman Juvenile Justice Award from the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York.

She got the award for working with public safety, medical and social service providers to review child fatality and abuse cases, and for working to create an Integrated Youth Court to help troubled teens and ‘tweens. She also has spoken to a lot of parents’ groups about teen drinking and driving.

Click here to read more about the award.

New York DAs react to Rockefeller law changes

Good story on Gothamist (which also appeared in other media outlets) about District Attorneys around the state using the words of a drug dealer to protest the new Rockefeller Drug Laws reforms, which took effect yesterday.  Click here to read the story and see the video.

In Westchester, District Attorney Janet DiFiore has not taken sides on the issue, saying only that her office would follow whatever laws are in place. But her Republican opponent, Dan Schorr, (who is now “Twittering” his campaign) has spoken against sealing criminal record of certain offenders — and criticized DiFiore for not doing the same:

“This provision provides a glaring loophole through every protection we have worked so hard to put in place,” Schorr said in a written statement. “This is a dangerous move that will open the door to potential felons working in our schools, hospitals and day care centers without anyone being the wiser.”

“While other District attorneys across the state are standing up against this dangerous provision, our DA in Westchester has been silent,” Schorr continued. “The public deserves to know if she supports sealing the records of convicted drug criminals to potential employers.”

“I support efforts to rehabilitate those suffering from drug addictions; however, concealing a criminal record of any kind to potential employers undermines all of the protections we have worked so hard to put into place,” he said.

Also, there’s been no public statement on this issue from Tony Castro, DiFiore’s opponent in the Democratic primary. But I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from everyone closer to election time.

Murderer’s Loses Another Appeal in Killing Woman in Nanuet

Gilberto Olibencia, now 57, remains in state prison serving a 25 year to life sentence for murder.

Olibencia told a County Court jury during his 2001 murder trial that a guy named “Eladio” sprayed a Ford Probe with gunshots and killed waitress Ybelise Estevez, 26, then the Manhattan mother of a 7-year-old girl. She was a passenger in a car heading toward the Nanuet Diner from Spring Valley on June 15, 2001.

Olibencia, now 57, claimed his girlfriend and “Eladio” had a beef about drugs and Eladio borrowed Olibencia’s mini-van. Olinencia told the jury he wasn’t in Rockland, though there was evidence to the contrary.

So, according to Olibencia, Eladio  killed Estevez while trying to kill the other woman, who was sitting in the car’s front seat. He never provided a last name or address for Eladio.

Not since Bronx Jeep owner Edward Summers claimed “Dino” killed one Rockland teenager and shot another in the head over the theft  a black Jeep in the 1993 at the Nanuet Mall, had the someone-else did it defense been heard. By the way, Summers was caught in the Jeep after crashing it following a police chase.

The jury believed the version presented by the police and prosecutor Louis Valvo: Olibencia came to Rockland, stalked his former girlfriend and shot up the Ford Probe as it was heading toward the Nanuet DInner. Estevez died.

Jorge Pizzaro, who drove the minivan that night, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and told the judge Olibencia fire gunshots into the car. Bullets, a .380 caliber handgun, a silencer were found at Olibencia’s house in the Bronx. The weapon matched the bullet that killed Estevez.

In 2007, a state appeals panel rejected Olibencia’s appeal during which he blamed Judge Kenneth Resnik’s decisions for the jury conviction, not Eladio.

Last week on June 2, the appellate division made sure Olibencia remained in prison by rejecting contention that he lost his 2007 appeal because of ineffective counsel, not the facts of the case.

Interns everywhere

It’s that time of year again, when eager, fresh-faced law and pre-law students put on their suits and shine their shoes so they can spend their summer days inside a windowless courtroom.

That’s right, the interns have descended on the Westchester County Courthouse.

Some are working for the District Attorney’s office, while others have been assigned to various judges. Dozens of them fill the criminal courtrooms, watching motions and arguments and objections and all sorts of legal maneuvering by the pros.

Their presence usually surprises attorneys, who aren’t used to having an audience (other then a friendly neighborhood beat reporter) watch them in action. Personally, I like having them around because they make me feel a little less conspicuous in the courtroom. I still stand out, though, because I’m old enough to be their mother youthful aunt, and because I tend to favor business casual outfits over job interview suits.

As someone who had three college internships (including a paid one as a capitol news intern in Harrisburg), I can attest that these students are getting an education that can’t be found in a book or classroom. I wish them all the best (and that includes our three summer interns here in the newsroom).

Bartlett Scheduled to Return to Bench Next Week

Judge Catherine Bartlett is scheduled to return to the bench on Tuesday morning  after taking more than a month off following surgery. She has 16 cases on her calendar, including several sentencing.

The Orange County attorney is an appointed Court of Claims judge assigned to Rockland with an designation of acting state Supreme Court justice. She sits in the Rockland Courthouse in New City.

Meanwhile, in one of Bartlett’s cases, the District Attorney’s Office withdrew its appeal of Barlett’s decision to toss out charges against Andrew Dale, who is charged with Zalman Silber with performing gynocological exams oin Silber’s then wife.  The Ramapo Town Board fied Dale as a Ramapo police officer as a result of the criminal charges following an disciplinary hearing.

Barlett dismissed  two official misconduct charges against Dale, contending the grand jury charges were not appropriate and lacked evidence. Her decision on those two counts automatically dismissed 24 misdemeanor sexual abuse charges against Dale as beyond the statute of limitations.

The DA’s office appeal of Bartlett remaining as the judge in the case remains. Prosecutors contend she recused herself after properly revealing a woman spoke to her about the Silbers’ divorce.

Defense lawyers wanted her to stay on and she then said she would consider remaining on the case.

The New York state Supreme Court Appellate Division has yet to announce its ruling.

Another not guilty plea for Kerik

Already facing two federal criminal trials in White Plains, former NYPD Commish Bernie Kerik took the first steps toward a third trial by pleading not guilty today in Washington, D.C., to charges he lied to White House officials who were vetting him for the position of Secretary of Homeland Security. Pres. George Bush nominated him for the post in December 2004.

Kerik was indicted here in November 2007 on public corruption and tax fraud charges as well as the White House charges. But Judge Stephen C. Robinson has since ruled that the tax charges must be tried separately from the public corruption charges. And Kerik refused to waive jurisdiction on the D.C. charges. So one became three.

The federal investigation into Kerik came to light in September 2006 when former Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro announced that she was under federal investigation for allegedly trying to get Kerik to plant a listening bug on the boat of her husband, Albert Pirro Jr. Pirro suspected her husband was cheating on her.

No charges were ever filed regarding those allegations. Pirro was running for Attorney General at the time and said the leaking of the investigation  —  her announcement came shortly before WNBC News was to go on the air with a story about the probe —  was politically motivated.

Kerik’s first trial in White Plains is slated for October. His D.C. case has been put on hold until his White Plains trials are done. His next scheduled court appearance in Washington is Jan. 22.

Sam Israel’s sentencing date pushed back

Swindler Sam Israel III will have to wait until July 15 to be sentenced for faking his suicide and going on the lam for three weeks last year rather than reporting to prison to serve 20 years for orchestrating a $450 million hedge fund fraud.

Israel was scheduled to be sentenced June 24 by Judge Kenneth Karas. But his lawyers filed papers today asking for a postponement because they have to get Israel’s medical records from the Westchester County Jail to the U.S. probation officer who is writing up Israel’s pre-sentence report. That’s an involved process due to federal privacy law, attorney Barbara Trencher wrote. 

Israel’s medical history includes multiple back surgeries and painkiller addiction. It was his struggle with withdrawal symptoms related to his drug treatment that put off several times his efforts to plead guilty to fleeing.

His girlfriend, Debra Ryan, who pleaded guilty to helping him escape, is scheduled to be sentenced by Karas on Tuesday.