Judges for sale?

This is disturbing stuff … a new study by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics has found an unprecendented amount of money flowing into judicial campaigns, at a time where courts are being squeezed by cash-strapped state governments.

“Too many judges owe their jobs to campaign money hidden from public view,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake in a written statement. “Americans expect courts to be fair and impartial. They don’t want campaign cash to influence courtroom decisions.”

While the report calls out no New York judges for taking questionable campaign cash, it does mention New ¥ork’s recent layoffs as part of a larger problem:

After New York courts were forced to lay off more than 350 court employees to offset $170 million in cuts to the state judiciary’s budget, 65 dismissed part-time judges continued to work as volunteers to ensure that the courts’ indispensable work would not grind to a halt.

These cuts are coming at precisely the time when courts desperately need more, not fewer, resources. State courts confront elevated numbers of foreclosure filings, consumer debt proceedings and domestic violence cases—all of which rise in tough economic times—along with sustained numbers of other proceedings. Unlike other government agencies, courts cannot simply cut some services; they have a constitutional duty to resolve criminal and civil cases. And because about 90% of court budgets go to personnel costs, cutting staff is the only way for courts to absorb reductions.

Eliminating judicial employees means that some citizens looking to the courts for justice will walk away empty-handed. These draconian cuts also contain alarming long-term implications. Several studies have concluded that counties and states would suffer dramatic economic losses as a result of court closings.

While funding for courts continues to fall, the ability of special interests to spend freely on high-court elections, unfettered and in secrecy,  will be greater than ever in 2012, given continued court rulings and legislative attacks on campaign finance laws.

As the second decade of the twenty-first century begins, state judiciaries are caught in a vise, squeezed on one hand by interest groups waging an unrelenting war to impose partisan political agendas on the bench and on the other by devastating fiscal pressures.

“The rise in spending by non-candidate groups means that many judicial candidates have become bystanders in their own campaigns, watching the action from the sidelines,” said report co-author Adam Skaggs in a media release. “We expect judges to be impartial and fair. Now with campaign laws weakening, citizens understandably worry that justice is for sale.”

Nonprofits get financial lift from Westchester Bar

The Westchester County Bar Foundation, the fundraising arm of the Bar Association, is hosting its first cocktail reception and silent auction to raise money for its fellowship program, which helps young lawyers work for nonprofit organization that offer legal services to the poor.

The benefit will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 9 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Coveleigh Club 459 Stuyvesant Ave. on the Sound in Rye. Tickets are $75 per person.

Since 2007, young lawyers interested in public service have given free legal representation to hundreds of Westchester residents who would not otherwise have received it by becoming fellows of the Bar. The first fellow, Karen Tenenbaum, was a graduate of Harvard Law School. She was placed at Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV) and was offered a full-time position there when she completed her fellowship two years later.

When asked to describe her experience at LSHV, Karen said, “The WCBF fellowship launched my career in poverty law and has given me a lifelong commitment to civil legal services work. Not only did it create a job for me that otherwise would not have been available, the fellowship provided me access to experienced mentors and advisors within the WCBA to whom I still turn to for knowledge, advice and support. … This fellowship has enabled me to assist hundreds of clients … Your continued support of the fellow program is crucial to its survival.”

Virginia Foulkrod was the Foundation’s second fellow. A graduate of Pace, she began her work in September 2009 at My Sisters’ Place, a White Plains-based organization that provided victims of domestic violence with access to legal protections for their survival and safety.

“I take great personal pride in the people I represent,” Virginia says. “This fellowship allows me to help those in need and, perhaps more importantly, to develop the skills I’ll need to be a public service attorney for the rest of my career.”

The WCBF’s newest fellow is Darren Guild, a 2011 Pace graduate who was selected this past May. A special education teacher in Crown Heights, Brooklyn prior to attending law school, the Foundation matched Darren with Student Advocacy of Elmsford, a non-profit helping parents in Westchester and Putnam counties whose children are having behavioral, emotional, physical or family-related problems in school.

At the event, the Foundation will recognize P. Daniel Hollis III, past president of the WCBF and the driving force behind the public interest fellowship program.

Those who cannot attend can be a sponsor or donate an item for the silent auction.

For more information, contact WCBA Executive Director Bill Egan at 914-761-3707 ext. 16; Donna Drumm, director of communications, at ext. 19; or send an email to sponsor@wcbany.org.

Last of 8 accused home swindlers convicted

The last defendant in a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud case that officials say swindled four Westchester County families out of their homes was convicted of theft, fraud and conspiracy today.

A jury found Mildred Didio of Manhattan (left) guilty of four counts of second-degree grand larceny and one count each of first-degree scheme to defraud and fourth-degree conspiracy. All the charges are felonies.

She faces a maximum of 15 years in state prison when she is sentenced on Jan. 25. She also could be sentenced to a minimum of five years’ probation.

Prosecutors said Didio was involved in a group of eight who stripped homes from families in Croton-on-Hudson, Yorktown, Cortlandt and Mount Vernon; and scammed two mortgage lenders out of $1.4 million. All were arrested in 2009.

The group told victims, who they found through notices of public auction and foreclosure, that they could transfer their deeds to an investor, who would hold the titles while they saved money to reclaim their home.

But once the “investor” took title, the group’s members got inflated mortgages, which they used to pay off the original mortgage and kept the remainder for themselves. The former owners have filed lawsuits to try to reclaim their losses.

Didio, 46, represented the straw buyers or acted as a settlement agents for the lenders, according to prosecutors.

Hubert “Phil” Hall, a former editor at a precursor to The Journal News, and his wife, Doreen Swenson, are serving two to six years in prison after pleading guilty to grand larceny and fraud. Prosecutors said the Tarrytown couple helped set up the phony mortgages.

David Reback, an attorney from Rye Brook, and Amerigo DiPietro of Brewster, who owned Interstate Monetary Concepts in Briarcliff Manor, pleaded guilty to their roles in the scam. Prosecutors said they were the principal players. They  were sentenced to a year in jail.

Eileen Potash of Queens was convicted at trial of fourth-degree conspiracy but acquitted of grand larceny and fraud charges. She is serving five years’ probation.

Wilma Shkreli of Westwood, N.J., who posed an an investor, is to be sentenced Nov. 22 after pleading guilty to grand larceny.

This was Didio’s second trial for her role in the scam. Her first ended in a hung jury. Frank Corigliano, a lawyer from Newtown, Conn., was acquitted of all charges by the jury that convicted Potash and was hung on Didio.

Free legal advice for senior citizens, families on Thursday

Another year brings another day of free legal and financial advice in Westchester County for senior citizens and their families.

The 12th Annual “Senior Law Day” will take place at the Westchester County Center  in White Plains. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., residents can attend two of 18 workshops – including two in Spanish – offering advice on estate planning, income tax laws and other laws affecting older residents. Among the new topics this year will be an update on how New York’s new Marriage Equality Act impacts planning for same sex and unmarried couples. Elder law attorneys and certified public accountants will offer free 15-minute one-on-one consultations.

To sign-up for Senior Law Day, call (914) 813-6400 or register online

Desk of the DA: Domestic violence awareness

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore is focusing on domestic violence in her monthly message. In light of the recent Friedlander family murder-suicide in Cross River, it’s a message that is more than appropriate.

Every October, along with the leaves changing color, the color purple appears on ribbons and pins on lapels and signs posted in our neighborhoods as a way to promote Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As chief law enforcement officer and District Attorney of Westchester County, I would like to share with you the work that my office is doing to keep victims of domestic violence and their children safe, to hold offenders accountable for the crimes they commit, and to engage in public education strategies to prevent domestic violence.

Domestic violence occurs when an intimate partner exerts undue power and control over his (or less often, her) partner, using methods of control that can range from physical violence to emotional, verbal, sexual and even financial abuse. Nationally, nearly one in four women reports experiencing violence inflicted by a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in time. In New York State, almost half the women murdered are killed by an intimate partner. It is likely that someone you know has been or will be a victim of domestic violence. And for victims of domestic violence, choosing to leave an abusive partner can be difficult because of fear, and because of the emotional and financial ties that bind families together.

In the District Attorney’s Office, we prosecute all offenders who have committed acts of domestic abuse that violate our criminal laws. Our specially trained prosecutors seek to hold offenders accountable while finding outcomes that will be safest for victims and their children. Assisting our prosecutors is our team of domestic violence aides who assist victims in navigating the legal system, creating safety plans and linking victims to service resources. In 2010, my office handled over 2,700 cases of domestic violence in Westchester County. We anticipate that this year our case load will reach 3,000.

In order to provide support to victims of domestic violence on site near the District Attorney’s Office and the Courthouse in White Plains, in May 2010, Westchester County’s Family Justice Center opened its doors. This centralized, one-stop resource is located adjacent to the District Attorney’s Office and provides safety planning, legal assistance, counseling and other services for domestic violence victims and their children in one secure location. The Center is a collaboration between the District Attorney’s Office and the County’s Office for Women, and is supported by a federal grant. In 2010, the Center served and assisted 600 victims of domestic violence.

This month, my office is joining with our domestic violence partner agencies in a county-wide campaign to “Shine the Light on Domestic Violence.” The Special Prosecutions Division of my office will be distributing information as well as purple lapel ribbons which are symbolic of domestic violence awareness during the month of October. We will also be participating in important public education initiatives. On October 15, 2011, my office will be once again taking part in a seminar presented by the African American Men of Westchester, “Stop the Violence, Men Speaking to Men to Stop Violence against Women.” The goal of this event is to reach out to young men to promote positive, respectful relationships between intimate partners. On October 19, 2011, my office will participate in the annual Domestic Violence Police Training, and I will address police officers from around the county on the importance of their work on domestic violence. The conference will provide these law enforcement officers updates in the law and safety strategies when responding to a domestic violence call. These educational efforts are an integral part of my commitment to addressing domestic violence in Westchester County.

If you need immediate assistance, always call 911. For the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, please call 1-800-942-6906 (English) or 1-800-942-6908 (Spanish). For more information, please visit our website at www.westchesterda.net or the Family Justice Center website at http://women.westchestergov.com/about-us/family-justice-center.

Westchester Bar, Women’s Bar Assns. finds judicial candidates “well qualified”

The Westchester County Bar Association and the Women’s Bar Association have found all three candidates seeking two seats on the state Supreme Court in the 9th Judicial District as “well qualified.”

It is the top ranking for the county lawyers association; the second-highest for the women’s bar group.

Acting state Supreme Court Justice Robert DiBella of New Rochelle, Judicial Hearing Officer Edward Borrelli of Yonkers and Somers attorney Paul Marx are seeking the seats.

DiBella has the Republican, Democratic, Conservative, Working Families and Independence party lines. Borrelli has the Republican and Conservative lines. Marx has the Democratic, Working Families and Independence lines.

The 9th district covers Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Dutchess and Orange counties. State supreme court justices serve 14-year terms.

Sorority grads hold meeting to address troubled family court buildings

The sorry state of the family court facilities in Yonkers and New Rochelle will be the topic of a morning meeting hosted by the graduate chapters of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in Westchester County on Saturday, Oct. 29.

The sorority will host a legislative forum from 9 to 11 a.m. at the YWCA in White Plains, 515 North Street. The forum will address social justice and human rights concerns at the family court sites, which a state report last year called “among the worst in New York state.” The report, by the Office of Court Administration, detailed overcrowding, lack of parking, security problems and accessibility violations among the problems.

It also cited potentially dangerous scenarios, such as having people in heated legal battles ride elevators together before going through metal detectors, and urged “immediate action” to address the situation. More than a year later, county legislators are still reviewing options. By law, counties must provide adequate space for courts to conduct business.

The Yonkers Family Court has been housed since 1979 in a corner office building at 53 S. Broadway shared by a Rent-A-Center store and the former Yonkers Diner. The smaller family court in New Rochelle, at 420 North Ave. since 1985, shares the building and a parking lot with other businesses. Together they cost taxpayers $1 million a year in rent.

Elected officials have been invited and the forum, which is being billed as nonpartisan and open to the public. A continental breakfast will be served starting at 8:30 a.m. For more information, contact Barbara Wiggins at 997-7491.