Brooklyn Machine Backs Do-Nothing Surrogate Court Judge For Re-election

Prominent progressives are also supporting Margarita López Torres who has presided over a cesspool of corruption for more than a decade.

Theodore Hamm Jun 13, 2019

Nearly every prominent Brooklyn politician, from Democratic party boss Frank Seddio to the insurgent Julia Salazar (as well as Martin Dilan, the machine hack she defeated) is included on the list of endorsements for Margarita López Torres’ bid for reelection on June 25 as Surrogate Court judge.

It’s not hard to see why Seddio wants López Torres to win, but her high-profile progressive supporters — the ranks of which also include Jumaane Williams, Brad Lander, and Carlos Menchaca — are rallying behind a judge with a questionable track record.

López Torres was first elected as one of Brooklyn’s two Surrogate Court judges in 2005. She did so without the backing of the Democratic machine, which she then challenged in a Supreme Court fight.

Her initial counterpart as Surrogate judge, current party boss Seddio, resigned in 2007 amid a fundraising investigation. Since that time, López Torres has been Brooklyn’s senior Surrogate judge.

Surrogate judges assign estates without a will to attorneys working with the Office of Public Administrator (OPA). As the Daily News reported in a cover story earlier this week, since 2005 a lawyer named Steven Finkelstein, a Seddio ally, has collected nearly $7m for his work in that office.

As López Torres explains, although the OPA is a city office, the Surrogate judges “select the counsel to that agency.” And the judges “exercise general oversight to ensure that reports are submitted and the [OPA’s] cases are handled in a competent and prompt manner.”

Between 2013-2015, Acting Surrogate Judge Laura Jacobson determined that Finkelstein “often sought the maximum fee when little or no work had been done.” Finkelstein, however, continues to serve as counsel to the OPA. Since 2016, he has also been a member of the Democratic Party’s judicial screening panel (the existence of which López Torres challenged in her SCOTUS suit).

In her 2016 reelection bid, Jacobson — who had also battled with Seddio and company over foreclosures and the closing of Long Island College Hospital — was deemed “unqualified” by the dubious screening panel. In turn, the NY Post smeared Jacobson.

Later that year Jacobson filed a federal lawsuit naming the Kings County Democratic Committee, Seddio and Finkelstein (et al.) as defendants. The complaint makes dozens of references to the number two member of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, Seddio’s law partner Frank Carone.

Eastern District of New York Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall dismissed the case last fall and it’s now on appeal. Hall, however, never disclosed that she and Carone had both served on the eight-member board of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission from 2011 until Hall became a federal judge in 2015.  

Jacobson’s plight shows the consequences of ruling against the party machine that controls the courthouse. Yet while machine-connected lawyers help banks seize people’s homes (and equity) as well as plunder estates, progressive pols continue to play ball with Seddio and Carone.

Even more twisted is that there’s no secret the OPA has remained a cesspool of corruption under López Torres’ watch. In fact, the last three city comptrollers have issued audits that show it.

In 2009, Comptroller Bill Thompson’s findings included that OPA “management had no written procedures or supervisory review system.” Four years later, John Liu’s audit found that the OPA “failed its fiduciary duties because it did not act in the best interest of estates.” In 2015, Scott Stringer discovered that the office had only acted on two of the 18 recommendations made by Thompson six years earlier.

“The Surrogate Court is a mess,” a Brooklyn elected official told me last year. Yet that pol is now actively supporting López Torres, as are Stringer and his would-be successor, Brad Lander.

Most onlookers say that the main reason is because the other candidates in the race include Surrogate Court attorney Meredith Jones, and her victory would mean that both judges are allies of former machine boss Clarence Norman, who spent four years in state prison on corruption charges. And there’s Elena Baron, first elected to the Brooklyn Civil Court in 2017 without party backing.

But rest assured, the last thing Seddio or Norman want is someone they don’t control.

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