Unusual public hearing for surrogate charged with wrongdoing (NY)

NEW YORK, Dec 14 (Reuters) – In a highly unusual public judicial-conduct proceeding, arguments began Wednesday in the case against Bronx Surrogate Lee Holzman, who is charged with approving excessive attorneys’ fees for a lawyer in the public administrator’s office and for failing to supervise the operations of the office, which handles the estates of people who die without anyone to manage their affairs.

During a hearing before the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, former Bronx public administrator Esther Rodriguez testified that the surrogate’s office under Holzman maintained a “commingled” account, which she valued at roughly $20 million, in which the assets from many estates were lumped together.

Rodriguez, who served from 1997 to 2005 and is not accused of wrongdoing by the commission, also testified that she had hired a man named John Rivera, whom she was dating, to clean up and haul out the belongings from estates, but that she did not tell Holzman about her personal relationship with Rivera.

“Did you discuss using Rivera as the exclusive clean-out person” with Holzman, asked Brenda Correa, who is trying the case for the commission. Rodriguez admitted that she had not.

It is rare for the public to have access to conduct commission proceedings, which are usually held behind closed doors, but Holzman waived confidentiality in the case.

New York is one of a minority of states in which judicial conduct hearings are confidential, said Robert Tembeckjian, the commission’s administrator and counsel.

“In 35 years and over 750 formal disciplinary proceedings, this is only the 11th time that a judge has waived confidentiality,” he said.

REQUEST FOR STAY DENIED

In addition to accusing Holzman of approving 49 separate excessive fee requests by the attorney, Michael Lippman, the commission said he failed to take appropriate action when he learned that Lippman, who served as counsel to the public administrator from 1978 to 2009, had taken illegal advance fees in 32 cases. Holzman has not been charged criminally.

The hearing originally began in September, but two hours after Rodriguez took the stand, Holzman moved to have the proceedings stayed until a pending criminal case against Lippman was resolved.

Holzman said in court papers that Lippman would assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if he were asked to testify while his criminal case was pending, and he argued that he could not adequately defend himself against the commission’s charges without calling Lippman as a witness.

Last week, the Appellate Division, First Department, denied Holzman’s bid to delay the proceedings.

The commission will hold about twelve more hearing days in the case over the next month. Holzman is expected to testify in January.

At the close of the proceedings, retired Supreme Court Justice Felice Shea, who is overseeing the hearings, will report to the commission whether there is sufficient proof to uphold the charges against Holzman.

The commission can either accept or reject Shea’s findings, and will decide what if any discipline to impose. It has the power to recommend a range of punishments, including admonishment, suspension and removal.

The case is the Matter of the Honorable Lee Holzman.

For the Judicial Conduct Commision: Brenda Correa

For Holzman: David Godosky of Godosky & Gentile.

Attribution:

Unusual public hearing for surrogate charged with wrongdoing
Noeleen Walder/Dan Wiessner
December 14, 2011
Thomson Reuters News & Insight
http://newsandinsight.thomsonreuters.com/Legal/News/2011/12_-_December/Unusual_public_hearing_for_surrogate_charged_with_wrongdoing/

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