Brooklyn Surrogate Judge Michael Feinberg is Suspended From the Bench, Judge Albert Tomei Takes Over
Judge Feinberg's 'friend' Louis Rosenthal is fired immediately, and the beginning of court reform in Brooklyn can be hoped for
B'klyn scandal lawyer gets ax
BY NANCIE L. KATZ, DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Wednesday, March 2nd, 2005
A veteran judge was tapped yesterday to take over as acting Brooklyn surrogate - and he promptly fired the lawyer at the center of the corruption scandal that rocked the court.
State Supreme Court Justice Albert Tomei replaces Judge Michael Feinberg, who was suspended from the surrogate's bench last week.
Feinberg was ousted on the recommendation of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.
The commission confirmed a Daily News investigation that found Feinberg regularly approved excessive fees for pal Louis Rosenthal, whom he appointed in 1997 to help handle the estates of Brooklynites who died without leaving wills.
Tomei, a Democrat whose niece is actress Marisa Tomei, said his first move was to meet with Rosenthal, Feinberg's former law school classmate.
"I informed him that ... he would not be getting any more future assignments," Albert Tomei said.
As for cases Rosenthal is already handling, Tomei said, "He'll maintain those he has and we'll scrutinize them."
The commission found Feinberg routinely allowed Rosenthal to bill estates for exorbitant legal fees without filing legally required documents explaining what he did to earn them.
Tomei, a judge for nearly three decades, was named acting surrogate by state Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman.
Lippman said he was trying "to promote public confidence" in the battered Brooklyn courts, where two judges have been charged in bribery cases and state and federal prosecutors continue to probe other allegations of wrongdoing.
Feinberg has appealed to the state Court of Appeals in Albany in an attempt to save his job.
If the court rules against him, the surrogate's post will be permanently filled in a November election.
Tomei Selected to Fill Interim Term as Brooklyn Surrogate
OCA Describes Appointment as Effort to Restore Confidence
By Tom Perrotta
New York Law Journal
March 2, 2005
Supreme Court Justice Albert Tomei was appointed interim Brooklyn surrogate yesterday, two weeks after the state Commission on Judicial Conduct recommended that the current surrogate, Michael H. Feinberg, be removed for awarding $2 million in excessive legal fees to a friend.
The Office of Court Administration described the move as an effort to promote confidence in the Surrogate's Court, which has been under scrutiny for several years because of fees awarded by Surrogate Feinberg.
Justice Tomei "is widely respected and admired for his integrity and his judicial scholarship," Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman said yesterday.
According to the conduct commission, Surrogate Feinberg's "largess" enriched Louis R. Rosenthal, the counsel to the public administrator in Brooklyn, with fees that went beyond acceptable ranges and that at times should not have been permitted at all. Mr. Rosenthal and Surrogate Feinberg have been friends since the 1960s, and Mr. Rosenthal has been one of his political supporters. He and the public administrator, Marietta Small, were appointed by Surrogate Feinberg.
From January 1997 to May 2002, the surrogate awarded Mr. Rosenthal 8 percent of the estates he represented for deceased persons without wills. The fees were two percentage points higher than those allowed by surrogates in other boroughs. The premium netted Mr. Rosenthal $2 million more in fees, for a total of $9 million, the commission found.
The commission also said Mr. Rosenthal received fees for real estate deals and referrals to other attorneys that were not awarded in other boroughs.
Surrogate Feinberg, who has been suspended with pay, is appealing his sanction to the Court of Appeals. Judge Lippman said yesterday that Surrogate Feinberg's case might not be argued until next fall. If he is eventually removed, Governor George E. Pataki would appoint an interim surrogate until the next election.
Justice Tomei, 65, said his first act was to inform Mr. Rosenthal that he would not be receiving any more Surrogate's Court cases, though he would be allowed to stay on the 300 to 400 cases already assigned to him.
"My overarching goal is to make sure that the interests of those who come before the Surrogate's Court are protected," Justice Tomei said. "Clearly with the recent events there has been a shortfall in public confidence."
Mr. Rosenthal did not return a call seeking comment.
Justice Tomei has spent the bulk of his career in Criminal Court and has little experience in the intricate matters of Surrogate's Court. Judge Lippman, however, said his talents and work ethic were more important than experience.
"It is a finite area of the law and he will thrive on it," Judge Lippman said.
Justice Tomei said his most pressing tasks would be to find two attorneys who could take the place of Mr. Rosenthal and to restore confidence among the court's staff and the public.
"Right now there is a morale issue, and I'm going to try to restore that morale," he said. He added that he has no ambition to remain surrogate past his interim appointment.
The State Attorney General's Office is investigating the fees awarded by Surrogate Feinberg.
Yesterday, a candidate for Brooklyn District Attorney, Arnie Kriss, said he had asked the governor to take the rare step of appointing the attorney general's office as special prosecutor for the matter. He alleged that Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes had a conflict of interest because of his relationship with Surrogate Feinberg's attorney, Harvey L. Greenberg, who was once Mr. Hynes' chief assistant district attorney.
"I'm not saying Mr. Greenberg has done anything wrong, but as a close personal friend of Mr. Hynes for over 30 years, Mr. Hynes is in no position to conduct the kind of fair and independent investigation Brooklyn deserves," Mr. Kriss said in a press release.
Mr. Hynes dismissed Mr. Kriss' comments.
"Arnie Kriss' ineptitude is proven by his press release, which is a vain attempt to get his name in the papers when no one is paying attention to him," Mr. Hynes said through a spokesman. "The facts are that the Commission on Judicial Conduct has not made a criminal referral to my office. Since Harvey Greenberg has not worked here in more than 10 years and acted as my campaign treasurer in 1989, 16 years ago, should the commission refer the matter of Judge Feinberg to this office, I would not hesitate to conduct an investigation."
Mr. Kriss is a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn.
Tom Perrotta can be reached at email@example.com.
IN THE MATTER OF CHARLES J. HYNES, &C., RESPONDENT, v. ALBERT TOMEI, &C., ET AL., APPELLANTS.