Brooklyn Politics by Erik Engquist

HYNES HAMMERED: It’s been 50 years since an elected district attorney in New York City was sent packing by voters, so Brooklyn D.A. Joe Hynes is likely to win another term this fall.

But the price of victory could be steep, given the bad press Hynes is getting. Even the staid New York Times jumped on the bandwagon on April 19, publishing criticism by Assemblyman Clarence Norman (under indictment by Hynes) that Norman had read in the New York Press.

Behind it is John O’Hara, a disbarred attorney and unemployed felon from Sunset Park. Looking through Hynes’s campaign contributions, O’Hara discovered a pattern of donations by Hynes employees with six-figure salaries. We’ve learned Hynes’s top deputies told their subordinates they were expected to fork over $300 at a time.

Hynes says when he discovered this, he put a stop to it. But convincing people it went on for years without his knowledge may be impossible.

O’Hara is seeking revenge because Hynes prosecuted him for the arcane crime of voting from a false address. In a bit of delicious irony, O’Hara has discovered that Hynes’s first assistant D.A., Dino Amoroso, votes from his parents’ house in Queens rather than the house where he lives with his wife and kids in Nassau County.

Interviewed by the Times, Amoroso said his boss has long known this and doesn’t care because Amoroso has “a longstanding relationship” with his parents’ house. What the Times neglected to mention is the law says you can only vote from your “principal and permanent” residence.

The law also says Brooklyn prosecutors must live in the five boroughs. O’Hara found Amoroso and 30 percent of his colleagues live elsewhere. Indeed, John O’Mara, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted O’Hara for most of the 1990s, has lived in New Jersey since 1985.

Hynes says the law shouldn’t apply to him because the Manhattan D.A. is exempt from it, and besides, it’s silly. But the Daily News editorialized that so is the illegal voting law he used to nail O’Hara. Norman told the Times that Amoroso should be treated just as O’Hara was.

Hynes’s challengers have trumpeted O’Hara’s discoveries as well.

“For District Attorney Hynes to look the other way while his staff blatantly disregards New York State election law is inexcusable, not to mention the height of hypocrisy,” said candidate Mark Peters in a statement. “How can we expect Mr. Hynes’s office to rigorously fight corruption and other crime effectively when a top deputy in his office allegedly violated the same law he fought so hard to uphold against John O’Hara?”

“District Attorney Hynes says he can ignore the residency law because the Manhattan D.A. is exempt,” added former Hynes A.D.A. Braxton Freddie Fenner in his own press release. “The law also requires public transportation riders to pay a fare. But, there is an exemption for children. Using Hynes’s thinking, adults can ride free because children are exempted.”

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KRISS CASH WENT TO HYNES: To hear Arnie Kriss criticize the man he’s running against this year, Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, you wouldn’t expect to find Kriss on the list of donors to Hynes’s campaign fund.

Yet it’s there at least three times: Kriss made a contribution in 1998, when Hynes was running for governor, and another one in 1999 for $500. (Kriss thought that donation was to help retire his debt from the gubernatorial campaign, but it actually went toward Hynes’s 2001 reelection.) In October 1990 Kriss forked over another $150.

Why?

Kriss’s spokesman e-mailed, “When Arnie made his contributions, he was unaware of the problems in the (D.A.’s) office. It was not until January of 2002 that Arnie realized there was an ethical problem in Mr. Hynes’s office, when the former Kings County Democratic leader (Howard Golden) was hired, and his belief was reinforced in July of 2002 when he found out Mr. Hynes was taking campaign contributions from the assistant district attorneys on staff.

“Thereafter Arnie, along with other former A.D.A.s, came to the conclusion that Mr. Hynes had to be replaced, and discovered that the office’s performance in comparison to Hynes’s predecessor, Elizabeth Holtzman, and the other D.A. offices in the city was performing poorly.”

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WHEELCHAIRS ON THE BEACH: Our small item questioning a plan for wheelchair access to Coney Island beach generated several responses from readers.

We’d wondered how someone in a wheelchair could negotiate the beach upon reaching the end of the ramp, which the Parks Department plans to build with funding procured by Assemblywoman Adele Cohen and Rep. Jerry Nadler.

The answer, according to column reader Ed Ravin, is an all-terrain wheelchair such as the ones used at some public beaches in Long Island and elsewhere.

Sounds like a good idea, but that isn’t the Parks Department’s plan for Coney Island. Instead, four paths will initially be built, ranging from 160 to 220 feet. That will get wheelchairs (and strollers) halfway across the beach.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation will not allow construction any closer to the water, but the Parks Department figures halfway there is better than nothing.

What about allowing people to swap their wheelchairs for an all-terrain version, which Ravin says can now be purchased for $2,500?

One Parks official informed us, “On two occasions in the last 10 years, we spent small fortunes buying all-terrain wheelchairs. We housed them at our office at West 25th Street and the Boardwalk and we put up signs in the area alerting the public to their existence. We had virtually no takers. We do still like the idea and might consider buying them again.”

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BACK DOOR TO BROOKLYN BENCH: Some folks want voters and not Democratic Party insiders to pick Supreme Court judges, and have suggested primary elections such as we have for Civil Court.

But there’s a way for party insiders to pick Civil Court judges as well. Here’s how:

First, you need an incumbent Civil Court judge up for reelection. We’ll use Mickey Morganstern as an example. (We just, um, picked her out of the blue.) She’ll likely win the Democratic primary in September (perhaps without an opponent), guaranteeing a victory in November’s general election over a hapless Republican-Conservative candidate.

Then, a couple of weeks after the primary, Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the county Democratic leader, will conduct his annual secret telephone poll of the other 41 Democratic district leaders to see whom they’re supporting for the two Supreme Court vacancies this year.

Norman will announce the two phone-poll winners to the very same district leaders at their September meeting. (You might ask, Why conduct an advance phone poll instead of just having the leaders vote at the meeting? More on that in our next item.)

Let’s say Morganstern is named one of the Supreme Court nominees. She would then need to be replaced on the general-election Civil Court ballot. Who picks her replacement? Not the voters who just pulled the lever for her in the primary. Rather, an obscure body called the Democratic county committee.

Who’s on the county committee in Morganstern’s district? Friends and relatives of the folks who run the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club.

And speaking of relatives of T.J. club leaders, we bring you one Kenny Sherman, whose mother just happens to be club leader Roberta Sherman, a Democratic district leader.

Kenny Sherman, through no fault of his own, might have a hard time getting elected in an open primary. But if county committee members loyal to his mom and other T.J. club leaders were doing the electing, Sherman would win without knocking on a single door, handing out a single flier, or raising a single dollar.

We should note that this scenario may well not happen this year because Morganstern has a lot of competition for elevation to Supreme Court. Councilman Lew Fidler, a district leader who has his own club but also has influence in the T.J. club, has already committed to supporting Civil Court Judge Loren Baily-Schiffman for one of the two openings. To diversify his ticket, he’ll probably pick a black person for the other position. Morganstern is white, so she—and hence Kenny Sherman as well—may have to wait for another year.

But don’t doubt that Sherman’s year will come.

“I have known Kenny Sherman for a long time,” Fidler e-mailed us, “and believe that he would make an excellent judge should that opportunity present itself.”

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NORMAN’S PHONE POLL SURVIVES: A handful of Democratic district leaders tried and failed this month to end the secret telephone poll method of Supreme Court judge selection we mentioned in the previous item.

Only nine of the 42 district leaders supported a proposal to have the leaders conduct an open vote to decide the Democratic Supreme Court nominees, rather than have one yes-or-no vote on the slate announced by county leader Clarence Norman after his unverifiable telephone poll.

One of the champions of the reform, Park Slope’s Alan Fleishman, called the current system “the most nondemocratic way you could possibly do this.”

He said the reform plan was rejected in part because many leaders had given proxies to Norman, who favors the status quo. (By the way, Fleishman objects to the proxy system as well, believing leaders should only be able to vote in person.)

But proxies or no proxies, the motion would have failed. Too many powerful district leaders benefit from the current system because it centralizes the power, and they are near the center, i.e., Norman.

As one observer of judicial politics explained, district leaders such as Assemblyman Dov Hikind, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, and Councilman Al Vann “can threaten or leverage their position with the county leader and make people judges. So when we come to election time, they can say [to Norman], ‘Look, I control these six leaders, and if you don’t nominate [a certain candidate] for Supreme, we’ll run someone against you for leader.”

One way Norman retains his leadership is by doling out Supreme Court judgeships as favors to the folks who can protect him. So long as Hikind gets the Orthodox Jew of his choice elevated to Supreme Court every year, Hikind will support Norman. (By one count, an Orthodox Jew has become a Supreme Court judge in each of the last seven years.)

Norman maintains that the slate he announces is a simple reflection of the will of the other district leaders. But it is unclear why that will couldn’t be ascertained through a more transparent process.

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YASSKY HELPS LOCKED-IN WORKERS: While other members of the City Council busy themselves with bills to co-name streets for little-known dead constituents, David Yassky continues to introduce legislation addressing real-world problems.

His latest effort is a bill to deter stores from locking in nighttime workers.

Media investigations have found supermarkets and other stores not infrequently lock their doors at night, imprisoning employees whose shifts have ended until a manager shows up in the morning to free them. In some cases the workers’ only possible escape is through a fire door, but they are told they’d be fired if they use it when there’s no emergency.

In other cases, even the fire doors are locked. Incredibly, even after well-publicized fatal blazes featuring locked fire doors, the fine remains just $500. One wonders what the City Council has been doing besides cutting ribbons all these years.

Yassky’s bill, introduced April 19, would increase inspections and fines. A first violation would rise from $500 to $5,000, and repeat offenders would have to pay up to $20,000.

The only thing missing from Yassky’s bill is compensation for locked-in workers. Perhaps they could get a percentage of the fines, or overtime pay for the hours they were held against their will.

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TIDBITS: Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes skipped the April candidates forum hosted by the Brooklyn Young Democrats, but asked to be invited back. Brooklynites are still waiting for Hynes to appear at the same time as his challengers…

Mark Peters scheduled a press conference for April 21 in downtown Brooklyn to formally declare his candidacy for Brooklyn district attorney. Also, Councilman David Yassky and D.A. candidate Arnie Kriss held a press conference to call for full videotaping of police interrogations. We asked Yassky if that means he’s endorsing Kriss. “I’m endorsing his terrific idea to require that custodial interrogations be videotaped,” Yassky said.

He elaborated, “Just like DNA testing, when you have technology that makes sure we’re getting the right guy instead of the wrong one, there’s no reason not to do it. This way you can see the whole course of the interrogation…We now know that people confess falsely. People crack under the circumstances.”

…The “John O’Hara vs. Joe Hynes” story (the illegal voter vs. the Brooklyn district attorney) has now been covered as far away as New Zealand. A newspaper columnist in that country just penned a heavily propagandized, error-ridden, pro-O’Hara account of the two men’s 11-year-old saga…

…Virtually all of the elected officials who attended the 27th anniversary lunch of Lambda Independent Democrats, Brooklyn’s gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender Democratic club, had an obvious reason for attending. Either they represent liberal neighborhoods (Rep. Major Owens, Rep. Jerry Nadler, Assemblyman Jim Brennan, Assemblywoman Joan Millman, etc.) or need campaign help this year or next (Councilwomen Yvette Clarke and Tish James, Assemblywoman Adele Cohen, District Attorney Joe Hynes).The lone exception was Councilman Domenic Recchia, who holds a safe seat in Coney Island, Bensonhurst, and Gravesend, where gay rights has never been a high priority of residents. We can only conclude that Recchia has political ambitions beyond his Council seat, which he’ll have to leave at the end of 2009.

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