NEW YORK, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Since 1978, the New York State
Commission on Judicial Conduct has brought disciplinary charges
against approximately 750 judges. And in nearly all of the
cases, the proceedings have taken place behind closed doors.
On Tuesday, however, in a Manhattan courtroom, Bronx
Surrogate Lee Holzman was exactly where he wanted to be: in the
witness stand defending himself publicly against misconduct
allegations, thanks to his unusual decision to waive
It was only the 11th time a judge has done so, according to
Robert Tembeckjian, the commission's administrator and counsel.
Holzman's handwritten note waiving confidentiality did not
include an explanation.
The surrogate is accused of failing to take proper action
when he learned that a lawyer in the public administrator's
office had been taking excessive advance fees in violation of
both court protocol and state law.
The public administrator's office generally handles estates
that lack an administrator or a known heir.
In nearly a full day of testimony, Holzman said he was
"shocked" to learn in 2006 that the former public
administrator, Esther Rodriguez, had approved advance fees for
lawyer Michael Lippman on numerous occasions.
In prior testimony, Rodriguez had also admitted to hiring a
man whom she was dating to clean up apartments for estates,
without revealing her personal relationship to Holzman. After
noticing that Rivera was charging more than seemed appropriate,
Holzman said he told Rodriguez not to use Rivera anymore, only
to find out later that she had rehired him, using what Holzman
essentially described as a shell company Rivera had formed.
As a result, Holzman demanded Rodriguez's resignation in
early 2006. He said he soon found out she had been approving
advance fees for Lippman in violation of the court's
Lippman was charged with grand larceny and fraud in 2010
after the Bronx district attorney's office accused him of
billing more than $300,000 in excessive fees.
"I was shocked when I learned that apparently Ms.
Rodriguez, at the request of Mr. Lippman, had deviated from
that protocol," Holzman said Tuesday. But he said he was not
immediately aware that some of the fees also exceeded statutory
Holzman acknowledged that learning of Lippman's advance
fees put him in a "sticky situation."
"I appointed him, but I was not his client," he said. "The
public administrator was. And the public administrator was the
one who paid him the fees."
The commission has faulted Holzman for failing to report
Lippman's conduct either to the departmental disciplinary
committee or law enforcement authorities. Instead, it claims,
he kept Lippman on staff, had him work for less money and
required him to turn over any fees he earned to repay the
excessive fees he had billed in previous cases.
That remedy failed to make earlier estates whole, the
commission argues, while leaving later estates with more money
than they would have had otherwise, since Lippman was working
for lower fees.
It has also charged him with lax oversight of the public
RANGE OF PUNISHMENTS
The hearing originally began in September, but two hours
after Rodriguez took the stand, Holzman moved to have the
proceedings stayed until the 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.
In December, the Appellate Division, First Department,
denied Holzman's bid to delay the proceedings.
The proceeding, which resumed in mid-December, is taking
place in front of retired state Supreme Court Justice Felice
Shea, who will report her findings to the commission.
The commission can choose whether to accept her report and
will then decide whether to discipline Holzman. Potential
punishment ranges from an admonishment to removal from office.
Holzman will continue his testimony Wednesday before facing
cross examination from the commission's lawyers.
The case is the Matter of the Honorable Lee Holzman.
For the commission: Brenda Correa and Mark Levine
For Holzman: David Godosky of Godosky & Gentile
(Reporting by Joseph Ax)
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