Actions in Long Beach lawsuit become a flash point in city judge race

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Spin Cycle

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Given the season and the players, a government controversy becomes a political one.

Long Beach city officials are declining for now to explain in detail what changed and how, after a key stipulation was signed in state Supreme Court in a major, long-running real estate dispute — a document that appears about to be voided.

City corporation counsel Corey Klein, who’s running in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for city court judge, signed the stipulation, as did Scott Mollen, an attorney for the developers Sinclair Haberman and Belair Building, and Justice James P. McCormick (corrected). As it happens, Klein’s primary opponent, Scott Nigro, is an attorney for one of numerous respondents in the case, the Xander Corp.

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Under its terms, a $50 million lawsuit by the developer against the city would be withdrawn if the city’s zoning board ruled on a proposal for two 19-story residential buildings. Under the terms, the litigation would essentially be reinstated if the project was rejected. Several other conditions were also included.

But last month, city manager Jack Schnirman told the Long Island Herald (as linked here), “The city is not in agreement with the terms of the 44-page stipulation with conditions, and so we brought in outside counsel ... We are dealing with a scenario where we are out-lawyered, and we want to bring outside counsel to assist the city.”

And, the City Council authorized the hiring of two outside law firms to represent the city in the case.

A spokesman confirmed Schnirman was quoted accurately. But all officials, citing the advice of current lawyers, declined to further discuss issues involved in the case.

Part of the court document says the lawyers for the parties “affirm that they have executed this stipulation pursuant to authorization of their respective clients and that their respective clients have taken all actions as required by law to provide that authorization.”

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So the question hovers: What happened between the filing of the document in June and Schnirman’s statement and the new lawyers' hiring, the following month? Sources at a court conference in the case last week suggest the stipulation isn't expected to stand.

Stephen Schlesinger, lawyer for the Haberman company (who is, separately, law chairman for the Nassau Democratic organization) gave his own version of  events when reached Wednesday. He cited a court mediation process, which led to this agreement — of which he insisted the heads of the City Council and the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals were “fully aware.”

His side characterizes the city as backing out of the agreement.

On Wednesday, Nigro told Newsday in a statement: “Mr. Klein signed a stipulation of behalf of the City of Long Beach seeking to settle a court case, in which Klein represented to the Court that the City Council and the Zoning Board had approved and agreed to the stipulation.

“According to City officials, this was not true, and Mr. Klein has been replaced in this case by outside counsel at a great expense to the taxpayers of Long Beach. The facts speak for themselves, raising serious questions about Klein’s judgment and integrity that must be taken into consideration by the Democratic voters when they go to the polls on primary day.”

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Klein responded on Thursday:

“As the Corporation Counsel for the past 20 years, I have worked hard for the City of Long Beach and my fellow residents through every political administration and changeover in government. As a typical old school politician, Scott Nigro is trying to do exactly the negative politics that makes Long Beach look bad and that made him lose election twice before. This is a desperate attack by a candidate trailing going into Election Day on Tuesday. I will not be drawn into Mr. Nigro’s tactic of bad politics. The people of Long Beach deserve a City Court Judge who is better than that.”

Scott Mandel, the City Council president, declined to discuss the matter when contacted Wednesday, citing ongoing litigation. When first asked by one resident at a Council meeting Aug. 5 if the Council approved the stipulation in advance, Mandel said “No” before saying he could not elaborate under lawyers' advice.

Others also insisted relevant officials were unaware of the disputed stipulation until some time after it had been signed.

Stuart Banschick, a member of the city’s pivotal Board of Zoning Appeals, who’s one of a number of defendants in the Haberman case, said he and other board members learned of the court action well after the fact.

“Corey Klein never spoke to us about it,” he said. “All this erupted in the last week to 10 days.” Banschik’s wife, lawyer Ruth Bernstein-Banschick, has been publicly critical, saying in part that Klein “had acted wrongfully in negotiating and signing the troubling settlement stipulations without telling any of his clients — including my husband.”

They support Nigro in the judicial race -- which is to fill the remainder of a 10-year term left by retiring Judge Roy Tepper, who was re-elected last year but required to leave because he turned 70.

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