The state Commission on Judicial Conduct is investigating Newsday reports that two Suffolk Supreme Court justices violated court rules while awarding more than $900,000 in payments to political power broker Gary Melius and a network of his associates, according to two people with ties to the court system and knowledge of the probe.
The commission's inquiry follows an October Newsday investigation into court appointments Justices Thomas Whelan and Emily Pines awarded to Melius and five associates to handle four office complexes in foreclosure.
The judges failed to report all of the appointments and fees to state court administrators, as required. As a result, the group's activities were hidden from the public.
The commission is responsible for investigating complaints about judges, and its proceedings are secret until a formal finding is made. If the commission's investigation finds that the complaint lacks merit, then no information is made public, including the fact that there was an investigation.
However, if the commission substantiates a complaint it can file charges and hold hearings. Judges can then face punishment ranging from public admonishment to removal from the bench.
Commission Administrator Robert Tembeckjian, citing the confidentiality of the process, declined to comment. Marian Tinari, a Suffolk court spokeswoman, said there would be no comment from the court system.
Meanwhile, there is an effort underway to support Pines, who handled one of the four cases detailed in Newsday's report.
According to several emails obtained by Newsday, Islandia attorney Linda Margolin recently circulated a letter among roughly two dozen Long Island lawyers that praises Pines and calls Newsday's reporting "inaccurate." A draft of the letter, which was attached to one of the emails, is addressed to state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti, as well as to Newsday and the New York Law Journal.
"Justice Pines is a smart, able, hard-working judge, who treats lawyers and litigants with respect and who decides matters fairly, impartially and without improperly favoring any lawyer or party," the letter states. "She does her best to follow the law and provide justice on every matter. She works long hours and gives her personal attention to every case."
A spokesman for Prudenti confirmed that her office has received the letter.
The letter did not detail any specific errors in Newsday's reports. Margolin did not respond to several requests for comment.
Pines herself has acknowledged that she made mistakes in the case, which involved a Huntington Station office building in receivership. Pines approved $90,000 in payments to Nassau Independence Party leader Richard Bellando to manage the property, even though state court rules bar party leaders from such court appointments.
After Newsday's report, Pines reopened the case and recently rescinded her approval of the payments to Bellando. The order did not require Bellando to return the money.
Although Margolin solicited signatures for the letter, she declined to sign it herself and indicated she would be using a street address other than her own, according to the emails.
Margolin, a partner in Bracken Margolin Besunder, informed colleagues in one email that she would not sign the letter because Pines is considering a motion in a case that involves her firm.
"Because my firm is the subject of a pending motion -- the seventh or so by an unhappy losing plaintiff -- to recuse Judge Pines in a case where we were part of the defense team, I will (regretfully) not be a signatory," she said in an Oct. 20 email that four lawyers confirmed receiving from her.
Rules governing attorney conduct prohibit lawyers from taking any actions that prejudice the administration of justice, said Monroe Freedman, a Hofstra University law professor.
Freedman said Margolin's letter creates the "appearance that the lawyer is influencing or seeking to influence the judge in the case in which she is participating on behalf of the client." The letter could compel Pines to recuse herself from the case, he said.
However, St. John's University law Professor Mark DeGirolami said he didn't think Margolin violated legal ethics in circulating the letter or in masking her own involvement in it.
"This is not remotely a clear-cut case," he said.
In an email to other lawyers, Margolin said she had not consulted Pines on the letter.
Brian Egan, a Patchogue attorney who currently is handling a receivership Pines awarded him, said he signed the letter and saw no ethical issue in doing so.
"As officers of the court, we have to defend the integrity of the judiciary," he said. "This is a judge who I believe has very strong integrity on the bench."
Brookhaven Town Attorney Annette Eaderesto, who worked with Pines in Brookhaven, also signed the letter. She called Pines "apolitical."
"She's a scholar, she's not a political person," Eaderesto said.