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Judge, Democratic counsel with ties to Gary Melius move out of key roles

(L-R) State court records show Supreme Court Justice

(L-R) State court records show Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan was transferred out of the commercial division, where one of his responsibilities was appointing individuals to manage commercial properties that had fallen into foreclosure. Steven Schlesinger, the longtime counsel to Nassau Democrats and a regular at Melius' Oheka poker games, resigned as chairman of the party's law committee, Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs said. Photo Credit: Rick Kopstein; Joseph Sullivan

Two figures at the center of a Newsday investigation into the improper handling of lucrative court appointments to Oheka Castle owner Gary Melius and a network of associates no longer hold their key positions.

State court records show Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan was transferred out of the commercial division, where one of his responsibilities was appointing individuals to manage commercial properties that had fallen into foreclosure. His new position is not indicated in the documents. Whelan's commercial cases have been reassigned to his replacement, Supreme Court Justice Jerry Garguilo.

Steven Schlesinger, the longtime counsel to Nassau Democrats and a regular at Melius' Oheka poker games, resigned Tuesday as chairman of the party's law committee, Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs said.

Both Whelan and Schlesinger figured prominently in a Newsday investigation into receiverships, a type of court appointment. Melius and a network of associates that included Schlesinger collected more than $762,000 in fees awarded by Whelan and another Suffolk justice for serving as property managers or receivers -- in effect, temporary landlords -- for four office parks in foreclosure.

The judges failed to report appointments and fees to the state, violating state rules established in 2002 to prevent politically connected people from exploiting the system.

State court officials declined to comment on Whelan's reassignment.

Political background

Schlesinger is a managing partner in the Garden City law firm Jaspan Schlesinger and also works for Shelter Rock Strategies, a lobbying firm. Schlesinger has done free legal work in election-law cases for numerous candidates, sits on a state Character and Fitness Committee that vets individuals joining the state bar, and has chaired the Professional Ethics Committee of the Nassau Bar Association.

As chairman of the law committee, he served as the party's counsel and helped screen candidates for judgeships.

After Newsday reported last month that Nassau judges had awarded Schlesinger and others in his firm more than $638,000 in payouts since 2010, Jacobs said he planned to review Schlesinger's status as the party's legal counsel.

Schlesinger, when reached for comment, hung up the phone.

Jacobs declined Tuesday to describe any discussion he had with Schlesinger regarding his departure from the party position.

"After 35 years of service, Steve Schlesinger has offered to step aside as law chairman of the Nassau County Democratic committee," Jacobs said. "We appreciate Steve's service to the party, and I look forward to working with our new law chair Keith Corbett."

Corbett, who works at the Harris Beach law firm in Uniondale, has served on the Nassau County Board of Ethics and is a trustee of the Village of Malverne.

"I am honored and humbled by Jay Jacobs' confidence in my abilities, and I look forward to serving the party," Corbett said.

Whelan's ties to Melius

Whelan, whose political benefactor is state Independence Party chairman and Melius employee Frank MacKay, was re-elected in November to another 14-year term.

Newsday previously reported that Whelan effectively gave Melius control of a company in a civil case in which Melius had tried to put MacKay on the board. Whelan, who is godfather to MacKay's daughter, did not at the time disclose his ties to MacKay. After Newsday's report, Whelan recused himself from the case.

Whelan oversaw three of the receiverships involving Melius, awarding $599,892 in fees to Melius or his associates. That amounted to 79 percent of all fees that he awarded in receivership cases.

Supreme Court Justice Emily Pines handled the fourth receivership. After Newsday's report, she reopened the case and rescinded her approval of a $90,000 payment to Richard Bellando, the Nassau Independence Party leader and Melius' former son-in-law. Court rules bar party leaders from receiving such fee awards.

Pines said at the time that she did not direct Bellando to return the money because the lender's attorney, Evan Krinick, refused to ask for it back. Pines remains in the commercial division and has retained her cases.

The state Commission on Judicial Conduct, which disciplines judges, and the Office of the Managing Inspector General for Fiduciary Appointments, which investigates complaints about court appointments, opened investigations in the wake of Newsday's reports.

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