When 10 newly elected Suffolk judges were sworn in during a ceremony in January, there was just one man they all thanked — Conservative Party chairman Edward Walsh.
Although it is not unusual for newly elected judges to thank the political leaders who helped get them to the bench, those political leaders are not usually facing federal charges of wire fraud and theft of government funds. Prosecutors allege that Walsh, 50, collected more than $80,000 by falsely claiming he was working at his job at the Suffolk County jail, when he actually was golfing, gambling or engaged in political activities. His trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday.
That new judges — including Democrats and Republicans — would thank the Conservative Party leader who is under a cloud speaks to the power of the political machine Walsh has built. New York’s state election laws empower minor parties, which can make the critical difference in an election. Walsh leverages his control of the Conservative Party to secure patronage jobs and political contributions, and he makes no apologies for it.
“If people think I’m rough, I’m a bully because I’m fighting for my people, I’ll get over it,” Walsh said in a recent interview.
Walsh’s influence over Suffolk County’s judiciary is the real reason federal prosecutors have pursued the fraud case against him, said his attorney, William Wexler of Babylon. He said they met with Walsh twice in an effort to get information about political corruption in, among other things, the selection of judges.
“When have you ever heard of the FBI arresting somebody on a time card case?” he said.
Walsh told prosecutors, Wexler said, that he doesn’t have any information to give. Any actions he has taken as party leader were traditional and legal political practices, Wexler said.
While other states have moved to strip money and politics from the selection of judges, prospective judges in New York encounter a process tightly controlled by party leaders, who appear more interested in contributions to the party than in legal skills.
Although Walsh is the leader of a minor party dwarfed in size by the Republican and Democratic parties, he is able to exert influence that goes far beyond the 22,401 voters enrolled as Conservatives in Suffolk. It is the largest Conservative Party in the state.
New York is one of just seven states where political candidates may run on multiple party lines at once, rather than just one. In addition, the state’s Wilson-Pakula law gives party leaders the power to give their line to candidates who are not registered in their party, so political leaders trade party lines for patronage jobs and cross-endorsements. As a result, it’s not unusual to see a judicial candidate running on party lines that appear to have conflicting political philosophies, such as Democratic, Republican, Conservative and Independence, all at once.
In the judicial politics of Suffolk County, there is no minor party line more coveted on the ballot than the Conservative line. Next-door in Nassau, where the Republican Party has dominated politics for decades, the Conservatives exert far less influence.
“When his line represents approximately 15 percent of the vote and neither major party gets you over 50, the Conservative party becomes critical. It’s just a matter of numbers,” Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer said of Walsh.
“Clearly, it can be the make or break,” said political consultant Michael Dawidziak. “People want conservative judges.”
A textbook example of the importance of the Conservative line — and the strange bedfellows made by the political deals for judgeships — came last fall when Republican Tara Scully ran for District Court against Democrat Stephen Ukeiley. The Conservative line went to Ukeiley, and Scully lost by 173 votes.
In a Facebook posting after her loss, Scully lamented that Ukeiley received 6,100 votes on the Conservative line. She said the fact that a Democrat accepted that line “was disingenuous and misleading. Such is the political game, in which I chose to participate.”
System unlike those in other states
New York’s system of selecting judicial candidates is unlike any other in the country.
Under New York law, candidates for state Supreme Court, which is the state’s main trial court, are selected at a convention after primaries for other elective offices. That leaves the selection of Supreme Court candidates in the hands of political party leaders, not voters.
“Forty-nine other states have looked at New York State and have chosen something else for a reason,” said James Sample, a Hofstra University law professor who specializes in campaign finance and judicial selection.
Just 12 states, including New York, use partisan elections to choose judges, according to the National Center for State Courts, a clearinghouse of court research and data. In recent years, states have been moving away from partisan elections to having judges appointed by a commission or having them run in nonpartisan elections, which are contests where candidates run without a party designation on the ballot. Last year, after a scandal involving judges’ close ties to wealthy contributors, West Virginia abolished partisan elections and moved to nonpartisan elections.
The idea is to preserve the judiciary’s independence, said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor. In Florida, judges have been selected through nonpartisan elections since 1971. Choosing judges through political elections, she said, “conflicts with the idea that you’re supposed to rule objectively.”
Efforts to reform New York’s system, including a lawsuit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, have failed to gain traction.
In 2004, New York City Civil Court judge Margarita Lopez Torres filed a lawsuit alleging that party leaders didn’t renominate her because she refused to make patronage hires. She argued that her First Amendment rights were violated because the system denied her a realistic opportunity to participate in the party’s nominating process.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court justices conceded that nothing in the Constitution prevents legislatures “from enacting stupid laws,” they said the Constitution also does not guarantee candidates “a fair shot” at getting on the ballot.
The court affirmed a system in which party leaders have a “stranglehold” over judicial candidates, Sample said.
“What about the good judges who can’t get through the system because they refuse to hire the party leader’s daughter as her law clerk?” he said. “When the party leaders can extort those kinds of favors, then the judicial system may result in good judges, but it excludes many others who don’t want to play the patronage game.”
Lure of the ballot line
Last fall, Republican Scully and Democrat Ukeiley were vying for a seat on the District Court, which handles misdemeanors and lesser offenses, as well as landlord-tenant disputes. Scully, a 38-year-old attorney from Stony Brook, is the daughter of Peter Scully, a one-time Republican operative who currently is working for Democrat Steve Bellone. Ukeiley, 45, had previously served as a District Court judge and has written a book on landlord-tenant law.
The Conservative line was up for grabs in their race.
In a bid to get that line, Scully met with a political consultant who is also a felon, Fred Towle. A former Republican county legislator, Towle pleaded guilty to taking bribes in 2003. Since getting out of jail, he has worked as a consultant and weekly newspaper editor.
Scully’s campaign treasurer, Nancy Marks, arranged for the meeting to be held at her Shirley home on Sept. 24. She confirmed to a reporter that the meeting occurred. Scully, Towle, Marks and Scully’s campaign manager, Eduardo Munoz, attended.
An email from Marks to Scully and Munoz, as well as 23 text messages between Towle and Munoz after the meeting, were provided to Newsday by a person close to Scully’s campaign who also confirmed some details of the meeting with Towle.
Three people who did not attend the meeting, but were briefed on it by Scully, said Towle offered Scully his services as a consultant for $10,000. He stressed his close relationship with Walsh, and suggested that Scully make a $2,000 contribution to the Suffolk Conservative Party.
Scully, according to the source who discussed the meeting with her later, said she left the meeting with the understanding that if she paid Towle and donated to the Conservative party, she would have a much better chance of securing the Conservative line.
Offering a party line in exchange for money is illegal. Marks, who arranged the meeting, said in an interview that Towle never made such an explicit offer. “There was no guarantee or anything like that,” Marks said. She declined to answer questions about the money discussed at the meeting.
Scully declined to comment, and Munoz did not return calls. Towle said in a brief interview that he does not discuss his dealings with clients.
In the 24 hours after the meeting, the text messages obtained by Newsday show Towle repeatedly pressed Munoz to make a decision while stressing that they didn’t have much time.
The first text from Towle to Munoz came at 8:04 p.m. on the same day as the meeting. Towle wrote that he had just spoken to Walsh and wanted an answer. Munoz replied that they wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be any “legal ramifications.”
Towle said there would be no issue because he would be consulting through Marks’ company, Campaigns Unlimited NY. He pushed Munoz to make a decision: “We have less than 3 days,” a reference to the Conservative convention, scheduled for Sept. 27, where choices for judicial candidates would be finalized.
When Munoz didn’t respond immediately, Towle texted that he was meeting with Walsh and would “make our pitch. If not, I will not bring it up because I want the other check for 2k to donate to committee.”
He texted that the “Window is about to close,” and Munoz said he was “working on it.”
By the next evening, at 6:02 p.m. Munoz declined, saying, “Among other issues, it’s just not financially feasible for her.”
An adviser to the Scully campaign told Newsday, on the condition of anonymity, that Scully was warned that it is illegal for judicial candidates to give large sums of money to a political party and that Towle could be trying to set her up in a bribery sting.
Walsh declined to comment on Towle and referred questions to Wexler, his attorney.
Wexler said Walsh had nothing to do with the offer to Scully and that Towle “was freelancing and looking to deal on his own. I don’t believe any part of that was ever going to go to the Conservative committee.”
Paul Sabatino, former counsel to the Suffolk County Legislature and chief deputy county executive, said the entire incident reflected how “perverted” the system of selecting judges has become on Long Island.
“If this is what it takes — meeting with a convicted felon — to get on the bench, the black robe is simply not worth it,” he said. “And the person seeking it doesn’t belong on the bench.”
Edward Walsh’s rise
Walsh, of East Islip, took over the Suffolk Conservative Party in 2006 after the death of then-leader Pasquale Curcio.
State judicial campaign ethics rules bar candidates for judgeships from making contributions to political parties. However, they are allowed to buy two tickets to a political fundraiser during the time they are running for election. The rules do not prohibit a judge’s family members from participating in “bona fide, independent political activity,” but say that a judge must “encourage” family members to adhere to the same standards of political conduct that apply to a judicial candidate. The idea is to preserve the independence of the judiciary.
Nonetheless, judges’ family members often contribute to the Conservative Party.
Records show that Family Court Judge Bernard Cheng, a Conservative from Bayport who was elected in 2010, has contributed just $155 to the Conservative Party since 2011. But his 80-year-old mother, Fun Y, a registered Conservative, has contributed $17,153 to Conservatives since January 2011. She did not respond to a call for comment.
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Pastoressa, a Conservative from St. James, has made no contributions to his party. However, his wife, Marianne, has contributed at least $3,335 to the Conservative Party and candidates since March 2011. She did not respond to a call for comment.
Contributions to the Conservative Party don’t just come from Conservatives. Republicans and Democrats also give generously to the party.
Democrat Ukeiley has contributed at least $2,300 to the Conservative Party since 2011. Scully, his opponent, did give to individual Conservative candidates, but not the party.
Acting County Court Judge Jennifer Henry is a Republican, but she has donated more to Conservatives than to her own party. Since 2012, she has given at least $4,100 to the Conservative Party, compared with $2,500 to the Republican Party.
The judges all declined requests for comment.
Campaign contributions are not the only area where Walsh has succeeded as a party leader. Records show that he has been adept at getting Conservatives jobs in the Suffolk courts.
In Suffolk, 14 of 76 judges — or about 18 percent — are Conservatives. By comparison, just six of 88 judges — just about 7 percent — on the bench in Nassau are Conservatives.
Once elected, judges have few jobs to offer, but there is one plum — the job of law clerk — that is critically important to the judge and highly prized by lawyers. The law clerk does legal research, helps write decisions and deals with procedural matters. Many law clerks have gone on to become judges themselves.
Court directories and voter registration rolls show that at least 10 of 50 appointed law clerks in Suffolk — or 20 percent — are Conservatives. At least nine of those clerks are also Conservative committeemen. As lawyers, they are available to notarize petitions and advise on legal matters — an important asset for any political party.
“They’ll help party build,” Walsh said. “If there’s legal stuff going, they help volunteer.”
By comparison in Nassau, two of 61 appointed law clerks — or just 3 percent — are enrolled Conservatives. None appear to be committeemen.
Roger Bogsted, who was chairman of the Nassau Conservative Party for 10 years, said he never insisted on judges hiring party members as law clerks.
“If they’re comfortable with their law clerk, that’s fine,” he said. “I think it’s more important to have an individual, whether it be a law clerk or a secretary, that is answerable directly to the judge and not a political leader.”