A supervisory state court judge has transferred a contentious case involving the disposition of millions of dollars held by a family foundation from Nassau County’s administrative judge to a Supreme Court justice outside Long Island.
Nassau County Administrative Judge Thomas A. Adams requested that his supervisor, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Michael V. Coccoma, the third-highest-ranking judge in New York State, decide if Adams should continue hearing the case involving management of the Kermit Gitenstein foundation by Steven Schlesinger, a prominent Democratic attorney.
A surrogate court judge removed Schlesinger as the foundation’s receiver in a scathing decision that accused him of mismanaging the foundation’s money and making $8 million in charitable donations without court approval.
Among the recipients of the money were foundations run by Gary Melius, a political power broker and owner of Oheka Castle, and former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato.
Last week, Coccoma issued an order, made public Monday, that transferred the case to Robert A. Onofry, an acting Supreme Court justice based in Orange County.
Coccoma’s one-page administrative order didn’t address whether Adams had a conflict of interest.
Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said Coccoma’s reason for appointing a judge from outside Nassau County “was to be ultracautious and to avoid an inference or appearance of impropriety in hearing the matter.”
Adams has not stated his reason for seeking Coccoma’s opinion. But Dan Bagnuola, spokesman for Nassau County Supreme Court, said Adams, a Republican, knows Melius, and “out of an abundance of caution,” sought Coccoma’s advice on having a judge from outside Nassau County preside over the Gitenstein case.
Bagnuola said in an email that Adams wanted Coccoma to determine “the propriety of keeping the matter in the Nassau County Supreme Court.”
Bennett Gershman, a law professor at Pace University in Westchester County, and former special prosecutor, said a judge asking a supervising judge whether he should hear a case is “unusual” and raises more questions than answers.
A judge wouldn’t seek an opinion on the issue “unless there was a conflict or the appearance of a conflict, that would raise questions about his integrity,” Gershman said, adding he couldn’t think of another reason “to suggest that a judge from outside Nassau County take the case.
“I can’t think of another situation like this,” Gershman added. “This case is obviously a hot potato. It’s good of them to try to avoid being criticized for having a conflict or the appearance of a conflict. You could say it’s laudable. But it is unusual.”
Gary Lewi, a spokesman for Schlesinger’s law firm, Jaspan Schlesinger LLP, said: “We welcome a fair and impartial hearing.”
Nassau County Surrogate Court Judge Margaret Reilly removed Schlesinger as court-appointed receiver of the $11 million foundation in May in an 87-page ruling.
Schlesinger, who once sat on the Nassau Democrats’ law committee and helped pick judicial candidates for party endorsement, appealed Reilly’s ruling to Nassau Supreme Court and the case was assigned to Adams. Schlesinger and Melius are linked through a $250,000 donation Schlesinger made to a charity Melius controlled in 2014.
In February 2014, a gunman shot Melius in the head as he sat in his Mercedes-Benz outside Oheka Castle. Adams was one of a parade of prominent Long Island politicians who visited Melius in the hospital immediately after the shooting, according to published reports.
“The judge has known Mr. Melius for many years,” Bagnuola said. “After being in public service more than 40 years, the judge has many acquaintances and Mr. Melius is one of them.”
When Adams ran for election in 2011, he had the party endorsement of the Conservative, Independence and Republican parties.
The Gitenstein foundation is a family trust set up in 1968 to make charitable contributions to Jewish organizations and to health care. In 2007, Shirley Gitenstein died without heirs, and a Surrogate Court judge appointed Schlesinger to manage the foundation.
The New York attorney general’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District both launched separate investigations after Newsday’s report, according to court records.
With Sandra Peddie and Paul LaRocco