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Steve Schlesinger accuses judge of bias in charity decision

Steven Schlesinger, seen here in a 2006 photo,

Steven Schlesinger, seen here in a 2006 photo, is contesting his removal as administrator of the Kermit Gitenstein Foundation. Credit: Newsday / DICK YARWOOD

A prominent Nassau County attorney is fighting his removal as administrator of an $11 million charity, alleging that the judge who took the action is biased against him.

Steven Schlesinger, formerly the lawyer of the Nassau Democratic Party, last week filed an appeal of Nassau Surrogate’s Court Judge Margaret C. Reilly’s May 26 order replacing him as sole receiver of the Kermit Gitenstein Foundation, a family foundation set up to fund health care and Jewish causes. Reilly’s 87-page ruling was a scathing rebuke of Schlesinger’s administration of the charity, which he received a court appointment to run in 2007 after the last family member died. As of late last year, the charity had about $1 million in the bank after Schlesinger dispersed the balance of its funds.

Schlesinger responded with a 34-page affidavit filed Friday with the State Supreme Court of Nassau County. In it, he charges that Reilly, a Republican, was biased against him because Newsday endorsed her last year and in the same editorial, mentioned Schlesinger by name and suggested that he was part of “the blatant patronage of yesterday.”

Citing her language to the editorial board that it is “time to end the era of congenial insiders,” he alleged she made a “pledge” to Newsday to “take action against me.”

“The conclusions of Surrogate Reilly are heavily disputed, and the true facts belie those conclusions,” Schlesinger said in his filing. “Her rush to judgment at the behest of the Newsday editorial board is obvious from her total disregard of fundamental due process.”

A Nassau Court spokesman could not be reached for comment. Newsday spokesman Paul Fleishman declined to comment.

Since, Schlesinger contended, Reilly can’t be objective in the Gitenstein case, he requested that all future matters be heard by Justice Thomas A. Adams of the Supreme Court.

In August 2015, Newsday published a story about Schlesinger’s management of the foundation and his disbursements of foundation money to political allies and associates. Schlesinger directed $250,000 to a foundation run by his friend, Oheka Castle owner Gary Melius; $200,000 to Surprise Lake Camp, where Nassau Democratic Party chief Jay Jacobs has an unpaid seat on the board of directors; and $50,000 to former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato’s family foundation for construction of a splash park.

Newsday reported that Schlesinger’s $250,000 donation to the Elena Melius Foundation, which is run by Melius, occurred the same week as Schlesinger’s wedding at Melius’ Gold Coast estate. Schlesinger, managing partner of the Jaspan Schlesinger firm in Garden City, didn’t pay for the wedding until five months after it occurred.

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.

Schlesinger also addressed his Oheka Castle wedding in court records. In her ruling, Reilly said Schlesinger should have disclosed to the court his friendship with Melius before the $250,000 gift and his wedding at Oheka.

“There was never any intent or understanding, or even a thought, on my part that the grant . . . was in any manner related to my wedding,” Schlesinger said in court papers. “Gary and I have been friends for 30 years. He has hired me to perform legal work for him . . . and I have held events at Oheka Castle in the past. We have routinely worked out fees associated with these things informally, as friends often do.”

Experts interviewed by Newsday for the story last August said that Schlesinger’s relationship with Melius should have been disclosed to the court and could have impaired his objectivity in choosing Melius’s foundation as a Gitenstein grant recipient.

Schlesinger alleged in his affidavit that New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who regulates charities in the state, also had an event at Oheka — a campaign fundraiser — without reaching an agreement beforehand with Melius on the cost.

He said Schneiderman was personally aware he and Melius were friends because he had lunch with them and other guests at Oheka in December 2013.

In a statement, Schneiderman called Schlesinger’s claims “baseless and absurd.”

“The Attorney General had no knowledge of Mr. Schlesinger’s planned improprieties nor did he consent to them — tacitly or otherwise,” Schneiderman’s statement said.

Joseph Tacopina, Melius’ attorney, declined to comment.

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