Janet DiFiore, chief judge of the New York Court of...

Janet DiFiore, chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, has announced she will resign next month. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

Daily Point

Sudden spotlight on inner court workings

From time to time, the public is reminded that New York’s chief judge plays a dual role. One part is leading the top seven-member Court of Appeals, known for big rulings on gerrymandering, criminal procedure, business disputes and more.

The other part of the job makes news less often, but arguably adds up to more day-to-day power — heading a sprawling court system with an annual $3.6 billion budget and thousands of employees from Long Island to western New York.

That second role suddenly sprang into the spotlight when Chief Judge Janet DiFiore abruptly announced she’s soon leaving after six years in the office. She has been at war for much of that time with Dennis Quirk, the seemingly permanent and often controversial president of the New York State Court Officers Association, whose nasty verbal clashes with DiFiore and other selected court officials have been legion.

Two years ago, DiFiore called for Quirk to be investigated over allegations of “racial inequality and brutality” against Black court officers. He reportedly emailed DiFiore calling the claims false and asking how she'd like it if rumors of her personal life were "posted all over every court building in NYS." In confronting DiFiore about a vaccine mandate, he also posted her home addresses on social media.

Quirk, who has since left his court job but not his union office, was brought up on disciplinary charges. After the proceedings, DiFiore last summer sent a letter on official stationery to retired state Supreme Court Justice Phyllis Flug, then presiding as an administrative judge over Quirk’s disciplinary hearing. The letter cites “the grave impact that Respondent Dennis Quirk's contemptuous misconduct has had on me, my work and our entire court system.”

She said: “I implore you to use your authority wisely to uphold the values of our entire court system."

Now Quirk has pursued a complaint over the propriety of such intervention in an administrative case with the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which was reviewing the matter and is expected to drop it when DiFiore departs. Her spokesman has said her departure next month has nothing to do with that fracas.

As the battle raged last year, a rival in court union leadership, Charles Compton, former president of the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association, wrote to the Daily News that Quirk’s “real problem” was that he lost power over hiring, promotions and assignments when DiFiore succeeded Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

Compton and others also raised questions about Quirk’s side businesses, including a longtime city park concession.

Others feeding the buzz in public service unions, however, took Quirk’s side. Last year, Peter Piciulo, president of the Court Officers Benevolent Association of Nassau County, also posted a letter on the union’s website vehemently slamming DiFiore’s imposition of the vaccine requirement on employees.

This week, Brian Sullivan, who heads the unaffiliated Nassau County Sheriff's Correction Officers Benevolent Association, congratulated Quirk on DiFiore’s announcement. “Another appointee of the former Emperor Andrew Cuomo who all thought they were above everyone else,” Sullivan stated on social media.

With more detachment, a former court official told The Point that the Quirk-DiFiore fight “was always like the dance of the tarantulas.”

— Dan Janison @Danjanison

Talking Point

Playpen for politics up in smoke?

Anthony Capetola with Hillary Clinton in 2004, left, and Tony Bennett,...

Anthony Capetola with Hillary Clinton in 2004, left, and Tony Bennett, right, at The Carltun in Eisenhower Park. Credit: Courtesy of Anthony Capetola

With the announcement that The Carltun in Eisenhower Park would be closing in September after 26 years, the landscape changed for party and wedding planners and any organization hosting big social events or fundraisers in Nassau County.

But the closure could also mean no more venue for the denizens of the Havana Cigar Club, a members-and-guests-only place to puff stogies that, because it was private, offered legally what almost no cigar venue can: a full menu of extremely high-end food and alcoholic beverages.

The Carltun itself, and the Havana Cigar Club in particular, were big spots for raising big political money. George W. Bush and Bill and Hillary Clinton held events there.

But it was also the place to do a lot of day-to-day political business. High-ranking municipal leaders, union leaders, judges, elected officials and businessmen got together there on purpose, or met by happenstance, and deals got made.

Mostly by men, that is — albeit an ethnically and racially diverse cast of characters. Owner and operator Anthony Capetola said while a few women had been members, the usual nighttime crowd was almost exclusively testosterone-fueled. “I think maybe women don’t love the cigar smoke in their hair,” Capetola joked.

Capetola said that while the cigar room was a place for the connected, it and the Carltun were also places where everybody was treated the same, and everybody came together regardless of background. “We had no trouble there, everyone had fun and everyone got along,” he said.

One member and frequent patron, publicist Todd Shapiro, told The Point, “It was a great place to have fun, but also a place where you saw everyone. You could go from table to table and see 15 people you wanted to talk to in 15 minutes.”

“The people who go to the Capital Grille to do business at lunch, when they left there … they went to the Havana Cigar Club for the evening,” Shapiro said.

So what now for those who like to smoke, eat, drink and talk business all at once?

The new owners are Bobby and Elias Trahanas, restaurant operators who own the Golden Reef Diner in Rockville Centre. The pair also run food concessions at Jones Beach and Robert Moses state parks. 

“We are discussing selling the name Havana Cigar Club to the new owners. They apparently want to keep operating, though it’s not set in stone,” Capetola told The Point.

— Lane Filler @lanefiller

Pencil Point

Time out

Credit: Politicalcartoons.com/Dave Granlund

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Data Point

Debt on LI

According to the Urban Institute’s 2022 debt delinquency data, consumer debt on Long Island has improved since 2018, but some indicators temper that optimism.

In 2018, 16% of the Nassau County population and 19% of Suffolk's population had debt in the hands of a collection agency, but both counties have since declined to 13.2% and 15.5%, respectively, in 2022. That positive change is even more significant in Long Island’s communities of color — less than a quarter (22.7% in Nassau, 23.7% in Suffolk) have debt in collections now, compared to 28% in 2018.

The Urban Institute organizes its data by ZIP code, and defines communities of color as ZIP codes where at least 60% of the population is African American, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, another race other than white, or multiracial.

In most categories in the institute's data, communities of color saw larger decreases in both delinquency rate and share of debt in collections than white communities.

Delinquent credit card debt for communities of color dropped by 2% in Nassau and 1.5% in Suffolk, but only 1.2% and 0.5% for white communities. An even larger change could be seen in student loan debt in collections — the share for communities of color decreased by 5.5% and 4.1%, compared to 1.3% and 1.9% for white communities.

Despite these larger improvements, communities of color still have a higher rate of delinquency or debt in collections than their counterparts. Credit card delinquency for communities of color is 4% for Nassau County and 4.6% for Suffolk, significantly higher than the 1.78% and 2.5% of white communities.

Meanwhile, the median debt in collections has risen for both counties since 2018. Nassau County’s rose by 9.52% from $1,805 to $1,952 while Suffolk’s spiked even more — 16% from $1,893 to $2,196.

It’s a similar picture when comparing Long Island to national numbers. LI’s delinquency rate tends to be lower than national or state data, but the amount Long Islanders owe tends to be higher.

— Kai Teoh @jkteoh