One Way to Dance Toward a Judgeship

About eight weeks ago, New York State Assemblyman Dan Quart, who had recently been hired as an associate by the law firm McManus, Ateshoglou, Adams, Aiello & Apostolakos, which is located on the 25th floor at 48 Wall Street, attended a fundraiser, which his new firm had organized to support future Quart political campaigns.

A flyer for the fundraiser  prominently featured Athanasia Apostolakos, one of the name partners at McManus Ateshoglou, asking donors to purchase tickets at a price of $250, $500 or $1,000 to support “Dan Quart For New York City,” a political fundraising vehicle created under New York City’s Campaign Finance Law. According to filing, required by the law, Quart for NYC raised $31,000 in March and April of this year.

That would have been unexceptional but for the fact that just a few weeks later, Suzanne Adams, who is also a name partner of the McManus firm, would appear for an interview with a screening panel set up by the Lexington Democratic Club, seeking its approval to run for one of two seats open this year within the 9th Civil Court District in Manhattan.

Since 2013, Quart has been the Assemblyman for the 73rd Assembly District, which encompasses the old Silk Stocking district and extends from 96th Street to the Empire State Building on 34th St. with occasional jogs west of Fifth and east of Lexington Avenues. Manhattan’s 9th Civil Court district—with its two open seats this year— lies almost entirely within the boundaries of the 73rd Assembly District.

The Lexington Democratic Club is one of the most powerful political clubs in Manhattan, because six district leaders are elected from within the area it dominates. The boundaries of the 73rd Assembly District and the reach of the Lexington Club and the six district leadership posts it dominates are identical.

The coincidental timing of Quart being hired at McManus Ateshoglou, his new firm’s hosting a fund-raiser for him and one of its name partners running for a judgeship provides a vivid example of the dance that judicial candidates and their supporters sometimes engage in with public and Democratic Party officials in their efforts to smooth the path to a nomination.

The optics of the interaction between Adams, her law firm and Quart, have been further blurred by several other factors:

•A third lawyer at the McManus firm, Robin Marsico, one of the Lexington club’s six district leaders, was primarily responsible for identifying the community groups or legal organizations which would be asked to name members to the screening panel.
•The panel that was assembled under Marsico’s leadership was weakened by two possible conflicts. One panel member was selected by the Columbian Lawyers’ Association, a group where Adams is chairman of the board. Another panelist was a law partner of Darren Marks, the Lexington Club’s immediate past president.
•Marks was also reported to have had a role in determining which groups would be invited to serve on the panel.
•Quart was endorsed at a May 25 meeting of the Lexington Club to run for district leader in September. To accomplish that, Quart had to wrest the club’s nomination from Lawrence M. Rosenstock, a longtime, highly respected reform advocate.

In response to a written request for comment, Quart stated “at no time was my employment with [the McManus firm] a factor in my support for Ms. Adams candidacy.” Moreover, he stressed her “stellar qualification” and the fact that she went through “a stringent approval process by multiple independent screening panels.”

Questions About Lexington Club’s Screening Process

As Quart asserted in a written statement, the New York County Democratic Party screened and approved Adams in strict conformity with its rules, which require a two-step process to assure that the evaluation of candidates’ fitness for the bench remain free of political considerations.

An examination of the Lexington club’s review of the 20 candidates seeking nomination to the two vacancies in the 9th District, however, reveals problems with its implementation of what is known as the “double-blind” rule. That rule prohibits a political club from directly naming members to a screening panel but instead requires the club to ask independent community groups and legal organizations to name the persons who will actually serve as panel members and evaluate candidates.

At the outset, there was an apparent departure from the required separation of political influence from the formation of the panels at a preliminary meeting convened to determine which groups would be asked to name panel members.

Though the 9th Civil Court District lies almost entirely within the Lexington Club’s turf, part of the district lies within the boundaries of the neighboring Chelsea Reform Club. District leaders from the Lexington and Chelsea clubs attended the meeting. Darren Marks, who is the chairman of the Lexington Club’s Judiciary Committee, also attended the preliminary meeting.

According to a source present at the meeting, Marks had made it clear that Quart would not accept the Jewish Lawyers Guild as one of the nominating groups.

In a telephone interview, Marks acknowledged that prior to the preliminary planning session, he had discussions with Quart and several district leaders, who opposed the Guild’s naming a panel member because its designees in the past had attacked candidates. Marks further said he could not recall what he said at the meeting itself concerning the participation of the Jewish Lawyers Guild.

Further, problems arose with two of the groups selected to nominate panelists. In all, seven groups named panelists.

The most serious issue arose from the selection of the Columbian Lawyers Association to name a panelist because Suzanne Adams, who was seeking a nomination, is the chairman of the board of that group.

Another potential conflict concerned Marks, the Lexington Judiciary Committee chairman. It involves the appointment of Craig M. Notte, a partner along with Marks at the real estate firm Goldstein, Altschuler, Nahins & Goidel. Marks, as discussed above, is the chairman of the Lexington club’s Judiciary Committee and had a role in forming the panel.

Asked about the possible conflict, Marks said he had no knowledge that Notte had been appointed until after the GLBT Bar Association chose Notte to participate. Nor, he added, had he had any conversations with Notte about the panel’s work. He did, however, recognize that Notte should have disclosed the conflict to the administrator of the panel, Adrian Zuckerman of Seyforth Shaw.

Requests were made by email and phone message to both Zuckerman and Notte regarding whether there had been disclosure of a possible conflict because both Notte and Marks were partners in the same firm. Zuckerman did not answer that question, but instead asserted “there was absolutely no evidence of bias, conflict or outside influence in any of the panelists participation.”

That interpretation stands reasoning behind the “double blind” rule on its head. The purpose of the rule is to assure the public of the integrity of the screening process. To require proof before a conflict is disclosed and acted upon defeats the rule’s goal of assuring public confidence in the evaluation process. No response was received from Notte.

Matthew Skinner, the executive director of the LGBT Bar Association, also known as LeGal, said he was “surprised to learn” from the WiseLawNY inquiry that Marks and Notte were law partners. “We had no idea who Marks was, and certainly did not participate “in a conspiracy” to get Notte on the panel,” he added.

Marsico, the McManus Ateshoglou lawyer and district leader, said in an interview that she was responsible for asking organizations to appoint panel members.

She defended her work, saying the panel was formed in mid-to-late March before any of the candidates had declared their interest in running this year. However, she was aware that Adams has several times previously sought the Democratic nomination for Civil Court.

She also said that lawyers often join many bar associations, political clubs and civic organizations, making it almost inevitable that apparent conflicts may result.

Quart’s Influence over the Lexington Democratic Club

Quart’s position, as the highest state elected official from the 73rd District, suggests that he exercises substantial sway over the Lexington Club. One objective manifestation of that sway arose as recently as the club’s endorsement meeting on May 25.

At the meeting, Quart sought the club’s endorsement to replace Lawrence M. Rosenstock as a district leader, a position he had held for close to 40 years.

Rosenstock has long been highly regarded in the Democratic Party’s reform wing as a stalwart defender of the double-blind method of selecting panel members.

Curtis Arluck, who is the co-head of the county party’s Judiciary Committee, said “I have worked closely with Larry for close to 40 years on the county committee and always found him a voice of wisdom and a staunch advocate of the party’s rules designed to protect the integrity of the evaluation process.”

Rosenstock refused to yield without a fight but Quart prevailed. The endorsement virtually assures that Quart will become a district leader in September, a development which will also make him eligible to challenge the current Manhattan Democratic Party Leader Keith Wright.

Moreover, several club members report that both Marks, the immediate past president of the Lexington Club, and the current president Peter Borock, have often referred to the Lexington Club as “Dan’s Club” both publicly and in private conversation.

Borock declined to comment. Marks, said the when he used the phrase, it was meant as a sign of respect and friendship for Quart and not to suggest that Quart exerted any undue influence over the club.

At its May 25 endorsement meeting, the Lexington Club, in addition to nominating Quart to replace Rosenstock as district leader, also endorsed Adams and James Clynes, who is law secretary to Manhattan Civil Court Judge Alexander Tisch, for the two vacancies in the 9th District.

What is Quart Raising Money For?

Substantial questions remain concerning what Quart will ultimately do with the funds raised for “Dan Quart for New York City,” the beneficiary of the April 12 fundraiser.

The NYC Campaign Finance Law does not require that politicians, for whose benefit a fund is created, must declare what office they are seeking, and in his 2016 filing with the NYC Campaign Finance Board (CFB), Quart registered as “undeclared.” Research on the CFB’s website found that Dan Quart’s fund has raised $188,000 since it was created in 2016.

Should Quart decide not to seek a city office and disband his committee, he would have the option of contributing the unspent funds to the campaigns of other candidates seeking elective office, according to Matt Sollars, director of public relations for the CFB. In addition, the Manhattan Democratic Party rules specify that only district leaders may serve as the party’s chairman and head of its executive committee.

Those factors have spurred rumors that Quart is entertaining a challenge to Assemblyman Keith Wright as the leader of the Manhattan Democratic Party.

Charlie King, acting as Wright’s spokesman, said that Quart has been rumored to be interested in many different jobs, including mayor, comptroller and U.S. representative, but noted that he has not had “much of an imprint” in internal party affairs. King is a former chairman of the New York State Democratic Party.

©DanielJWise2017

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