Former Judge is convicted of bribery in Divorce Court
By MICHAEL BRICK Published: April 20, 2007
A former State Supreme Court judge was convicted yesterday of accepting bribes to manipulate the outcome of divorce proceedings in a case that led to a broad political and judicial corruption inquiry in Brooklyn.The judge Gerald P. Garson, 74, could face as many as 15 years in prison if he is sentenced consecutively on the three guilty verdicts, on bribery ain Divorce Court and two lesser charges. The jury acquitted him on four other counts after a four-week trial in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn.In his roughly five years on the bench in Brooklyn, Mr. Garson handled nearly 1,100 matrimony cases, making decisions on child custody and financial matters. In finding him guilty, the jury endorsed the prosecution theory that he had an agreement with a divorce lawyer to take cash, dinners and cigars in exchange for courtroom assignments and favored treatment.The verdict was a significant victory for the Brooklyn district attorney Charles J. Hynes, and for his chief of investigations, Michael F. Vecchione, a high-ranking assistant district attorney who prosecuted Mr. Garson as part of their larger corruption inquiry.
Outside the courtroom, Mr. Vecchione said the case had put public officials in the borough on notice. “I’m not sure there was any further message that needed to be sent, other than people need to do what’s right,” Mr. Vecchione said.He told reporters that the jury was probably swayed by surveillance recordings that showed Justice Garson doing “the things he did behind closed doors, and now it’s out in the open.” Mr. Garson, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, showed no reaction to the verdict and left the courthouse without comment. His lawyer, Michael S. Washor, said he would appeal.
“We’re disappointed with the verdict,” Mr. Washor said, adding, “It’s very painful, both emotionally and physically.”Mr. Garson was first charged in 2003, along with the divorce lawyer, Paul Siminovsky, as well as one of his clients, a court officer, a former clerk and a man described as a fixer. All six were charged with felonies.The case immediately reverberated throughout Brooklyn, from playpens and dinner tables to the upper echelons of politics. Divorce cases were reopened. Judges feared that their offices were wired for surveillance.
The system of nominating judges was ruled unconstitutional.The longtime Democratic Party leader, Clarence Norman Jr., who helped place Mr. Garson on the bench, was convicted on corruption charges and now faces jail time. Acting on statements Mr. Garson made when confronted with the evidence against him, Mr. Hynes vowed to expose a system in which judgeships were for sale, a charge he has yet to show.As the minor participants in the case pleaded guilty or were convicted, some agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors, Mr. Garson was suspended from the bench and eventually resigned.
Last year, he rejected an offer to plead guilty to two minor felonies in exchange for a 16-month sentence in a local jail, where he might have received treatment from his own doctors.After years of delay while a pretrial ruling was appealed and Mr. Garson sought medical treatment, the trial began last month in an outsized ceremonial courtroom in Downtown Brooklyn. The spectacle of a judge on trial — a matrimonial judge, no less — drew a sizable audience of lawyers, judicial officials and aggrieved divorcées.Prosecutors used financial records and video surveillance recordings to buttress testimony from the divorce lawyer, Mr. Siminovsky, who had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in exchange for his cooperation.
In the recordings, Mr. Siminovsky was seen relaxing in the judge’s robing room and handing over an envelope full of cash. In court, he recounted entertaining the judge with drinks and meals in exchange for favorable treatment.In his closing statement for the prosecution, Mr. Vecchione said on Tuesday, “Supreme Court Judge Gerald Garson became corrupt Supreme Court Judge Gerald Garson, disgraceful Supreme Court Judge Gerald Garson, disgraced Supreme Court Judge Gerald Garson.”The defense lawyer, Mr. Washor, portrayed Mr. Siminovsky as the architect of a scheme to manipulate the judge, turning on Mr. Garson and setting him up after his arrest.“He deliberately lied to you,” Mr. Washor told the jury in his closing statement.
Turning to the prosecutors, he added, “And he did so to curry favor with these gentlemen here.”Jurors deliberated for a day and a half. At mid-day yesterday, they sent out a note asking for clarification of the requirement for unanimity. They were considering one count of bribery in the third degree, a class D felony, and six counts of receiving a reward for official misconduct in the second degree, a class E felony. The lesser counts related to specific acts, while the bribery charge encompassed a pattern of behavior.Around 5:30 p.m., the jury foreman, a young man in a T-shirt and gold chain, stood and announced the verdict.Mr. Vecchione, who was assisted on the case by three assistant district attorneys, Bryan Wallace, Joseph Alexis, and Seth Lieberman, turned to the gallery and gave a thumbs-up sign.Mr. Washor, who during the trial repeatedly insulted and baited Mr. Vecchione, turned to the prosecutors and said, “Congratulations, gentlemen.”Mr. Vecchione asked the judge overseeing the case, Jeffrey C. Berry, to order Mr. Garson held without bail.
Mr. Washor argued that Mr. Garson had attended his court dates faithfully and was due in a doctor’s office today. Assured that Mr. Garson had turned over his passport to prosecutors, Justice Berry allowed him to remain free on $15,000 bond and ordered him to report weekly to probation officers. Then he turned to the defendant.“Gerald Garson, kindly stand, sir,” Justice Berry said.Taking his lawyer’s arm, Mr. Garson rose slowly but steadily to his feet. Justice Berry warned him to abide by his bail conditions and to report for sentencing on June 5.Outside the courtroom, Mr. Garson was hurried away by family members and supporters.
“Finally, we have justice,” said Frieda Hanimov, whose divorce case was handled by Mr. Garson and who wore a surveillance device to collect evidence against him. Adding that she and other victims were planning civil lawsuits, she said, “Now hopefully they’re going to learn and realize we have corruption everywhere.”