In a new tell-all book, bribery and corruption in a New York State Supreme Court (matrimonial part) formerly presided by Judge Gerald P. Garson is detailed by former Brooklyn District Attorney, Michael Vecchione, who led the investigation against Judge Garson.
The book, titled “Crooked Brooklyn: Taking Down Corrupt Judges, Dirty Politicians, Killers, and Body Snatchers” is written by Michael Veccione (who headed the Brooklyn District Attorney’s rackets division from 2001 to 2013) and Jerry Schmetterer (a print and broadcast journalist who also served for 12 years as the spokesman for the King’s County District Attorney’s office).
The Judge Garson bribery ring scandal brought attention to systemic problems and malfeasance occurring within the family court system, and its related professional circles.
Complaints about family court, and specifically concerns about corruption, cronyism and inappropriate influences affecting custody and/or visitation rulings are widespread; to this day, concerned parents are making complaints from every state in the U.S. and even internationally.
Complaints of parent-litigants involved in family court must be taken seriously, and properly investigated, in order to address and correct problems happening in family court. The protection of justice and the protection of family, should be one and the same in family court. Judge Garson, and his bribery ring, were held accountable only because the legal system responded and gave a concerned parent a platform to be heard, and to lodge a complaint. That complaint was properly investigated, and acted upon. The lesson in this is that the court system is not above the law, and in order to serve the public effectively there must be measures for accountability, with real disciplinary action for those who abuse their power and position.
Child Custody Rulings for Sale
Judge Garson’s bribery ring offered a litigant a chance to win a favorable custody or visitation ruling by paying off the judge, and related players. The other parent was then set up to appear to be unfit or unable to care for their children, and so lost custody and/or visitation.
In Judge Garson’s court, children were peddled as a commodity. Favorable custody rulings could be bought for gifts, expensive cigars, cash and food/dinners paid to the judge. Every player involved profited, at the expense of families and the children.
An audit of Judge Garson’s cases has never occurred so the exact number of families affected remains unknown. However, several mothers have come forward to share experiences of injustice, and how Judge Garson’s court has damaged their lives, and that of their children: Stole our kids, our hope: Mothers tell how crooked judge ruined their lives
After news of the scandal broke, around 100 parents stepped forward to issue complaints; of that number only 3 families were found to have cases that warranted re-opening. Complaints of the other parents were minimized, dismissed as simply being made because the parent were not happy with the outcomes of their cases, and parents were told that they could not prove anything illegal has happened. Supporters of these parents said that extraordinary efforts had been made to prove bribery was occurring, and that not all parents had the ability, resources or support to build a case. In addition, deals Judge Garson and the ring made happened in secret, and outside of open court. Judge Garson also made efforts to give the appearance that his rulings were legit, even coaching an attorney on how to respond in court. Under these circumstances “proof” would be difficult to obtain but a pattern of miconduct, and perhaps other clues could have been obtained with some re-examination of the cases (had they been given a chance).
Garson-Bribery Ring Players
The players in the Garson Bribery Ring include Nissim Elmann, an electronics salesman and former litigant who had appeared in front of Judge Garson during his own divorce in 2000. Elmann recruited litigants, most of whom were Israeli men he knew from attending a synagogue in Brooklyn. Elmann acted as a broker who connected those involved in the ring and arranged bribes. According to court transcripts,“Mr. Elmann claimed he had everyone — including Judge Garson – ‘in his pocket’, and could make deals ‘nicely and quietly’ with lawyers.”
Once the litigant paid the bribe, the case was then handled by divorce lawyer Paul Siminovsky. Siminovsky had a long-standing personal and professional relationship with Judge Garson, and was assured preferential treatment in court. Bribes were also paid to the court employees who made sure the cases were sent to Judge Garson, bypassing the computer system that randomly assigns cases.
An outcome was ensured in favor of the client when Judge Garson was paid a fee or given a gift as payment. In court, Siminovsky testified that he paid “referral fees” of $1,000 so Judge Garson would send him cases. Siminovsky said he left the money in the judge’s desk or slipped it into his palm during a handshake. Between 1990, and up until their arrest in 2003, Siminovsky said he bought Judge Garson about $10,000 worth of expensive meals and drinks as well, which he called “taking care of the judge”. Judge Garson also coached Siminovsky on what questions to ask in court, and what arguments to make, so that when he ruled in Siminovsky’s favor, it would appear to be legit.
Judge Garson would also refer Siminovsky as a Guardian ad Litem (or Law Guardian) doubling or tripling his cases, and earning him additional revenue. Siminovsky’s reports were crucial to maintain the appearance of credibility, while in truth decisions made in Judge Garson’s court were influenced by bribery.
Siminovsky says that cases were randomly assigned to judges but that he could bypass the system with the help of court clerk Paul Sarnell and court officer Louis Salerno, who would steer cases into Judge Garson’s court. Sarnell and Salerno were given gifts and cash in exchange for their help.
Siminovsky has also been accused of improperly influencing a court appointed psychologist in order to gain a more favorable custody recommendation. Charges have not been filed related to that complaint.
Judge Garson Exposed by Brave Mother
Judge Garson and his bribery ring was finally exposed due to the efforts of brave mother named Frieda Hanimov, who, in October 2002 called a hotline at the DA’s office to file a complaint against Garson. Frieda grew suspicious of the judge because it seemed that she was always losing in court, and that her ex husband Yuri Hanimov was given preferential treatment. Frieda also complained that Judge Garson frequently yelled at her in court, and threatened her with losing custody of her children without justification. Frieda then learned her ex husband was bribing the judge when she was connected to the broker Nissim Elmann. Elmann told Frieda that she could not bribe the judge because Yuri Hanimov had already done so. Frieda then began to work with the DA’s office, wearing a wire for more than 6 months, while pregnant, and meeting with Elmann, to expose the scam.
Garson Bribery Ring Convictions
9 people were convicted for various roles in participating in the bribery ring in Judge Garson’s court.
Judge Garson was suspended from the State Supreme Court in 2003. In April 2003, he was convicted on bribery and misconduct charges. Evidence against Garson included video surveillance of his judicial chambers, and recordings made on a body wire worn by Siminovsky, which showed the judge making deals and accepting bribes. Garson was sentenced in June 2007 to 3-10 years at the Lincoln Correctional Facility. Judge Garson also lost his law license. In December 2009, after 30 months in prison, Judge Garson was released for good behavior after completion of a substance abuse program (at the age of 77).
Former Democratic leader, Clarence Norman Jr., was sent to prison for extortion and theft, in connection to the case, and sentenced to 2-6 years. Judge Garson bribed Norman Jr. and the County Democratic Party in order to be placed on the ballot, and given political support.
Paul Siminovsky lost his license to practice law. In 2007, he was sentenced to a year in jail, the maximum time allowed under a plea agreement. Siminovsky was offered a Class A misdemeanor charge for giving unlawful gratuities in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors, and testimony in court.
Retired court clerk, Paul Sarnell, was found not guilty on all charges.
Court officer Louis Salerno was found guilty of receiving bribes to steer court cases to Judge Garson and was sentenced to 1-41/2 years.
Two parents who attempted to bribe Judge Garson were also charged; one of those parents was found to be unfit for her efforts to bribe the judge.
No charges have ever been brought against Yuri Hanimov in connection to the Garson Bribery Ring.
Frieda Hanimov is working on a book, and a movie deal about her experiences. In 2004, she regained custody of the son involved in the custody dispute. She continues to advocate for family court reform.
Many parents who appeared in Judge Garson’s court feel that justice has been denied. Of the 100 or so litigants who have complained, only 3 have been able to get their cases re-opened. The litigants who did get their cases re-opened had to prove that they were unable to get a fair trial, this was difficult because Garson’s insider deals were hidden from open court, and because Garson went to great lengths to make his ruling to appear to be legit.
In the wake of the scandal, New York court administrators have worked to re-examine family court policies, and improve its procedures. Critics say there is still much work to be done.
“Chamber of Secrets: Pregnant Mother Goes Undercover to Keep Custody of her Children” by 48 Hours/CBS reposted on Protective Mothers Alliance International: http://protectivemothersallianceinternational.org/2015/02/19/chamber-of-secrets-a-pregnant-mother-goes-undercover-to-keep-custody-of-her-children-48-hours-cbs/
“Crooked Judge Gerald Garson Leaves Halfway House; Served 6 Months Less than Minimum Sentence” by Scott Shifrel and Larry McShane, The New York Daily News (12/23/2009): http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/crooked-judge-gerald-garson-leaves-halfway-house-served-6-months-minimum-sentence-article-1.437114
“Dad in Garson’s Court Paid 10G for Custody” by Nancie L. Katz, New York Daily News (6/22/2004): DAD IN GARSON’S COURT PAID 10G FOR CUSTODY
“Garson-Case Mother Wins” by Denisa Buffa, New York Post (10/21/2004): http://nypost.com/2004/10/21/garson-case-mother-wins/
“Lawyer Testifies He Committed Crimes with Judge Garson” by David Hafetz, The New York Sun (9/2/2004): http://www.nysun.com/new-york/lawyer-testifies-he-committed-crimes-with-judge/1195/
“On Tape, Assurances that a Judge Would Help” by Jennifer Medina, The New York Times (8/31/2004): http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/31/nyregion/on-tape-assurances-that-a-judge-would-help.html
Wikipedia: Gerald Garson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerald_Garson