NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- Eyewitness News found in its six-months-long investigation of the guardianship system in New York City that guardianship lawyers, law firms or people who deal with guardianship cases who donated to judges' election campaigns were awarded guardianship appointments by those same judges in subsequent years.
Eyewitness News used the state's public database of guardians to look up guardians or people involved in guardianship cases and compared their names to donations made to guardianship judges in New York City. The donations are listed on the New York State's Board of Elections public website.
For example, according to the databases, Judge Charles Troia on Staten Island received $17,091 in campaign donations in 2021 from 27 guardianship lawyers, guardianship law firms or people who serve as guardians and awarded those same people or law firms a total of 83 appointments in 2022.
In one instance, Troia received $500 from law firm Carasaniti & Andreo and subsequently awarded one of their attorneys Margaret Andreo nine guardianship appointments.
Eyewitness News contacted Carasaniti & Andreo to inquire if they believe the donation was a conflict of interest.
Before 7 On Your Side Investigative Reporter Kristin Thorne was even able to ask a question, a secretary at Carasaniti & Andreo hung up on her. Thorne called back again and left a message and then followed up with an email directly to Margaret Andreo. She did not get back to us.
According to the public databases, Judge Matthew Titone on Staten Island received $4,425 in campaign donations from 2018-2019 from nine guardianship lawyers, law firms or people involved in guardianship cases and subsequently awarded those same people or law firms a total of 11 appointments.
Queens judge Judge Wyatt Gibbons received $2,000 in campaign donations in 2019 from nine guardianship lawyers, law firms or people involved in guardianship cases and awarded those same people or law firms 22 appointments in 2022.
In 2021, Judge Rosemarie Montalbano in Brooklyn received $6,745 from six guardianship lawyers, law firms or people involved in guardianship cases and gave out 11 appointments to those same people or law firms in 2022.
For example, attorney Daniel Antonelli donated $500 to Judge Montalbano's election campaign and received four guardianship appointments in 2022.
Eyewitness News contacted Antonelli to ask him if he considered the donation a conflict of interest. He did not get back to us.
Manhattan judge Judge Lisa Sokoloff received $5,720 in campaign donations from 2019-2022 from 20 guardianship lawyers, law firms or people who deal in guardianship cases and awarded those same people or law firms 62 appointments in 2022.
One of the lawyers who donated to her was Paul Mederos. In 2022, he donated $1,000 to Sokoloff's election campaign. Sokoloff gave Mederos seven guardianship appointments in 2022.
Mederos told Eyewitness News the donation was not a conflict of interest. He said he has known Sokoloff for 29 years and has always supported her career.
"I'm very proud of her," he said.
Judge Lisa Ottley in Brooklyn received $1,300 in donations from three guardianship lawyers in 2018 and each of those lawyers received appointments in 2022 totaling 10 appointments.
One of the donations came from lawyer Michael Benjamin who Ottley later appointed as the broker for the sale of a townhouse in Cobble Hill. The owner of the home was under a guardianship. Benjamin netted $210,000 in the $3.5 million sale of the home.
Benjamin and a spokesperson for the New York Court system told Eyewitness News the donation was not a conflict of interest.
Eyewitness News investigative reporter Kristin Thorne first started looking into the donations while researching Ottley's assignment of Benjamin to a guardianship case. She found Benjamin had donated $500 to Ottley's election campaign three years prior.
When Thorne contacted a spokesperson for the New York Court system about Benjamin's donation to Ottley and if the court believed it constituted a conflict of interest, Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the court system replied, " Judges do not know what attorneys, lay persons, any individual for that matter may or may not have contributed to their campaign. Appointments are based on performance and availability."
However, if Eyewitness News was able to find who contributed to judges' campaigns, judges can as well.
When Eyewitness News sent the information we had gathered related to the six New York City guardianship judges and the donations they received from guardianship lawyers to Chalfen.
"It is incumbent on elected and appointed Judges to follow and comply with the rules governing judicial conduct," Chalfen said. "We hope and believe that they do, and if an instance of inappropriate conduct is brought to our attention, it can be referred to the proper authority for investigation."
Eyewitness News brought the donation data to New York State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), the chair of the senate's Judiciary Committee, who called the information "concerning."
"You can't draw a straight line between political donations and public policy - it's never that clear," he said. "But I will tell you this - it is concerning."
See the entire list of donations to New York City guardianship judges and the subsequent guardianship appointments that Eyewitness News uncovered.
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