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Judges On Wrong Side Of The Law

After 14 years on the bench, Judge Victor Barron spoke with authority at a sentencing last year when he declared, "No one is above the law."

The sentencing, after all, was his own.

The silver-haired Brooklyn judge was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs to begin a three- to nine-year prison term for taking thousands of dollars in bribes - perhaps the most troubling scene so far in a judicial corruption scandal that one watchdog group calls the worst in the nation.

Since Barron's conviction, authorities have arrested a second Brooklyn judge for allegedly accepting gifts from a corrupt lawyer, kicked a third off the bench for breaking rules on rental property and scrutinized a fourth for his handling of his elderly aunt's life savings.

District Attorney Charles Hynes has launched a grand jury investigation into the cozy relationships between Brooklyn's elected judges, lawyers and politicians in response to allegations that civil judgeships - with annual salaries $125,000 or more - are for sale.

At issue is an arcane system in which voters pick delegates to a judicial nominating convention, but do not pick the judges themselves.

Critics say the system allows political party leaders to steer nominations to judicial candidates who have strong party ties and deep pockets - not sound legal credentials. And because the city's most populous borough is heavily Democratic, that party has had a near lock on selecting judges.

"You have to be connected to get on the bench in Brooklyn," said Alan Fleishman, a reform-minded Democratic district leader. "Are there payoffs? There's always been that buzz in the court community."

Party leaders have denied that the selection process is corrupt, and point out that malfeasance also occurs in states where voters choose judges more directly.

Still, honest judges find the Brooklyn allegations "deeply upsetting," said Judith Kaye, the state's chief judge. "No one is more eager than they to see corruption and misconduct rooted out."

Watchdog groups have called for independent judge-selection panels, nonpartisan elections and other reforms to counter Brooklyn's growing reputation for judicial corruption.

"We haven't seen anything as severe as what's coming out of Brooklyn," said Bert Brandenberg, spokesman for Washington D.C.-based Justice at Stake.

The scandal's latest chapter centers on a mother's despair, a box of 25 Dominican cigars and videotape.

In October, the mother - fearing she had lost a bitter child custody battle before Judge Gerald Garson - was approached by a courthouse con man who told her the judge could be swayed with a bribe, authorities said. She reported the encounter to prosecutors, who soon learned the man was working with a lawyer to solicit bribes of up to $10,000.

After another judge authorized the use of video eavesdropping, investigators secretly recorded the lawyer meeting Garson in his chambers and plying him with the cigars and cash, a criminal complaint said. The lawyer also was overheard in separate conversations bragging that he had bought the judge meals and loaned him money in exchange for favors.

Confronted with the tapes, Garson told investigators that judge nominations could be bought for $50,000 - and the wider inquiry was launched.

Garson, 70, has pleaded not guilty to a charge of receiving reward for official misconduct. His lawyers have accused Hynes of inflating a possible ethical violation into a felony case.

True to the clannish nature of Brooklyn's judicial and political circles, both Garson's cousin, Michael, and his wife, Robin, also are on the bench - and in the sights of investigators.

Michael Garson, 59, has faced allegations that he looted his 92-year-old aunt's bank accounts to cover stock losses. About $500,000 is unaccounted for since 1997, when the aunt granted him power of attorney. No charges have been brought.

Investigators also have reviewed financial records for 49-year-old Robin Garson's successful campaign for a civil court seat, but have made no accusations of wrongdoing.

In May, an appeals court removed another Brooklyn judge, Reynold Mason, after finding that he illegally sublet his rent-stabilized apartment to his brother-in-law and used the money to pay child support.

Then there was Barron, 61, who admitted accepting $18,000 in cash in his chambers to approve a multimillion-dollar civil settlement. A Westchester County judge assigned to the case told him at sentencing that he had "made a joke out of (Brooklyn) and that's terrible."

By Tom Hays