Tenant activists attack Civil Court judge candidate


By Lincoln Anderson

With primary election day two weeks away, tenant activists are ratcheting up their assault on Shlomo Hagler, one of four candidates running for Civil Court Judge in the Second Municipal Court District.

A group of tenant attorneys and activists, who view Hagler as one of their nemeses on the bench, last week sent a letter to Fern Fisher, Civil Court supervising judge, and Ernesto Cavallo, Housing Court supervising judge, regarding “ethics concerns” about Hagler, currently a Housing Court judge.

The letter was signed by Judith Goldiner, a Legal Aid Society attorney; Sandra Russo, a Legal Services attorney; Harvey Epstein, of Housing Conservation Coordinators and chairperson of Community Board 3; Stephanie Townsend-Bakare, director of the Citywide Task Force on Housing Court; and John Fisher, director of TenantNet.

“We are extremely concerned about actions by Housing Court Judge Hagler, which violate the canons of judicial ethics,” the letter stated. “Specifically, Judge Hagler fails…to recuse himself when members of the committee to support Judge Hagler’s candidacy for Civil Court judge appear before him, and Judge Hagler’s Civil Court literature creates the erroneous impression that he is currently a Civil Court judge…. We believe that both actions require disciplinary action.”

In early June 2003, Friends of Judge Hagler issued an invitation for a June 19 fundraising cocktail reception at the Embassy Suites Hotel. The invitation listed 66 individuals as members of Judge Hagler’s campaign committee. Forty-two of these, or 64 percent, are attorneys who represent landlords in Housing Court who appear before Judge Hagler on a regular basis, the tenant activists claim.

“Over the last few months, Judge Hagler has failed to advise litigants when members of the committee to support his candidacy appear before him and has failed…to recuse himself in these cases…. Most members of Judge Hagler’s nominating committee are attorneys who appear before him regularly. In addition, he has received a substantial number of donations from firms whose partners and associates appear before him regularly. Nonetheless, Judge Hagler has failed to disclose the potential conflict and has failed to recuse himself.”

Fisher of TenantNet said there are potentially up to three cases that came before Hagler that raise concern. In one case, an eviction proceeding against a woman named Thea Halo, that came before him on July 16, Hagler did not recuse himself, but did transfer the case to another judge; according to Fisher, Hagler had an obligation to reveal his potential conflict and recuse himself in this case.

Second, the tenant activists charge, Hagler’s campaign literature is misleading, because he is shown wearing judicial robes and identified as “Judge S. Hagler.” This creates the impression that he’s a sitting Civil Court judge, giving him an “unfair advantage,” they say.

Fisher of TenantNet said Hagler is considered a pro-landlord attorney.

“If he walks like a duck, if he quacks like a duck, he’s a duck,” Fisher said. “This guy is considered one of the absolute worst Housing Court judges and he’s not fit to be elevated [to Civil Court].”

But Michael Oliva, Hagler’s campaign manager, blasted the accusations in the letter to the supervising judges as “a complete lie. There’s one case that a woman is complaining about. The woman complaining has made complaints about every single judge on the court,” he said.

Oliva further added that Halo’s case first came before Hagler three months before the formation of the campaign committee and that the court date in question was a return date before Hagler. Late yesterday afternoon, Oliva also said that he had received a letter from Daniel L. Greenberg, president and attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society, saying that Greenberg disproved of the fact that the letter the five activists and attorneys sent questioning Hagler’s ethics was on Legal Aid Society letterhead. Greenberg, according to Oliva, said he did not condone using the letterhead and that Legal Aid did not endorse the letter. The Villager was unable to confirm this letter’s existence as of press time. In addition, Oliva charged that Harvey Epstein, one of the signatories on the letter critical of Hagler, is on the election committee of Frank Nervo, one of the other three candidates in the Civil Court race.

Oliva said Hagler has taken a leave of absence since Aug. 1, so he is not issuing rulings on any cases where he might have a conflict of interest.

As for Hagler wearing judicial robes and with a gavel resting by his hand on his campaign literature, Oliva said there’s nothing improper about that.

“That’s the idea,” he said. “That’s our strategy. Housing Court is a part of Criminal Court. He’s not an incumbent. He’s running as a Housing Court judge that’s running for Civil Court judge. It’s not a liability. We think it’s an advantage, and we’re going to use it as much as we can in the race.”

Added Hank Sheinkopf, a campaign consultant for Hagler, “He is a fair, unbiased and unbuyable judge. To insure that his standard of probity [is upheld], he has taken a leave from the bench.”

Oliva added that Hagler has never had a ruling reversed.

“I invite you to find another judge that has that record,” Oliva said.

But Fisher said Hagler’s failure to recuse himself from cases where it is called for is an extremely serious issue.

“We’re concerned about the integrity of the system,” Fisher said. “There are tough questions that need to be asked about whether this guy should be on the bench.”

Although he wasn’t a signatory to the letter sent by the five tenant activists and attorneys to the supervising judges about Hagler, attorney Jack Lester, well known Downtown for representing community groups on quality of life lawsuits, said from his time around the courts he knows Judge Hagler to be “pro-landlord. That’s the buzz around the building,” he said.

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