Borough judgeship carries $22,000 price tag

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With the Queens County Democratic Organization in firm control of judicial elections, candidates usually earn party support without having to put more than a few hundred dollars into winning the spot.

But in one Queens Civil Court judge’s election in 2002, her campaign committee spent $12,500 to hire a political consultant and gave more than $10,000 to the county Democratic organization — about 40 times the usual contributions from judicial candidates, election records show.

Every candidate who has run on the borough’s Democratic Party line for a spot in Civil Court or State Supreme Court has won in every election since 1990, the span examined in a TimesLedger analysis.

Out of 92 court vacancies in Queens filled by election from 1990 to 2002, every slot went to the candidate listed on the Democratic line.

Candidates are handpicked by the county’s party boss, Tom Manton, and the nominees are often loyal members of the Democratic organization, insiders say. Hopeful jurists often attend fund-raisers and party events to win Manton’s blessings or even employ elected officials to plead their case.

Manton could not be reached for comment.

The sure-fire reliability of Democratic victory in judicial races is a consequence of the party’s overwhelming advantage in voter registration — there are four Democrats to every one Republican in Queens — combined with the relative anonymity of judicial candidates. Since most aspiring judges do little campaigning and most voters pay no attention to judicial races anyhow, votes are typically cast on the basis of party affiliation.

When Judge Darrell Gavrin’s campaign got underway last year, her election committee hired John Dorsa’s Grist Mill Group, a political consulting firm based in Tillson, N.Y., for a total of $12,500, campaign finance records show.

Gavrin, a Hollis Hills resident, did not return repeated phone calls for this story.

Gavrin was first elected to the Civil Court in Queens before being appointed as a State Supreme Court judge. In 2002 she ran for a vacant seat on the Civil Court against Republican John Palatianos. Gavrin beat Palatianos by a margin of more than 10,000 votes.

“They should be spending zero dollars on consultants,” one political insider said. “If you don’t have a contested election, there’s no reason you should be paying $12,500 to someone. When was the last time a non-Democratic candidate got elected in Queens County to a judicial office without the support of the Democratic Party?”

Dorsa, who also earned $7,000 for his work on the 2001 election of City Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis) to his first term, said consulting on Gavrin’s campaign was warranted because she was a sitting Supreme Court judge who was nominated for the Civil Court spot.

“She was really in a position where it would be inappropriate for her to ‘campaign’ due to the nature of her job,” he said. “That’s pretty much where I came in because there were certain things that were easier for me to do than for her to do. She didn’t want to make any calls that would be construed as inappropriate because of the nature of her job.”

Dorsa’s father, Judge Joseph Dorsa, of Flushing, sits on the Civil Court in Queens with Gavrin, and the two have known each other for many years, John Dorsa said. The friendship between the two families raises questions about what role the relationship may have played in the large consulting fee.

“The reason that it’s questionable is the election law prohibits the use of political funds for personal use,” one insider said. “If she’s giving it to her friend’s son, that’s a questionable legality.”

A spokesman for the city’s Campaign Finance Board referred questions about judicial fund-raising to the Board of Elections, which did not return phone calls.

Campaign finance records for the Democratic Party back up that pattern. All of the civil court judges elected in the past three years appeared on a list of contributors to the Queens County Democratic Organization in 2001 and 2002, either as individuals or via their campaign committees. The contributions typically appeared in increments of $250 or $300, the price of a ticket to one of the party’s seasonal fund-raisers.

In Gavrin’s case however, her campaign committee donated a total of $10,300 to the Democratic Party, shelling out one payment of $10,000 in October 2002 and another of $300 in November, campaign finance records show.

While the contribution from Gavrin’s campaign is more than 40 times the average donation from contenders for the bench in the borough, the money may have been given to comply with the campaign finance rules governing judicial candidates. Unlike other political hopefuls, the potential jurists are not allowed to have money left over at the end of their campaign, one Queens political insider said.

“Money to the party is not unusual and it’s not unexpected,” he said. “Judicial candidates have to refund any money that’s left at the end of the campaign. It may be that it was easier than refunding it.”

— Dustin Brown contributed to this story.

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:24 pm, October 10, 2011
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