On its face, Rose McGushin’s case seems unremarkable. A 49-year-old woman who lives on a $13,000-a-year disability check in California, McGushin is wrangling with a Queens attorney over a disputed legal fee she says will cripple her financially. The attorney who is suing her, John “Sean” Crowley, recently filed litigation seeking $10,000 for work he performed on McGushin’s mother’s will nearly a decade ago.
Crowley is the brother of Queens Congressman Joe Crowley. And what makes the case unusual is that the judge who will hear the dispute on Thursday at 10 a.m., Queens Surrogate Court Judge Peter Kelly, essentially owes his position to the political support of Joe Crowley — who doubles as the Queens Democratic Party chairman.
Last year, Kelly ran unopposed for a 14-year term on the bench after getting the Democratic nomination from Crowley’s Queens Democratic Party.
McGushin recently penned a handwritten letter to Kelly asking for the case to be moved out of the Queens court system, due to what she says is a clear-cut conflict-of-interest.
“I feel I many not receive a fair trial with you, Judge Kelley [sic], presiding over my case,” she wrote, “where the petitioner is John E. Crowley, brother of Joe Crowley who is the Queens Democratic chairman – head of the party that nominated you prior to your recent election.”
She received a terse response back from Kelly’s law clerk, Francis Kahn, telling her that under court rules, letters about a potential conflict of interest were not admissible. Kahn instructed McGushin, who has serious arthritis, that she would have to fly out from California to represent herself, or find an attorney to represent her.
A spokesman for the court system, David Bookstaver, said Judge Kelly ultimately has the sole power to decide whether conflict of interest exists and whether he must recuse himself. During a previous hearing Oct. 14, Kelly was prepared to rule on the matter, only for the case to be adjourned for two weeks, when McGushin’s family members showed up and related that she wanted an adjournment. That was granted until Thursday.
After the New York Post uncovered rampant cronyism and nepotism in the Queens Court system more than a decade ago, rules were put in place in 2002 to prevent this type of scenario. One of the rules specifically bans the sibling of a county party leader – such as the brother of Joe Crowley – from landing appointment as surrogate court lawyers, who serve as legal counsel for widows, orphans and the disabled.
From the mid-1990’s to the mid-2000’s, Sean Crowley landed hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of court appointments, but was barred from continuing to do so after his brother became county chair in 2006. He instead became a lobbyist at the prominent firm Davidoff, Malito and Hutcher.
There are distinctions between those cases and this one. Before McGushin’s mother died in 2002, she had retained Sean Crowley privately as an attorney — and not because of a surrogate court appointment. Still, McGushin says the conflict is inescapable.
Crowley says in legal papers that McGushin never paid her a dime for his work, not even for the expenses he incurred. McGushin claims that Crowley offered inadequate representation.
Reached by phone, Crowley declined to comment, citing the pending nature of the litigation.
McGushin has also taken her concern about a conflict of interest to the New York Unified Court System’s Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fern Fischer. In a letter, McGushen told Fischer she was having trouble finding an attorney to represent her because “lawyers that I spoke to were very reluctant when they heard that a Crowley was suing me.” She says she never received a response.
Earlier this week, McGushin finally appeared to have found a lawyer willing to represent her, striking a tentative agreement with attorney Dan Isaacs, the chairman of the Manhattan Republican Party—someone McGushin said was unafraid to challenge a Crowley in the Queens court system. (He learned of the case after a City Hall reporter mentioned it to a politically connected Republican attorney in Queens, who later contacted Isaacs.)
Isaacs said that regardless of the merits of the case, McGushin deserved to have it heard before an impartial judge.
“That, in and of itself, is a conflict of interest,” Isaacs said, “and the judge should recuse himself.”
The Crowley family has deep ties with the Queens Surrogate’s Court and Queens Supreme Court systems.
One of Sean and Joe Crowley’s cousins, Margaret, is principal law clerk to Queens Supreme Court Judge Darrell Gavrin. Two other cousins, Bernadette and Theresa, were frequent recipients of case appointments in the Queens court system until this July, when City Hall reported that the appointments violated the court’s anti-nepotism rules. They were both forced to forfeit what were likely tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of case appointments.
Sean Crowley’s former law partner, Scott Kaufman, continues to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of Surrogate’s Court and Supreme Court appointments. Joe Crowley’s campaigns, meanwhile, are run out of the Crowley & Kaufman law office.
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