In early 2010, Margaret Crowley, sister of Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley and cousin of Queens Democratic Leader and Congressman Joe Crowley, landed a $100,000-a-year job as the principal law clerk to Queens Supreme Court Judge Darrell L. Gavrin.
Since then, records show Margaret Crowley’s sisters, Bernadette and Theresa, and their law firms have seen a spike in the number of cases they have been appointed to by Queens judges.
Those appointments violate rules that bar siblings of high-level court employees from winning case appointments in the same judicial district where that sibling works. Those rules were imposed nine years ago to prevent the rampant nepotism previously found in the state’s court system, especially in Queens.
After an inquiry by City Hall, a spokesman for the New York Unified Court System, David Bookstaver, said the Crowley sisters had improperly failed to remove themselves from a list of attorneys eligible for case appointments, and have now agreed not to receive cash for any future appointments.
“The sisters were on the eligible list prior to their sister [Margaret] becoming law clerk,” Bookstaver said. “They should have removed themselves from the eligible list at that time.”
Lydon Sleeper, a spokesman for Elizabeth Crowley, said the councilwoman’s sisters had been unaware of the court rules and agreed to return the money they had already received from the appointments.
“I think they’ve returned the money—and they’re going to do the rest of the cases pro-bono just because it’s the right thing to do,” Sleeper said.
From 2005 through 2010, the sisters had been granted only five appointments. But since early 2010 they received 13, including 11 so far this year. Notably, none of the appointments came from Gavrin, the judge for whom Margaret Crowley works.
Both Bernadette and Theresa Crowley are law partners at Rossi & Crowley, where a third Crowley, Rosaleen, is listed as an associate. And yet another lawyer, Patricia Powis, who works for a firm called Crowley & Powis that is registered to the same Douglaston address, has pulled in $5,600 during that time period.
Surrogate and supreme court appointees serve, among other functions, as legal counsel for widows, orphans and the disabled, and as receivers for properties in foreclosure.
While the payouts for many of the appointments had not been determined, the cases can sometimes be quite lucrative, and likely were worth tens of thousands of dollars. Four of the Crowley sisters’ cases from this time period had already paid out nearly $8,000.
Theresa, Bernadette and Margaret are among fifteen children of Walter and Marie Crowley, who were both appointed by former Queens Democratic chairman Tom Manton to the City Council in the 1980’s. Elizabeth Crowley was a home decorator before being tapped by her cousin, Rep. Joe Crowley, as the Democratic candidate in a City Council special election she won in 2008.
The 2002 anti-nepotism rules followed an extensive review by Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Kaye that found rampant cronyism in the state’s supreme and civil court systems. More than a decade ago, a series of scathing New York Post articles found Queens supreme and surrogate court judges—who almost always win office with the backing of the party machine—regularly handed out lucrative guardianship and receivership cases to attorneys with close connections to the party. Critics argued the courts had become so politicized that cases could not possibly be decided on the merits.
The rules, though, have had some effect on the Crowley family’s ability to land case appointments. From the mid-1990’s though mid-2000’s, John “Sean” Crowley, Joe Crowley’s brother, landed hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth.
Sean and his father, Joseph Crowley, Sr., ran an Elmhurst law firm together during the 1990s until the senior Crowley passed away in 2001. Scott Kaufman, a CUNY law school classmate of Sean Crowley, joined the firm and it was remained Crowley & Kaufman.
But in September 2006, following Manton’s death, Joe Crowley was elected Queens Democratic chair—and Sean Crowley was no longer allowed to land appointments. One of the 2002 reforms prohibits the awarding of court appointments to a sibling of a county party chair.
Sean Crowley left the family law firm to become a partner at the top New York City lobbying firm Davidoff, Malito and Hutcher. But Crowley’s former law partner, Kaufman, remains a frequent recipient of case appointments and has built the bulk of his law practice around them.
Kaufman also works as the $3,000-a-month campaign treasurer for Joe Crowley, whose campaigns are run out of the Crowley & Kaufman law office, according to campaign finance records.
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