Sometime in late 2014, Acea M. Mosey, a wealthy Buffalo attorney with strong political connections, decided she wanted to become Erie County’s Surrogate Court judge, one of the most powerful seats in the county’s court system.
One thing all judicial candidates – including Mosey – know is that the surest way to win an election is to run unopposed.
So she obtained cross-endorsements from the leaders of the county’s Democratic, Republican and Conservative parties.
Candidates also know that a surefire way to scare off potential adversaries is to raise a large amount of money.
Mosey did that, too.
She raised more than $900,000 – by far the largest campaign fund ever amassed by a judicial candidate in Western New York. Half of that came from personal loans she made to her own campaign. The other half came from a fundraiser that attracted donations from lawyers and law firms, including some who are likely to be awarded cases by the new surrogate court judge.
A Buffalo News analysis of records from her fundraiser shows that at least 210 lawyers or law firms made donations to the event, ranging from $25 to $5,000.
Now Mosey will run unopposed in the Nov. 7 election. She will be elected to a 10-year term as a judge, making more than $185,000 a year. Over the next decade, she will influence the lives of thousands of local families whose loved ones die in Erie County, resulting in estate or probate disputes that are decided in Surrogate’s Court. She will also oversee adoption cases in the county.
Mosey says she does not know how much money individual donors gave to her campaign. She notes that, under state law, most of the money will be returned to the donors when she is elected.
But is this the best way for people in New York to choose judges?
Some who have studied judicial elections question whether candidates for judgeships should solicit donations from lawyers who will appear before them. The system in New York State prevents many highly qualified candidates from getting involved, and it sets up situations where voters are presented with just one choice, critics say.
Billy Corriher has studied judicial elections across the country as the deputy director of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning, not-for-profit policy institute based in Washington, D.C. He cannot recall another candidate for county judge anywhere raising more than $900,000.
“That’s an extraordinary amount of money for a county judge candidate to be raising,” Corriher said. “Who is going to give thousands of dollars to a candidate for judge, other than someone who cares about the judge’s rulings? If I lived in Erie County, I would be very disturbed about the potential conflicts of interest.”
Dennis R. Hawkins, executive director of the Fund For Modern Courts, based in New York City, made similar observations.
“Why does a lawyer give hundreds or thousands of dollars to a judge’s campaign? Sometimes, it is because they know the individual would make a good judge,” Hawkins said. “But there’s also a lot of pressure. If you are appearing before the same surrogate judge, again and again, you don’t want to be the only lawyer in the room who hasn’t contributed to the judge’s campaign.”
Hawkins said he understands why many qualified candidates would stay away from running for judgeships in New York State.
“You may have a lawyer or a law professor out there somewhere who would make a great surrogate judge,” Hawkins said. “But as things are now, the system excludes people who don’t have the money or the political connections.”
Who is Acea Mosey?
Mosey, 50, runs her own Buffalo law firm and lectures local attorneys on complicated estate issues. She has a wealth of experience in the Surrogate Court, working since 2005 as the county’s public administrator. That makes her the right-hand woman to Surrogate Judge Barbara Howe, who is retiring at the end of this year.
The future surrogate judge is a graduate of Western Michigan University’s Thomas J. Cooley Law School. She is a former commissioner of the Erie County Water Authority, and she now serves on the boards of Canisius College and the Buffalo Zoo.
Mosey said she decided to run after the death of her father, millionaire businessman and philanthropist Joseph P. Mosey Jr., in October 2014.
She said she believes she is the most experienced, most qualified person for the job. Her mentor, Judge Howe, and many others who work in the Surrogate Court also urged her to run, she said.
“For the past 23 years, my life has revolved around Surrogate Court,” Mosey said. “I do believe I am the most qualified person for this job. … I know I can help people and families. Surrogate’s Court is there to help them during the most difficult times of their lives.”
Others also believe that she will make a solid judge.
A screening committee from the Erie County Bar Association ranks her as an “outstanding” candidate. So does the Women’s Bar Association of Erie County. And the Western New York Minority Bar Association ranks her as “well-qualified.”
Mosey has done well financially as the county’s public administrator, according to state audit records.
Her pay is based on commissions she receives from the court for cases she handles. Over the years 2013-16, Mosey received almost $1.12 million in commissions, a yearly average of $279,366, according to the audits. Last year, she made $369,550 in commissions.
By comparison, a State Supreme Court judge makes $194,900. A judge on the nation’s highest court – the U.S. Supreme Court – makes $251,800 a year.
Mosey said the money she actually takes home from commissions is much less than it appears. She said her office expenses, including paying employees, phone bills, computers and other expenses, are “$175,000 to $200,000 a year.” She did not provide documentation of those expenses when documentation was requested by The News.
Why raise so much?
Mosey said she raised so much money for her race because she was “convinced that I was going to face tough opposition – multiple candidates on multiple lines.”
She denied that her intent was to intimidate others from running.
Though no one but Mosey ever surfaced publicly as a candidate for the job, Mosey and her campaign chairman said they heard rumors that as many as six other attorneys were thinking of running for Surrogate Court.
“You have to prepare for the worst, in terms of people running against you, and that is what we did,” said her campaign chairman, Eugene Vukelic, 86, a businessman who previously ran two campaigns for Howe. “Everything we did was aboveboard under the law.”
Election law experts say Mosey’s efforts to run unopposed in the election are legal in New York State. And her supporters – including county Conservative Party Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo, Vukelic and campaign treasurer Philip Tantillo – point out that Mosey did not set up the process for electing judges in New York.
“It may not be the best system, but it’s legal in New York State,” said Lorigo, who is an attorney. “It’s the system that we have, and it’s the system that Acea has to function in.”
When the Mosey campaign sent thousands of invitations to her Feb. 3 fundraiser at Kleinhans Music Hall, the solicitations listed no ticket price.
“We appreciate whatever amount you would graciously like to contribute,” the solicitations read.
That meant donors could pay as much – or as little – as they wanted to her campaign.
“That was my idea,” Mosey said. “I wanted to include everyone. There were people who couldn’t afford to pay. Some came in for free.”
The gala event featured delicacies donated by some of the area’s best-known restaurants, including Club 31, Ristorante Lombardo, Hutch’s, Oliver’s, Sear, Snooty Fox, LaNova and Siena.
Money came pouring in. Mosey’s February event is believed to be the most successful fundraiser for a judicial candidate in the history of Erie County.
Some people attended without paying, Mosey said. Eighty-two donors paid $50 or less to attend, including three donors who paid just $10.
On the high end, two businesses – Milestone Consulting LLC and Castle Capital – donated $10,000 each.
Milestone Consulting is a Buffalo firm that advises lawyers and their clients about financial issues surrounding settlements of cases, according to its website.
Castle Capital is a “personal investment trust management” business in Clarence, headed by Joel Castle, a longtime business associate of Mosey’s late father.
Mosey was at the party and saw who attended. But she said she has no idea how much any individual, law firm or business gave to her.
Under law, she said, she is not even “allowed to look at the list to see how much someone donated.”
“I keep my eyes and ears closed to things like that,” she said.
Top lawyer donors
The Buffalo law firm of Cole, Sorrentino, Hurley, Hewner & Gambino donated $1,000 to Mosey’s campaign. The firm has strong political connections, and one of its founders was Vincent J. Sorrentino, a former county Democratic Party chairman.
One of the firm’s partners is Thomas F. Hewner. Mosey refers far more cases to Hewner than any other lawyer who serves in Surrogate Court, state audit records show.
As public administrator, Mosey last year assigned 32 cases to attorneys that resulted in legal fees of $1,000 or more. Twenty of those cases went to Hewner, netting Hewner a total of $79,997 in fees. Over the past four years, Hewner has been paid a total of $278,788 from estate cases Mosey assigned him, audits show. That is more than half of the $539,760 in legal fees all attorneys earned on case assignments from Mosey over that period.
Hewner told The News he makes $250 an hour for the cases that Mosey sends to him. He said the $1,000 donation was not a payback for case assignments, adding that it was not intended to keep him in her good graces for future assignments.
“I’ve been working on estates in Surrogate’s Court since the 1980s, and I’ve worked with Acea for the past 13 years. She’s a friend. I respect her. I think she will make a very good surrogate … a very practical judge with years of practical experience in the trenches,” Hewner said.
He also noted that the $1,000 donation came from a firm with seven lawyers, not just him.
“It’s not like we gave her $100,000. We give money to a lot of judges,” he said.
Hewner said he sees no ethical problem with lawyers donating money to a judicial candidate on whom they will depend in the future for case assignments and favorable decisions.
“The flip side of that question is that lawyers are in the best position to know which candidate will make the best judge,” Hewner said. “We tend to give money to the judges we feel are the best judges. I don’t have a problem with it.”
Mosey said she assigns cases to Hewner because he is trustworthy and has proven expertise in handling estates, including difficult and disputed cases.
Amherst attorney Randy H. Gugino got the largest legal fee from any single case that was referred by Mosey, audit records from 2016 show.
Gugino was paid $27,018 for his work on what he said was a complicated estate case involving several different people seeking the assets of a Town of Tonawanda man who died in 2011.
A couple of months after receiving that fee, Gugino spent $500 on a ticket to the Mosey fundraiser.
“I’m not one who gets a lot of assignments from Surrogate Court, and moving forward, I am not expecting more assignments,” Gugino said. “I was actually in this case before Acea Mosey was. I was the executor, and because there was a dispute between the heirs, I felt the public administrator should be involved. She then kept me on to do the legal work on the case.”
Gugino, an attorney for nearly 40 years, said “efficiency and timeliness” are attributes he values in a judge.
“When you go to Surrogate Court before Judge Howe, and she says court begins at 9:30, it begins exactly at 9:30. That is very important to me,” Gugino said.
He said he knows and trusts Mosey and believes that she will run the court in a way that emulates Judge Howe.
Rule to prevent conflicts
A rule was enacted in 2011 for state courts that addresses what some see as a potential conflict of lawyers’ donations to judges’ campaign funds.
The rule, known as Part 151, advises that cases should not be assigned to a judge if a lawyer, a law firm or a party involved in the case has given “significant campaign donations” to the judge within the previous two years.
The rule defines “significant” as $2,500 for a lawyer or individual party, or $3,500 for a law firm. The rule does not address donations below those thresholds, nor donations made more than two years in the past.
A review of Mosey’s campaign records indicates that the vast majority of lawyers kept their donations below the “significant” level that would trigger assignment to another judge. Only one law firm gave $3,500 or more. Four Buffalo law firms gave her $3,499, and 14 lawyers and business people gave $2,499.
Mosey said she is aware of the rule and will adhere to it. She also is aware of state laws that require judicial candidates to return unspent campaign donations to donors. Tantillo, the Mosey campaign treasurer, estimated that donors to the Mosey campaign eventually will get about 75 percent of their donations returned.
An acting surrogate judge will be appointed to handle cases that Mosey will be unable to handle because of the Part 151 rule and because of conflicts that will arise with cases she formerly handled as public administrator, said Judge Paula A. Feroleto, administrative judge in charge of state courts in Western New York.
Would Erie County voters be better off if they had at least two choices for surrogate judge?
Generally speaking, Mosey said she prefers competition. But in her race, she is not willing to concede that voters would be better off having more than one choice.
“I believe this is a narrow circumstance where there is one clear choice. I think it would be a waste of the taxpayers’ money to get to the same result, when there is one clear choice,” she said. “I believe this is a unique circumstance.”