When John A. Michalek easily won election as a State Supreme Court justice 21 years ago, he could not have done it without the help of his former boss, then-Erie County Democratic Chairman Vincent J. Sorrentino.
According to local political sources, it was Sorrentino who put Michalek’s name forward for a highly coveted state judgeship. Sorrentino and county Republican leaders then agreed to “cross-endorse” Michalek, giving him the support of both major parties. Michalek – who had never run for judge before – breezed to an election victory with no actual competition.
Years later, as a judge, Michalek did some good turns for the man who did so much to put him into office.
He named Sorrentino as a court-appointed receiver in four cases that were litigated in Michalek’s court. The four appointments netted Sorrentino a total of $89,444 in fees between 2011 and 2014, according to court records examined by The Buffalo News last week.
Over the 21 years that Michalek was a judge, records show, he appointed a total of 50 local attorneys to serve as receivers, guardians or in other roles for the court. During that time, only one attorney received more Michalek-approved compensation for his service than Sorrentino.
The News began to examine Michalek’s record of attorney appointments and fee approvals in the wake of his resignation and his felony guilty plea June 29, when he admitted that he took bribes from political power broker G. Steven Pigeon. Pigeon pleaded not guilty to related charges, denying that there were any illegal dealings between the two men.
There has been no suggestion that Michalek did anything illegal by appointing Sorrentino as a receiver in the four cases, or that Sorrentino did anything illegal in accepting the appointments. But there are clear political connections between the two men.
Both Michalek and Sorrentino were active in Town of Hamburg politics in the 1980s. In 1988 – when Sorrentino was serving as town attorney and also as the county Democratic chairman – Michalek was named as his assistant town attorney. According to political sources in Hamburg, Michalek was an invaluable aide to Sorrentino.
In 1994 – with a big push from Sorrentino – Michalek was selected by party leaders to get both the Democratic and Republican endorsements for State Supreme Court justice.
Was Michalek rewarding his old boss, years later, when he named him as a court-appointed receiver in four cases? Sorrentino and Michalek’s attorney, Carrie H. Cohen, did not return calls or emails from The News about the issue.
Vincent M. Bonventre, an Albany Law School professor who is an expert on legal ethics, said the arrangement raises questions.
“The whole issue of judges and their fiduciary appointments has been an issue of concern in the New York courts for many years,” Bonventre said. “The last two chief judges of New York State have placed restrictions on who could be appointed to these positions because of concerns that judges were naming their friends or political associates to these positions. Some of these appointments can be very lucrative, depending on the complexity of a case.”
New York judges can appoint lawyers to act as fiduciaries of the court in a variety of situations, according to Bonventre and other legal experts. Some examples include overseeing marital property that is involved in a divorce proceeding, overseeing businesses or properties that are the subjects of a lawsuit, or acting as a court-appointed guardian for a child who is involved in a legal dispute. The fees for the fiduciaries are paid by parties in the case, not by state taxpayers.
Leaders of the state court system appointed a special commission to investigate appointments made by judges in 2001. In its report, the commission voiced concerns that many appointments were going to politically connected lawyers, retired judges and individuals who were family members of court officials.
“One county political leader has received nearly 100 appointments. Another county political leader has received more than 75 appointments. The small law firm of another county political party leader has received over 200 appointments,” the commission wrote in its report, without mentioning the political leaders by name.
Michalek’s appointments became an issue in his criminal case when the former judge admitted that he appointed a Buffalo attorney as a receiver in 2012 as a political favor to Pigeon, who was trying to help Michalek become a state appeals judge. Pigeon, according to court papers, was also asked by Michalek to help two of the judge’s relatives get government jobs.
According to court papers in the Michalek criminal case, Pigeon in 2012 asked Michalek to appoint a young local attorney as a receiver. Michalek admitted in court that the attorney Pigeon advocated for was a recent law school graduate who had not been approved by the state courts as a qualified receiver. Nonetheless, Michalek gave him the assignment.
“We pushed it through anyway,” Michalek emailed to Pigeon in May 2012.
The young attorney was Edward A. Betz – a former Pigeon protégé who is now general counsel for the Buffalo Public Schools. According to state prosecutors, Pigeon pressured the receiver to hire some of Pigeon’s “cronies” to do some work on a property the receiver was overseeing. The receiver refused to hire the “cronies,” and Pigeon retaliated by taking $5,000 from the receiver by “extortion,” according to court papers.
Pigeon denies extorting money from Betz. While declining to comment in detail, Betz told The News: “My only involvement in this matter is that I was asked to violate my ethical responsibilities as a receiver, and I steadfastly refused to do that.”
Betz was paid more than $40,000 for his work on the case, a foreclosure action involving a local golf course, court papers show.
Of the hundreds of fiduciaries appointed by Michalek during his career, payments ranged from a few hundred dollars for a case to as much as $100,000. Most of the payments were under $10,000.
The one attorney who received more money than Sorrentino for his work on appointments from Michalek was Timothy R. LoVallo, of Buffalo, who received $100,000 as a receiver on one case that lasted from 2010 to 2013. LoVallo has been an attorney for 37 years and has been active at times in Democratic politics, campaigning twice, without success, for judgeships.
LoVallo told The News on Friday that he does not know why Michalek appointed him as a receiver, except that he has been on the list of approved receivers for years and has practiced before Michalek on several occasions.
“Although I like him very much, I don’t believe I have ever donated to his campaigns,” LoVallo said of Michalek. The News found no record of donations to the judge from LoVallo.
LoVallo said the case he worked on as a receiver for Michalek was a complicated business dispute that involved a lot of work on his part.
Getting appointed as a receiver is “not always easy and not always lucrative,” said Buffalo business attorney William F. Savino, who has received several such appointments from Michalek and other judges.
“You have to take a course to qualify as a receiver. The system has been improved over the years,” said Savino, an attorney for 41 years.
When asked about Michalek admitting that he agreed to appoint a receiver as a political favor to Pigeon, Savino said: “I found that very distressing. … I think that situation is an outlier, not representative of the way things work most of the time.”
Savino was asked if he believes that judges ever appoint receivers or other fiduciaries for political reasons.
“Sometimes yes,” the attorney said. “But usually not.”