Column: For Democrats, the Sept. 13 primary for surrogate judge conceals a scandal

09/06/2018 6:00 AM |

How Tara Scully ended up on the Democratic Party primary ballot for Suffolk County Surrogate Court is a far more important issue than who will next serve on that bench. 

In late June, Ms. Scully, an attorney and registered Republican, answered what amounted to a “help wanted” ad posted by Newsday’s editorial board. This remarkable editorial called for someone to run for Surrogate Court who was not handpicked by party bosses in a backroom deal that put forward an approved candidate to be rubber-stamped on Election Day by voters who don’t know any better.

The bosses of the Democrat, Republican, Conservative and Independence parties care principally about power and patronage. The taxpayers and the integrity of the county court system are not uppermost in their minds. They — not you — will determine who gets on the bench. They want it this way because, in Surrogate Court, for example, the person they pick is then in a position to hand out highly lucrative appointments to lawyers favored by the party. 

These party leaders do not operate idea factories. They don’t sit around discussing ways to improve life on Long Island or make government more efficient, honest and transparent. Essentially, they operate employment agencies. Their methods are corrupt, undemocratic and insulting to voters.

This deal-making is how the political gravy train works. Parties that seem to have strong differences cynically merge into a single mega-party to put the people they want in key positions. The party leaders win before a single vote is cast — and voters haven’t a clue. 

Ms. Scully, in answering Newsday’s call and gathering signatures on her own to get on the primary ballot, poses a serious challenge to this system.

This column is not an endorsement of one candidate over the other. It is about the process of selecting judges and how Ms. Scully’s effort threatens to disrupt years of corrupt deal-making. There is a right and a wrong here, and the voting public needs to understand how they are being played.

It’s a long-standing practice for the bosses of the key parties to arrange cross-endorsement deals that deny voters the chance to make meaningful and independent decisions on judgeships. The names they choose are on the ballot. How — and why — they got there is not the voters’ business. Fill in the circle and go home. 

For several years, the choreographers of cross-endorsement deals included one Edward Walsh, former head of the Conservative Party, who is currently serving a two-year sentence for wire fraud and theft of government services related to his “job” in the Suffolk County Sheriff’s department.

During his tenure with the Conservatives, Mr. Walsh was considered a key player in arranging judicial cross-endorsements. His conviction made him the poster boy for Long Island public figures who have nothing but contempt for the taxpayers who unknowingly finance their machinations. He was not alone; he was just the one who got caught.

Another key player in the picking of judges has been Frank MacKay of the Suffolk Independence Party. In February, Newsday reported that Mr. MacKay has earned six figures as an employee of Gary Melius’ Oheka Castle in Huntington, which Newsday reported has been the operations hub for the Independence Party.

This small party has outsized political influence: A dozen candidates ran in 2012 for Supreme Court. The top six vote-getters who won judgeships all had Independence Party support. That’s the reason candidates want its backing. 

Tara Scully ran unsuccessfully for District Court in 2015 and lost by less than 200 votes to the Democrat-endorsed candidate, who also had Conservative Party support. Newsday reported in March 2016 that former Republican county legislator — and convicted felon — Fred Towle had suggested to Ms. Scully before the party bosses made their selections that she make a $2,000 “contribution” to the Conservative Party. Stressing his close friendship with Mr. Walsh, Mr. Towle also requested a $10,000 “consulting” fee for himself. She refused.

“Towards the end of September 2015, I went to a meeting and Fred Towle was there,” Ms. Scully said in an interview Monday. “He told me he wanted a $5,000 consulting fee. That would guarantee that the Conservatives did not endorse the Democrat. If he came through with Conservative backing I’d owe him $5,000 more. The $2,000 would go directly to the Conservative Party.

“I was so green at that point,” she added. “The whole thing made me sick to my stomach.”

On Aug. 1, Mr. Towle pleaded guilty in federal court to tax evasion on unreported business income. He could spend up to three years in prison.

Ms. Scully’s experience in that rigged election motivated her to take up Newsday’s challenge and pursue the Surrogate Court seat. The editorial asked for someone “with a backbone to resist pressure from party bosses to reward cronies and donors with big fees.” Stepping into this fray, she gathered 6,000 signatures in just two weeks to get on the ballot.

As a result, a carefully orchestrated nine-judge cross-endorsement deal, helped along by longtime Suffolk Democratic Party boss Rich Schaffer, fell apart. One casualty was Marian Tinari, the bosses’ designated Surrogate Court nominee. Faced with having to run a primary, she withdrew from the race. 

Her husband, Frank, heads the county Conservative Party. In her place, the Conservative Party named Family Court Judge Deborah Poulos for surrogate. 

Ms. Scully, daughter of Peter Scully, a top aide to Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, already had the Republican line for surrogate. She petitioned her way onto the Democratic ballot to protest cross-endorsement deals. Her actions were in direct defiance of Mr. Schaffer, whose support of such deals strongly suggests he has no core principles worth fighting for. 

The Democratic primary is Sept. 13. Ms. Scully’s opponent, Theresa Whelan, is the party’s anointed choice for Surrogate Court. It is worth noting that, as Newsday reported July 20, Ms. Whelan’s mother had a top post at the patronage trough that is the Suffolk Board of Elections, and was close to former Democratic party boss Dominick Baranello. Ms. Whelan’s husband, Thomas, is a Supreme Court judge and a close ally of Mr. MacKay, whose Independence Party has also endorsed her for surrogate. 

Those, then, are the chess pieces on the board. While the game afoot here is obvious to political insiders, others naively jump to support their party’s designated candidate. Last week, the Southold Town Democratic Committee endorsed Ms. Whelan for surrogate. They should have thought about that more. 

What is most likely going on here is some high-stakes maneuvering by the parties, described last week in a statement from former Democratic Suffolk legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher, who recently lost her bid to run against incumbent Lee Zeldin in the 1st Congressional District. 

“This rigged process is like a bad movie that plays over and over and we know based on experience what to expect,” she wrote.

This is what Ms. Viloria-Fisher predicts: “At the judicial convention in September, party bosses will nominate the current Conservative candidate for Suffolk Surrogate [Deborah Poulos] for a different judgeship so that she can vacate the Conservative line in the race [for that seat]. Once that has been accomplished, and having fooled many Democratic voters into supporting Whelan in the Democratic primary based solely on party enrollment, the party bosses will probably designate Whalen as the Conservative Party candidate. ”

That, she noted, would make Ms. Whelan “the designated Democrat-Conservative-Independence candidate, and restore the cross-endorsement deal that blew up in the first place. ”

Some consider Ms. Scully a Republican masquerading as a Democrat and, for that reason, will cast knee-jerk votes in next week’s primary for Ms. Whelan. But Democratic voters who make that decision based solely on party affiliation are being fooled and are perpetuating a scheme that is undemocratic and benefits only the bosses. 

So what should Democratic voters do on Sept. 13?

For Ms. Viloria-Fisher, the answer is clear: Don’t vote for the Democratic candidate supported by the party leaders. 

“I will vote my conscience,” she said. “That means I will support Tara Scully because she got on the ballot on her own; she got those petitions signed herself. 

“There is a lot of money at stake here,” she said, adding that she considers the Democratic Party working with the Conservative Party a “betrayal.”

“Many court-appointed cases are very lucrative. Tara Scully is pushing back. I have her word she will continue to push back.

“We need the New York State Legislature to act on why it is that judges are picked by party bosses and not the people,” Ms. Viloria-Fisher said. “We have to give it back to the people. I am going to vote against the machine.”

The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].

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