Gerald P. Garson (born c.1932) — of Brooklyn, Kings County, N.Y. Democrat Lawyer; Justice of New York Supreme Court, 1998-2003, suspended from State Supreme Court in 2003. Convicted in April 2003 on bribery and misconduct charges, sentenced in June 2007 to three to ten years in prison and lost his law license. In December 2009, after 30 months in prison, he was released for good behavior at the age of 77.
In October 2002, Frieda Hanimov, an Israeli émigré nurse, called a hotline at the District Attorney’s (DA’s) Office. The mother of three was at the time embroiled in a bitter child-custody dispute, that was being heard by Garson. She complained that she had been told that her husband, Yuri Hanimov, had bribed the judge to fix their case, and that he had done so through Nissim Elmann (reputedly a “fixer”, who arranged bribes in divorce and custody cases) and Paul Siminovsky (the divorce lawyer whom Garson had appointed as law guardian for her children).
The woman had learned this when she herself met with Elmann, seeking to bribe Garson. Elmann told her that she was too late, inasmuch as her husband had already paid a large bribe to receive a favorable ruling. Within days, the DA’s Office had her wearing a wire, and meeting with and secretly taping Elmann.
Detectives with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office exposed Elmann’s bribery scheme by intercepting numerous telephone conversations through the use of court-approved wiretaps and undercover surveillance. Garson was indicted and arrested in April 2003 outside of his Upper East Side apartment. He was convicted of taking a $1,000 cash bribe and a $275 box of cigars to settle custody in a divorce case.
A video surveillance picked up Garson soliciting a check – presumably for the campaign of another civil court judge — from attorney Paul Siminovsky who had several cases in front of the jurist, as well as accepting cigars from him for allegedly giving the attorney “pointers” on how to handle clients and other jurists.
Justice Berry, responding to defense arguments that Mr. Garson would probably die in prison without treatment for alcoholism, allowed Mr. Garson to attend a detoxification program until July 5 before beginning his sentence. Taken in to prison on June 5, 2007, Garson was released early from jail on December 23rd 2009, 6 months before ten year sentence because of good behavior and completion of a substance abuse program.
Mr. Garson who, when confronted with bribery evidence in early 2003, first told prosecutors of a scheme to sell judgeships and then agreed to wear a wire. In about five years on the bench, Mr. Garson, 74, had handled some 1,100 divorces, deciding child custody cases and dividing families’ financial assets. On surveillance recordings, he has been seen accepting Dominican cigars and cash from divorce lawyer, Paul Siminovsky.
Others charged with felonies linked to the Garson bribery scheme were: Siminovsky, two of Siminovsky’s, and a former Garson law clerk. Two long-time employees in the main court clerk’s office, who were not arrested, were suspended without pay.
Ezra Zifrani and his daughter Esther Weitzner pleaded guilty in February 2004 to one misdemeanor conspiracy charge. They admitted having given $5,000 to Elmann (the “fixer”), to influence Garson’s handling of a custody dispute between Weitzner and her ex-husband involving their five children. They said that Elman “clearly implied” he was going to bribe Garson. They did not know, however, whether the money was actually paid to Garson. Supreme Court Justice Michael Ambrosio ruled in August 2004 that Weizner was an unfit parent for her children, because she paid the bribe. In exchange for their pleas and their cooperation in the investigation, in August 2007 they were each sentenced to 210 hours of community service and three years of probation.
Avraham Levi pleaded guilty in June 2004 to having given the “fixer” $10,000 in December 2002, to get his case in front of and obtain favorable treatment from Garson (a Class E felony). There was no evidence that the money ever made its way to Garson. Subsequent to the husband’s payment to the fixer, Garson awarded him exclusive custody of the couple’s two oldest sons. Garson did not have an opportunity to rule on the couple’s house, because he was arrested beforehand. In 2005, after the bribery scandal had broken and the case was moved to another judge, 100% of the martial residence was awarded to the wife. For his role in the corruption scandal, Justice Berry sentenced Levi to three months in jail, 150 hours of community service, and five years’ probation following his release. Court officer and law clerk Louis Salerno (a 24-year-veteran court officer, who had been placed on modified duty) and Paul Sarnell (Garson’s former senior law clerk, who had retired in 2002), were tried for allegedly accepting bribes to steer Simonivsky’s cases to Garson. Their five-week trial ended in August 2004.
Prosecutors charged that Elmann would send potential clients to Siminovsky, who would would then in turn enlist Salerno or Sarnell to steer his clients’ divorce cases (which were supposed to be assigned randomly) to Garson. Prosecutors said that when Siminovsky needed a case to come before Garson, the defendants would go to an administrative clerk and tell her that Garson wanted the case reassigned to him. According to the prosecutors, the defendants received thousands of dollars in cash, plane tickets, and plastic bags of electronic equipment from Elmann’s warehouse for their efforts.
Siminovsky testified at their trial. He said that after Salerno demanded $2,000 in order to have a Siminovsky case assigned to Garson, Siminovsky slipped the money into Salerno’s pocket as they stood at adjacent urinals in a public courthouse restroom in Brooklyn. The court officer was also videotaped accepting a DVD player and VCRs from the lawyer in front of the Joralemon Street courthouse on March 27, 2003. Salerno was convicted of two felonies, bribe-receiving and receiving a reward for official misconduct, and sentenced in August 2007 to 1–4½ years in prison.
Sarnell’s counsel maintained that anything improper that Sarnell might have done was done on Garson’s orders. Sarnell was acquitted.
In February 2005, Nissim Elmann, portrayed by prosecutors as a “fixer”, pleaded guilty to seven felonies and six misdemeanors. He had been charged with bribery and conspiracy, for accepting bribes in divorce and child custody cases that he steered to Garson.
Elmann was a Crown Heights, Brooklyn, wholesale electronics dealer and salesman, with a business named “DVD Trading” on Brooklyn Avenue. He himself had appeared before Garson as a divorce litigant in 2000. He subsequently boasted in the Orthodox Jewish community in central Brooklyn, beginning in 2001, that for a price he could help parties in divorce cases make sure their case was heard by a sympathetic judge.
Elmann admitted to accepting thousands of dollars of cash (including $24,000 from three divorce litigants), and passing them on to Siminovsky to arrange preferential treatment for litigants in six cases before Garson. Though Elmann had asserted to his potential clients that he had direct contact with Garson (telling one mother, for example: “He will do everything for me. The problem is how much [will] you sacrifice?”), evidence later showed that he only had contact with Siminovsky, and he later admitted he did not know the judge.
Elmann was sentenced in August 2007 to 16 months−5½ years in prison, with Justice Berry saying “Justice is not for sale”. Elmann was denied parole in 2008, and was not eligible to try again until July 2010.
The broad corruption investigation, led by Michael F. Vecchione, a high-ranking assistant district attorney, began with accusations that Justice Garson was taking payments to manipulate divorce cases.