Two years ago, Brooklyn State Supreme Court Justice Gerald Garson was hailed by several Jewish women’s groups for forcing an obstinate Orthodox husband to give a get, or religious divorce, to his young Sephardic wife.
In a landmark decision, Garson invoked the 1983 New York State Get Law and ordered the husband to pay his 22-year-old wife of four months the sum of $500 a week in permanent maintenance because he refused to "remove a barrier to her remarriage" by denying her the get.
"For the get issue, that was a great decision," said Susan Aranoff, director of Agunah International Inc., a women’s advocacy group.
The International Council of Jewish Women also hailed Garson, who became a judge in 1998.
"No doubt, the prospect of being required to pay permanent and substantial maintenance to their wives may prove to be one of the most effective methods of convincing greedy, vindictive Jewish husbands to give a get," the ICJW opined at the time.
But last week, Garson found himself on the wrong side of the bench.
The 72-year-old judge was arrested as part of a scheme to take bribes and fix divorce and child custody cases.
Garson is a key figure in an unfolding corruption scandal that centers on Brooklyn’s judicial and political systems as well as its Jewish community.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said the scandal indicates that the system of electing state Supreme Court justices in Brooklyn and New York City is corrupt. Hynes convened a special grand jury to investigate corruption potentially leading to much-needed reform, he said.
Garson, a former treasurer of the Brooklyn Democratic Organization, was arraigned with five other defendants on charges he received cigars, cash and other gifts as rewards for official misconduct.
The complaint alleges that Garson unlawfully helped matrimonial attorney Paul Siminovsky win cases. Garson was also charged with asking for a check to pay off a debt of his wife, Robin, who is also a judge. He pleaded not guilty.
Three men (Siminovsky, 46, of Queens; Louis Salerno, a Brooklyn court officer; and Paul Sarnell, Garson’s former law clerk) were charged with several crimes, including conspiracy and bribery.
Several of Siminovsky’s clients also were charged, including Avraham Levi, 49, on conspiracy.
Brooklyn Rabbi Ezra Zifrani, 66, and his daughter Esther Weitzner, 36, pleaded not guilty to charges they tried to pay thousands of dollars to bribe Garson and a court-appointed psychologist who was to be a witness in her bitter child custody case.
Law enforcement officials told reporters that Weitzner is heard on tape asking: "Do we have to bribe the judge with more money?"
Garson and the others charged were released on $15,000 bail.
At the center of the Garson scandal, authorities said, is Nissim Elmann, a Brooklyn electronics dealer. Prosecutors say Elmann, 43, was the fixer, or bagman, between clients and corrupt court officials.
"It would often begin with Nissim Elmann, an electronics dealer known among some Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn as the man who could help win a messy divorce or custody battle," according to The New York Times.
Hynes said beginning in 2001, Elmann would look for people seeking to fix their divorce or custody case. For a fee he would arrange payoffs to court personnel who would break the rules and guide cases to Garson, who also received payments, prosecutors said. The payoffs included a box of $100 Romeo and Julietta cigars, a car trunk full of telephones and other electronic equipment from Ellman’s warehouse.
A spokesman for Hynes said he did not have any knowledge that the scandal involved Garson’s work in Jewish religious divorces.
Jeffrey Schwartz of Monsey, N.Y., who believes Garson "derailed" his custody case to see his four children, said he cried when he heard the news of the judge’s arrest.
"My rabbi told me three years ago that he [Garson] would have a downfall," Schwartz said in an interview Tuesday. "When I read what was happening last week I was in tears. Maybe I can see my children now and justice is going to be brought."
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind said the number of Brooklyn Jews involved in the judge scandal is enough "to make one shudder."
"This whole thing is just horrible," said Hikind, a leader in the Brooklyn Democratic political machine responsible for selecting judges.
Referring to his own past legal problems (in 1998 a jury acquitted him of charges that he took illegal payments from a Jewish community group in Borough Park) Hikind said, "I think the most important issue is anyone who undermines the system of justice literally dismantles society.
"The one thing you want is for the system to be fair and not stacked against you, or whoever has enough money can get around it."
- Charles Hynes
- Dov Hikind
- Eric J. Greenberg
- State Supreme Court
- Susan Aranoff
- Gerald Garson
- Paul Siminovsky
- Nissim Elmann
- Brooklyn Democratic Organization
- District Attorney
- New York
- Staff Writer
- Human Interest
- Agunah International Inc.