Former Family Court judge here resigned in wake of sex-harass allegations
THE STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE by Judy L. Randall - November 20, 2008
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- A former Staten Island Family Court judge who resigned 15 years ago amid charges that he sexually harassed female court personnel will be on the payroll of Democratic Congressman-elect Michael McMahon to oversee the operation of the three district offices McMahon said he will open, here and in Brooklyn. McMahon said Carmen Cognetta will become his "district coordinator in charge of facilities" and said Cognetta will be the "right-hand guy to the chief of staff," whom McMahon has yet to publicly name. But McMahon bristled when asked whether allegations of Cognetta's sexual misconduct during the 1980s and '90s, directed at female court officers and clerks as well as court-appointed lawyers, make Cognetta suitable for the job.
"I'm the congressman," said McMahon, who will be sworn in Jan. 6. "My name is on the door. My reputation speaks for itself." In 1993, Cognetta, serving as a Family Court judge in St. George, was investigated by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct regarding allegations that he sexually harassed women who worked or had business in the courthouse. The alleged misconduct included allegations Cognetta used crude and obscene language, including solicitations of sex, directed at female attorneys and court personnel. It was said to have occurred over a six-year period. At the time, Cognetta's attorney called the charges unfounded.
During the investigation, Cognetta was reassigned to Brooklyn, but resigned that July. The investigation was terminated. While the investigation was ongoing, Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association, said that, "based on conversations I had with my females, I feel these are credible charges that will be sustained." But yesterday, Quirk said that subsequent inappropriate behavior by one of the female court officers who made allegations against Cognetta made him question her veracity. "I questioned myself after the fact," said Quirk of her allegations. Cognetta, now 62, was first appointed to a partial term on the Family Court bench in 1984 by then-Mayor Ed Koch. He was reappointed in 1992 to what was supposed to be a full 10-year term by then-Mayor David Dinkins. Family Court judges are appointive positions that usually go to politically well-connected attorneys.
After resigning, Cognetta returned to private practice specializing in adoption cases. For the last seven years, he has been on the City Council central staff payroll, a position he got through McMahon, who tapped him to serve as legal counsel to the Sanitation Committee, which McMahon chairs. McMahon and Cognetta, who live around the block from each other in Randall Manor, have been together in Washington, D.C., this week for "freshman orientation" of new members and incoming staff. McMahon said Cognetta spent yesterday in a seminar on how to set up a congressional office. He declined to make him immediately available.
Cognetta -- who never personally responded to the allegations of sexual harassment that were lodged against him -- could not be reached for comment. Said McMahon: "I have known him for all of my adult life. He is my neighbor, my friend and my trusted confidant. I have worked with him in the City Council. He was valuable in formulating the 20-year solid waste management plan. I know him to be nothing but an upstanding, all-around guy. No one has ever complained to me. I don't know the facts in this old case. All the matters were dropped. It is a closed chapter in my mind." McMahon said he intends to have two district offices on the Island -- one on the North Shore and the other either in the Mid-Island or South Shore area -- and a third office in Brooklyn. He said Cognetta will be "in charge of the facilities, running the offices, trouble-shooting the offices, setting them up, getting a bookkeeper." As "district coordinator," Cognetta will serve under the chief of staff, director of communications and district director, McMahon said. When McMahon was asked about his impending hire of Cognetta, in light of the sexual indiscretions that brought down outgoing-Rep. Vito Fossella, he responded, "That's a stretch." Judy L. Randall is a news reporter for the Advance. She may be reached at email@example.com.