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Monday, June 13, 2011

Creditors Say Judge Owes Them Millions

Creditors say judge owes them millions
The Record by John C. Ensslin, Richard Cowen and Andrew Tangel  -  June 12, 2011

A North Jersey municipal judge accused of judicial misconduct is under growing financial pressure from banks and individuals who contend that he and his business partners owe millions in unpaid loans.  Harold P. Cook III disclosed Friday that he will take a leave of absence from the bench pending the outcome of the complaint in which the state Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct had accused him of not observing the high standards of conduct expected of a judge.  The complaint, dated May 19, alleges that Cook - who made $85,197 a year as a part-time judge in Ringwood, Wanaque, Haledon and North Haledon - made campaign contributions and represented Paterson police officers in violation of judicial rules, and improperly transferred property to avoid creditors.  He also is accused of failing to disclose his role as a party in 43 lawsuits, including several that have resulted in judgments against him and his partners.

An examination of some of those lawsuits reveals that:  Banks have called in 10 loans - some with revolving lines of credit - issued to Cook and his partners. The complaint states that creditors have obtained $2,707,661 in judgments against Cook so far.  On April 15, one of those creditors took possession of a shore house in Beach Haven that Cook had attempted to sell to his wife for $1. The property, which has an assessed value of $888,600, was transferred to a man who won a judgment against Cook in Monmouth County, according to the Ocean County Assessor's Office.  Some of the individual lawsuits involve large sums of money. For example, Atlantic Stewardship Bank alleges that Cook and his partners, Gershon Alexander and Bruce G. Bohuny, and their company, Puddingstone Funding, had an outstanding balance of $2,351,352 as of Aug. 27, 2010.  In two lawsuits, judges have ruled that Cook violated litigants' rights by failing to respond to subpoenas served on him by creditors seeking financial information to aid in collecting judgments against him. In a third case, Columbia Bank is seeking an arrest warrant to compel Cook and Alexander to produce follow-up information. Frederic Shulman, a lawyer for Columbia Bank, said the move was a standard procedure that he does not expect to result in an arrest. The matter is due to be heard on June 24 in a Bergen County courtroom.  A check of public records also revealed liens that have been placed against Cook for non-payment of state and federal taxes.  A spokeswoman for the New Jersey Judiciary said a search of court records showed an open state tax lien of $56,651.26 against Cook and his wife filed in Mercer County on May 19.  Records in the Passaic County Clerk's Office show a notice of a federal tax lien of $8,013 was placed by the Internal Revenue Service in December 2006. However it was unclear whether that lien had been satisfied.  Neither Cook nor his attorney would comment for this story. But in a statement announcing that the judge was taking the unpaid leave, his attorney said Cook plans to "vigorously defend himself" against the allegations contained in the committee's complaint.  If the complaint is upheld, Cook faces a range of possible penalties from a public or private reprimand to the less common outcome of removal. He has until later this week to file a response to the complaint.

Two-year wait

One of the first of the lawsuits cited in the complaint was filed in April 2008, more than two years before the state judicial committee began its investigation in August 2010.  The two-year lag between the first lawsuit and the state judicial investigation raises questions about what officials knew about Cook's financial problems and whether the judicial investigation could have begun sooner.  A spokeswoman for the state Judiciary could not say why it took that long before the investigation began.  "These things take a while to be investigated," said spokeswoman Winnie Comfort. "This one took that long."  Several municipal officials said they were unaware of Cook's financial problems until their towns received notices that his salary had been garnished by creditors. In addition to the judgeships, Cook makes about $12,500 by serving as the attorney for land-use boards in Wyckoff and Elmwood Park in Bergen County.  "It's not something that we ever discussed," said North Haledon Mayor Randy George. "The first time I knew anything was when I read it in the papers."  Ringwood Councilman Walter J. Davison, who has served the borough for nearly 30 years, says Cook's reputation on the bench was impeccable. "I had no idea," he said, "and I don't think anyone on the Borough Council knew about it either. Judge Cook has always been an outstanding public servant."  Others familiar with New Jersey's municipal court system say the lag shows a flaw in the system used to oversee the 334 judges who serve in the 527 municipal courts throughout the state.  Jeffrey Gold, the former head of the New Jersey Bar Association's municipal court practice group, thinks that system could be improved if lawyers were able to report possible ethics or misconduct complaints on a confidential basis.  Gold's practice group endorsed such a change several years ago, but the measure failed to win approval of the entire bar association.  Attorneys who see what they consider unethical behavior often are faced with a conflict, Gold said. Do they do what's in the interest of the client, who still must appear before the judge? Or do they do what's best for the court system overall?  "So if you know of some issue, you are reticent to report it because it might affect your client," Gold said.  Comfort noted that the disciplinary system applies equally, whether a judge is in municipal court or on the state Supreme Court. She added that it's a system that also provides an opportunity of due process for the judges who are facing a complaint.

Responds in filings

Cook has declined to comment about the lawsuits or the specifics of the complaint. But in a variety of public records - testimony, deposition and court statements - the 57-year-old North Haledon lawyer has spelled out his side of the lawsuits.  In several, he contends banking officials made unauthorized releases of confidential information about his business.  In one deposition, a lawyer for First State Bank in Cranford asked Cook why he thought the banks had called in the loans to Cook and his business partners.  "I think these outsourced compliance people were getting nervous," Cook replied.  "Were getting nervous about what?" the lawyer asked.  "I think the exposure and the declining market and I think, also, comments that were being made in the banking community."  Cook also says that the chairman of the board of First State Bank called him at home late one night to say he would "hire the meanest attorney he knew" to file a lawsuit against Cook and his business partners and "make their lives miserable" and "destroy them." An attorney for First State has denied that claim.  Cook lost a case filed in Hudson County in which he and a partner were accused of failing to give adequate notice to unsecured investors that a Paramus loan company was having financial problems.  Jefferson Loan started in the early 1960s and made automobile and personal loans to people with poor credit histories. Cook bought the company from his uncle and became a majority shareholder and company president by March 2001.  Cook testified that the business suffered after a default by a used-car dealer forced the company to write off about $1.4 million in loans. That plus a soft market for used-car loans after the Sept. 11 terror attacks caused the company to fail, he said.  The firm voluntarily liquidated in December 2006. Before that, Cook had pledged his Beach Haven house plus $1 million in shares of Valley National Bank stock as collateral for a $12 million line of credit to Jefferson from Valley.  Loan company officers testified that they routinely sent out letters to investors notifying them of the problem with the money owed by the used-car dealer. But Charles Sachs, a retired Bayonne lawyer who once handled collections for Jefferson, said he was never notified.  Cook contends he put his own interests aside in the Jefferson Loan failure and negotiated a deal with the bank that will allow unsecured creditors to be paid back sooner. Several of the 91 creditors involved his family and friends.  "I'm an attorney. I've lived in the same community my whole life," he testified. "You have to do the right thing by them," he said.  But twice the verdict has gone against Cook in that case.  In April 2009 a civil jury in Hudson County found that Cook and his partner Sean Caposella had breached their fiduciary duty. The jury found no damages against the two men, but awarded a $71,000 verdict against the company.  When the plaintiffs won a non-jury retrial earlier this year, a judge awarded $99,400 in damages, including interest, against Cook and Caposella.  That second verdict is on appeal.  Cook claims in a lawsuit filed in Passaic County that he is the victim of slander by a disgruntled former employee. Cook alleged that Dennis Epperly - who worked in the law office under contract as a process server and driver for nine years - had spread false information about him around town. Epperly denies the allegations.  In that same suit, Cook also claimed he had been libeled by the Gazette, a weekly paper that first reported on the lawsuits against Cook and his partners in December. The Gazette is owned by North Jersey Media Group, the publisher of The Record.  Last month, a judge in Passaic County dismissed the suit against the newspaper, but let stand the slander suit against Epperly, who said Thursday that he has made up bumper stickers and T-shirts that read "An inconvenient truth is not slander."

Donations barred

There are good reasons to have rules such as the ones Cook is accused of violating, said Gold, the municipal court specialist. While offering no opinion on Cook's case, he said judges are rightly barred from making political contributions. The judicial committee complaint accused Cook or companies he owned of making $5,660 in political campaign contributions between 2000 and 2009.   "That way the court regulates itself," Gold said. "They keep judges out of the political fray."  The rule is especially important where judges are dependent upon being appointed and reappointed by a local mayor and council. Likewise, the rule on not serving as an attorney for police officers is important, Gold said. "It would give [a judge] an alliance to some degree with police officers and judges need to be independent," he added.  And finally, the court system needs to know when a judge is dealing with lawsuits or having his salary garnished.  "That's something the courts ought to know about because it could lead to other problems," Gold said.  Removal of a municipal judge is a fairly rare event. In the nearly 37 years since the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct began policing the state's municipal courts, it has removed six municipal judges.  More frequently they have issued a public reprimand (to 24 municipal judges) or a censure (to 12 judges, including two who were permanently barred from holding future judicial office after they had stepped down).  E-mail: ensslin@northjersey.com, cowen@northjersey.com  and tangel@northjersey.com

10 comments:

in the know said...

This guy either hasn't heard of being bought off, or it just hasn't happened yet. Stay tuned, his money problems will be taken care of very soon!

Anonymous said...

He should call Tony Scarpino.

Anonymous said...

How did he acquire all these properties on his salary?

Anonymous said...

he said judges are rightly barred from making political contributions

have you ever looked at names as to who makes political contributions, half of them don't even make enough money to make those contributions..maybe they should include a w-2 with their contributions!

Anonymous said...

he said judges are rightly barred from making political contributions

have you ever looked at names as to who makes political contributions, half of them don't even make enough money to make those contributions..maybe they should include a w-2 with their contributions!

Anonymous said...

This Judge deserves a full investigation by an independant entity. How about the FBI?

Anonymous said...

I have said this for over 6 yrs now...the FBI is WELL aware of the court in NY State's massive corruption...and they have clearly made the decision to ignore it...I personally had them in my home and attempted to show them criminal, as well as civil violations and proof of NY OCA's crimes..and the agent said he had NO interest in viewing, investigating or ever talking about OCA.
Agent from FBI'S advice....ask a federal judge to investigate..and that bloggers is a quote!!!

Anonymous said...

that is not entirely true, the FEDS do not know what paperwork is fake or what stories are fake and neither does OCA, ....and the FEDS had to ask me if it even happened, was that paperwork true! Of course not, it was fake! Just proves who steals paperwork and passes it around to get others into trouble!

Anonymous said...

Agent from FBI'S advice....ask a federal judge to investigate..and that bloggers is a quote!!!

I been screaming that one for a few years, and letting the corrupt bastards know which way Attica is and which way the FEDS are!
LYING RATS!

Anonymous said...

OCA DIDN'T KNOW I WASN'T LYING, THE RATS HAVE BEEN LYING FOR SO LONG THEY THOUGHT IT WAS TRUE!

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See Video of Senator John L. Sampson's 1st Hearing on Court 'Ethics' Corruption

The first hearing, held in Albany on June 8, 2009 hearing is on two videos:


               Video of 1st Hearing on Court 'Ethics' Corruption
               The June 8, 2009 hearing is on two videos:
         
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