Niagara Gazette

February 17, 2014

COPS NOTEBOOK: Ranting about the silence

By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette

It’s one of those weeks when it’s time to rant.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman seems like a nice enough guy. Affable, funny, smart, a good lawyer and a pretty savvy politician. 

He certainly doesn’t come across as the kind of control freak that his two immediate predecessors, Andrew Cuomo and Eliot Spitzer, were. However, first and surface impressions can be deceiving.

Schneiderman, like Cuomo and Spitzer, champions himself as “the people’s lawyer.” The guy who is out there really looking out for you and your best interests.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’d expect “my lawyer” to be pretty open and honest with me about how he’s handling my business, my cases. Sadly, the New York State Attorney General’s Office is a fortress of secrecy and silence.

Case in point, the public corruption indictment of Town of Niagara Supervisor Steve Richards. 

Richards was arraigned on a 28-count indictment in October in front of State Supreme Court Justice Richard C Kloch Sr. 

Kloch, who sits in Lockport, is no rookie on the bench. He has been the supervising judge for the criminal courts in this judicial district for years. 

At the time of the arraignment, Richards’ lawyer questioned the legal validity of many of the counts in the indictment. In fact, you didn’t have to be even a third-year law school student to see what a sloppily drafted document it was.

Kloch agreed with Richards’ lawyer that there were issues that might need to be addressed and scheduled hearings for those matters. Just days before those matters were scheduled to be argued, Kloch took himself off the case.

The legal term is he “recused” himself.

Recusal is something that happens when a judge, for some reason, believes there may be a conflict of interest in his hearing a case or if he believes he can’t be an impartial arbiter of the facts. It can also happen if a party in a case raises those objections about the judge.

I thought you might want to know how it came to be that Kloch was recused. After all, this a case brought by the people’s attorney general on behalf of you, the people.

In fact, based on my investigation of the matter, it appeared that the attorney general’s office may have been behind the move.

So I asked the AG’s office if having Kloch kicked from the case was their idea. 

I called the press office, left a message. Crickets.

Then I was able to button-hole Schneiderman’s deputy press secretary at an event in Buffalo. I asked the very pleasant woman if her office had asked to have Kloch removed from the case.

She promised to get me an answer.

A couple of days later, I got the people’s lawyer’s answer: “We can comment on that,” the woman told me. “We can’t on any ongoing case.”

Remember, I wasn’t asking about an ongoing criminal investigation. I was asking about an ongoing criminal case being played out, for the most part, in a public courtroom. 

My response to the woman was to express my amazement that while the AG had plenty to say about Richards when he was indicted, the people’s lawyer now had no need or desire to communicate with his clients about a very important development in the case.

Might I suggest that an agency that demands transparency from all manner of defendants spend a little time looking in the mirror. A little transparency and honesty from the people’s lawyer to the people would be a welcome change.