Letter shows DA felt Broderick handled estate properly
The Buffalo News by Thomas J. Prohaska - August 30, 2009
LOCKPORT, NY — As far back as January, Niagara County District Attorney Michael J. Violante decided that County Treasurer David S. Broderick had done nothing wrong in handling the estate case that has triggered a state comptroller’s audit and a subpoena for documents from the state attorney general. In a Jan. 22 letter to Amherst attorney Teresa M. Snyder, Broderick’s chief accuser, Violante wrote that Broderick hadn’t violated the Penal Law or the General Municipal Law. He also concluded that Broderick hadn’t used his county staff to work on estates. In the letter, obtained last week by The Buffalo News, Violante said that he arrived at those conclusions through an interview between one of his prosecutors and Michael C. Veruto, deputy chief clerk of Niagara County Surrogate’s Court. But any violations by Broderick, whose duties include acting as executor of estates of people who die without wills, don’t pertain to the laws Violante cited in his letter. The Office of Court Administration, through its spokesman, David Bookstaver, said in March that Broderick’s activities were subject to the guidelines of the Administrative Board for the Offices of the Public Administrator, which derive from the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act. Snyder accused Broderick of assigning his wife, Jane, a real estate agent, to sell at least eight homes between 2000 and 2008, resulting in more than $30,000 in commissions for her company, Realty USA. About 25 percent of that is believed to have gone to Jane Broderick, given typical real estate practices.
Also, court files show Broderick assigned his brother William, an attorney, to carry out legal work on three estates since 2003, netting William Broderick more than $17,000 in legal fees. Violante did not respond to requests for comment Thursday or Friday. He told Snyder in the Jan. 22 letter that if she had any complaints about Broderick, she should take them up with the judges of Surrogate’s Court. She did so, and in March the judges, Matthew J. Murphy III and Sara Sheldon Sperrazza, asked the comptroller’s office to audit Broderick, a process that is still going on. In June, the attorney general’s office subpoenaed Broderick for six years’ worth of estate documents for files on which Jane and William Broderick worked. Six years is the statute of limitations for most crimes. Violante’s letter does not mention whether any court files were inspected. The Buffalo News reviewed more than 700 Surrogate’s Court files and nearly every one contained evidence of work by county staffers on estate cases. That evidence included letters to attorneys and court officials involved in estate cases signed by Broderick’s secretary, Karen Castle, and her predecessors, as well as documents notarized by them. Monday, a settlement that prevented a trial resulted in Broderick not having to testify about how he handled Snyder’s mother’s estate. It also reduced by more than 50 percent the commission he was seeking from that estate, from $15,196 to $7,500. firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara County District Attorney Michael Violante determined several months ago that county Treasurer David Broderick did nothing wrong in his handling of estates as public administrator. His office also concluded that no county employees were assigned to Broderick’s estate-related work at the time of the investigation, a finding that appears to conflict with numerous estate documents on file in county surrogate’s court. In a Jan. 22 letter to Broderick’s chief accuser, Amherst attorney Teresa Snyder, Violante said his office investigated her concerns about Broderick’s estate dealings and found “no violations of the general municipal law or the penal law have occurred.” “There is no evidence that indicates that he has acted improperly in any of the matters that you cite in your letter,” Violante wrote in a copy of the letter obtained by Greater Niagara Newspapers. “One of my attorneys has met with Michael C. Veruto, deputy chief clerk of the Surrogate Court, and reviewed this matter. Nothing was uncovered to indicate any wrongdoing.” Snyder wrote to Violante in December, asking his office to investigate Broderick’s work as public administrator, including his decision to enter into a contract with his wife’s real estate firm for the sale of the Snyder family home in Lewiston. In her letter, she alleges Broderick benefited personally from the arrangement and suggests it that, at minimum, it was a violation of article 18 of general municipal law covering conflicts of interest for municipal employees in New York. “The attorney general’s position on the matter has consistently been that public officials should avoid circumstances which compromise their ability to make impartial judgments solely in the public interest and even the appearance of impropriety should be avoided in order to maintain public confidence in government,” she wrote in a Dec. 9 letter. “Government officials must maintain public confidence in the integrity of government.” Snyder later brought her concerns to county surrogate’s court as part of a legal dispute over her mother’s estate. As part of the case, she filed paperwork suggesting Broderick’s wife has collected commissions on the sale of several properties he oversaw as the county’s public administrator. Broderick and his attorney, George Muscato, have repeatedly denied those claims, insisting Broderick has conducted himself appropriately whenever called upon to preside over estates in which the individuals have died without leaving a will or the heirs are unable to reach agreement on the distribution of assets. In her letter to Violante, Snyder also expressed concern about Broderick’s use of personnel from the county treasurer’s office to complete his estate work. The claim is supported by several estate documents on file in surrogate’s court, including some placed on letterhead from the treasurer’s office and others notarized by county employees. Copies of several e-mails obtained in March by Greater Niagara Newspapers suggest at least one county employee in Broderick’s office has handled estate-related duties. All the e-mails involve exchanges between Thomas Snyder, one of the sons involved in the Snyder case, and Karen Castle, Broderick’s confidential secretary. Several of the e-mails, which date to September 2008, encourage Snyder to contact Castle or Broderick if he has any questions about his mother’s estate.
According to state law, in counties such as Niagara where there is no provision for a separate office of public administrator, estates left behind by individuals who die without wills or who have heirs who cannot agree on the settlement of affairs are handled by the county’s top fiscal officer — in this case, Broderick. In response to calls for the formation of a county board of inquiry to investigate Broderick’s conduct, Niagara County Attorney Claude Joerg previously has issued an opinion suggesting the duties of the public administrator are separate from those of the treasurer’s office and are, therefore, not covered by the rules of county government. Advocates for the formation of a board of inquiry, including Niagara County Legislator and Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, have argued that, if Joerg is correct, Broderick should be barred from using county employees and resources for estate work. In his response to Snyder, Violante said his investigation found no links between Broderick’s estate duties and those who work under him in the treasurer’s office. “Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest that county employees are working on files related to Mr. Broderick’s duties and public administrator,” Violante wrote. Violante did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. Muscato and Broderick also could not be reached to comment. Snyder and all parties involved in her mother’s case agreed last week to drop their claims as part of a settlement agreement brokered by county Judge Matthew J. Murphy III. The settlement is covered by a court-authorized gag order that bars all participants from discussing any details in the case. Broderick’s dealings as public administrator are under review by the offices of the state comptroller and attorney general. The comptroller’s audit is expected to be completed this fall. The attorney general has presented county officials with subpoenas seeking records related to Broderick’s estate work over the past six years. Contact reporter Mark Scheer at 282-2311, ext. 2250