Top NY Judge Misled Lawmakers To Justify DiFiore's Detail

Law360 (March 5, 2023, 10:02 PM EST) -- In harrowing testimony last month, a top New York state court official told lawmakers that former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore's unprecedented multimillion-dollar security escort was warranted because of a series of grave threats against her, including from a stalker and a man who vowed to kill the jurist and her family.

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New York's acting Chief Administrative Judge Tamiko Amaker defends former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore's security detail in a Feb. 7 legislative budget hearing in Albany. (New York Senate)

But a Law360 investigation found that the testimony by acting Chief Administrative Judge Tamiko Amaker omitted key details that raise doubts about whether the incidents posed a serious threat to DiFiore's safety that merited a full-time armed escort even after her resignation in August.

The death threat was contained in a letter that DiFiore never received and that came from a Florida prison inmate in the first quarter of an eight-year sentence. The alleged stalking incident was not reported to local police. And another threat came from a man who had killed a federal judge's son, but who was himself dead by the time investigators found a photo of DiFiore in his car.

Judicial security experts told Law360 that the incidents cited by Judge Amaker and other court officials to date do not add up to any threat-based need for DiFiore's seven-year security detail — a duration experts said was practically unheard of with the exception of U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Judge Amaker also misstated when the inmate sent the letter — it was 2019, not 2021 — undermining her claim of an "escalating" series of incidents spanning several years that justified continuing the detail.

"There's no way that we would continue a protected detail on the state judge" based on the information presented, said Jon Trainum, a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Marshals Service and chief of protective operations in its Judicial Security Division until 2022, when he retired.

The lack of police reports for any of the three incidents is also important, he said, because "the police play a significant role in our protective response" and should have a record of any incidents or serious security risks on file so they know what to look out for.

A state court spokesperson said that the court system "has a responsibility to keep its judges safe, including the chief judge."

"There is a delicate balance in explaining how public resources are allocated on security and providing information that will further jeopardize that person," the spokesperson, Lucian Chalfen, said.

Through a spokesperson, DiFiore said details regarding her security should be confidential.

"The notion that there could be public discussion of the details of threats or security procedures put in place to protect the safety and security of a public official is unprecedented and dangerous to all public officials and their families," DiFiore's spokesperson Josh Vlasto told Law360. "The details of these threats are rightly confidential and any discussion of them based on incomplete or politically motivated assessments is wrong and irresponsible."

DiFiore's spokesperson said the threats against her were reviewed by Office of Court Administration security staff and that she did not direct or participate in their assessments as to "what level of security was necessary and appropriate to protect her."

Scant Evidence of Threats

Court administrators have repeatedly declined to answer questions about the specifics of the risks that justified DiFiore's seven-year state-funded detail involving six to eight court officers. No previous chief judge had such an escort in office, and no ex-chief has kept her chauffeurs after leaving office, except DiFiore.

Facing blistering criticism from Albany lawmakers for the expense of DiFiore's estimated $6.5 million detail at a Feb. 7 budget hearing, Judge Amaker offered new details regarding what she said were "50 either inappropriate communications or judicial threats."

Among them was an "irate" man who "stalked" DiFiore to her Long Island vacation home in 2018, approaching her at a restaurant and "standing in the middle of the street screaming, 'Where is Janet? I need to see Janet' at the top of his lungs," Judge Amaker said. In 2021, an "individual said he was going to kill [DiFiore] and her entire family," the judge also testified.

But no police department with jurisdiction over DiFiore's residences had any record of a stalker or death threat against her, according to responses to Freedom of Information requests by Law360 that sought reports related to DiFiore. Court officers are expected to report threats to police under established protocols, which experts say is standard practice in judicial security.

There were no records nor any recollection of any incident related to DiFiore or her vacation home in the Hamptons, including related to the stalker, police there said.

"I don't recall anything up there. No, certainly nothing significant," said Southampton Police Department Lt. Todd Spencer, adding that he has been patrol commander since 2016. "If anybody knew, it would probably be me."

Westchester County Police and the Village of Bronxville Police Department had no records of a death threat, stalker or other security concerns even though they have jurisdiction over DiFiore's main residence.

"Her term was really peaceful," Bronxville Police Chief Christopher Satriale said. "There definitely were no confrontations."

A spokesperson for the New York State Police, which assigned two officers on rotating 12-hour daily shifts on DiFiore's detail from July 2020 until her resignation in 2022, said "they do not recall either event," referring to the alleged stalker or death threat.

Chalfen said court officers "liaise with local jurisdictions when necessary" and would have been in contact with local police "regarding ongoing security" but "whether or how they documented contacts, I wouldn't know."

At then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo's direction, state police added an officer to DiFiore's court officer detail after a separate incident in 2020 involving a man who fatally shot U.S. District Judge Esther Salas' son in New Jersey. The suspect was found dead. Among his belongings was a photo of DiFiore and her address. The shooter was found to be a lone wolf, the former judicial protection chief for the U.S. marshals told Law360, and federal agents provided Judge Salas with a security detail for less than a year.

A longer period of protection for DiFiore, based on the deceased shooter in the Salas case, would not be justified based on any real risk, judicial security experts said.

Although there is no record of any incidents or threats, Bronxville's Chief Satriale did recall receiving a request to keep an eye on the DiFiore residence immediately after the shooting at Judge Salas' home.

Detective Sgt. Richard Anderson of the Bronxville Police Department also recalled that DiFiore's detail asked him to keep an eye out for "someone traveling from out of state who might be headed to the area" and requested police monitor a September 2022 court officer union protest in front of her condo.

The DiFiore-related requests for a so-called "special watch" numbered "probably dozens over the years that just really never amounted to anything in the village," Anderson said. "The one that sticks out, you know, most recently was the strike," he said, referring to the peaceful union rally of members from the same force that protects the chief judge.

A Prisoner's Letter

After Law360 sent questions about the lack of police reports related to security incidents, Chalfen identified a federal court case revealing the details of the death threat Judge Amaker used to justify DiFiore's detail to lawmakers.

The threatening letter came from Anthony Cruzado, an incarcerated Florida man with a history of mental illness serving an eight-year sentence. The envelope, where Cruzado put his name and the return address of his correctional facility, contained a powder that turned out to be a seasoning packet, court records show. He had no connection to DiFiore and misidentified her gender when he pled guilty, according to the case files.

"I don't like how you run your courtroom and for this reason I plan on killing you, you think you the BOSS but Im going to show you Im going to kill you and your family slow, inside this letter I have put in this letter a deadly chemical, just [know] you are going to die," the December 2019 letter said, according to prosecutors.

DiFiore never received the letter because it was sent to a federal courthouse in Manhattan. U.S. marshals conducted an investigation, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York prosecuted the case.

It turned out that Cruzado sent the letter seven months after sending a similar letter from behind bars to another judge in Florida, whom he had also never met. He also threatened a U.S. Supreme Court justice at some point, federal prosecutors said. After pleading guilty to the threat against DiFiore and being sentenced to two more years in prison, Cruzado will not be released until at least 2030.

In her testimony, Judge Amaker did not mention that the letter came from an out-of-state prisoner serving a lengthy term with no ability to carry out his threat.

"He's locked up. What's he gonna do?" said Trainum, the recently retired judicial security specialist from the U.S. Marshals Service. "He is what we call a prolific writer to judges. We see this all the time."

Trainum said such an incident would not merit a protective detail for a federal judge. "This guy would rate very low" as a concern, Trainum added, noting that inmates who threaten judges are often seeking attention or a transfer to what they see as better conditions in federal custody.

While Trainum oversaw the U.S. marshals' judicial threat unit at the time, he did not recall the Cruzado case. Still, he said, after a rapid investigation to ensure a prisoner doesn't have vast resources or dangerous connections, U.S. marshals generally wouldn't waste taxpayer dollars on an escort meant to guard against imminent threats.

Court records also show Judge Amaker misstated when DiFiore was threatened. Cruzado wrote the letter in 2019, not 2021, as the acting chief administrative judge testified.

The true timing of the prisoner's threat to DiFiore undermines the narrative presented to lawmakers as the justification for the former chief judge's long-running taxpayer-funded security detail: unspecified threats while she was district attorney until 2015, a stalker in 2018, her photo in the hands of a dead killer in 2020 and a death threat in 2021 that justified continuing the detail in 2022 after her sudden resignation.

"In 2021, there was another threat to her entire family. That individual said he was going to kill her and her entire family. And so these threats were ongoing, and they were escalating," Judge Amaker testified, emphasizing that she wanted to give lawmakers "the full picture, so that you understand why this occurred."

"When she retired," she added, "at that point, the threat hadn't subsided. The threat continued."

A Familiar Ethics Problem

Filings in the Cruzado case also indicate the former chief judge violated judicial ethics by writing a victim impact statement that invoked her judicial office and authority, experts told Law360 — the same ethical breach that led to unrelated formal misconduct charges against DiFiore before she left office. When she resigned, that ethics case was halted.

Ethics rules prohibit lending "the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge."

"I submit this statement both in my personal capacity and my institutional capacity as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and the State of New York," DiFiore wrote on her chief judge stationery to Southern District prosecutors.

"Her suggestion that the weight of an entire branch of government is being brought to bear goes beyond what is proper," said Ron Minkoff of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz PC, a legal ethics expert who analyzed New York's judicial conduct code for the state bar association. "This is why it is so important that a judge submitting a Victim Impact Statement make clear that they are acting only in their personal capacity, lest their actions bring the entire judiciary into disrepute."

"The chief judge did absolutely nothing wrong both in her personal or professional capacity," said Vlasto, DiFiore's spokesperson. "As leader of the Unified Court System, the chief judge was speaking not just on behalf of herself, but also on behalf of the entire institution she was charged to lead and had a duty to defend."

"Anyone threatening a judge or court official should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, which was thankfully done in this case," he added.

The issue is strikingly similar to an August 2021 letter DiFiore wrote just months earlier seeking harsh punishment for her critic, court officer union President Dennis Quirk. DiFiore wrote an unsolicited letter to the disciplinary hearing officer urging harsh punishment for Quirk after he suggested he would post an old news story about DiFiore's alleged affair all over courthouses.

Law360 revealed that letter led to formal ethics charges against DiFiore that were ultimately stymied by her abrupt departure.

In an unprecedented arrangement, however, DiFiore kept her taxpayer-funded chauffeur and protection detail after she left office, prompting an outcry from lawmakers and a raft of proposed ethics reforms.

Following revelations that DiFiore and acting Chief Judge Anthony Cannataro failed to report their taxable chauffeur perks, state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, charged that "there is a serious corruption problem within the Court of Appeals where judges are receiving public benefits and not reporting them."

Commenting amid ongoing budget hearings, Gianaris suggested that the judiciary's spending should be more closely scrutinized. The state court system's requested $3.3 billion budget remains pending before the legislature.

--Editing by Jill Coffey.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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