Law360 reported Wednesday that top court officials greenlit a full-time court officer detail for the ex-chief judge, who stepped down in late August while facing an unrelated judicial ethics investigation, despite a state court policy adopted during her own administration that says state vehicles may be used only for official state business.
In response, a spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration told Law360 on Wednesday that court security officials made a determination "that a continued presence is necessary for the former chief judge," but declined to confirm whether there is any record of a security assessment being performed. The previous two chief judges did not have court officer details after leaving office.
New York State Senate Judiciary Chair Brad Hoylman, D-Greenwich Village, told Law360 on Friday that court officials owed the public a fuller accounting of why DiFiore continues to receive such perks when she is no longer a state employee.
"New Yorkers deserve a better explanation than what OCA has provided. I'm going to make sure we get one," he said. "If the courts want us to approve their budget, we have to make sure that resources aren't being wasted on unnecessary perks for private citizens."
Hoylman said he would seek answers from senior judges at legislative budget hearings set for January.
Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, D-Astoria, also voiced alarm at the use of the judiciary's resources for the benefit of a resigned judge.
"Public protection officers are not designed to be chauffeurs for retired officeholders — and that's what seems to be happening," he said.
"It's outrageously abusive for a former office holder to continue to receive state protection at the discretion of the court system," Gianaris said. "If there's a legitimate public safety threat, then the state police or other appropriate authorities should make that determination."
"We should absolutely scrutinize the Judiciary's budget if this is the way they're squandering valuable resources," he added.
"For the OCA to be acting as a patronage mill for former office holders seems to run afoul of the law," Gianaris concluded, calling it a "misuse of state resources for nonpublic purposes."
A union leader representing 1,400 active-duty court officers called for an immediate end to DiFiore's detail, telling Law360 he had been "completely unaware" of the practice.
"It's outrageous that in the midst of a severe staffing crisis, our essential court officers would be inexplicably redeployed to provide security for a former judge, who resigned under a cloud of serious ethics violations," said Patrick Cullen, president of the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association.
"OCA should immediately invest in bolstering the security of our courtrooms instead of wasting valuable resources on former officials," he added. The union is seeking to add 500 court officers to cover the shortage.
Responding to the calls for further information, a state court spokesperson said that "a security detail is not perk. The endemic nature of security and threat assessments are just that, limited information. Unfortunate but necessary."
DiFiore announced her resignation on July 11 with scant explanation for why she was leaving office shy of seven years into a 14-year term. "It is time for me to move on to the next chapter in my professional life," she said in her resignation letter.
Law360 revealed later that day that the former chief judge had been under investigation by the state judicial ethics watchdog for more than a year. DiFiore resigned while facing a formal complaint by the commission, which charged her with misconduct for allegedly seeking to tip the scales in a disciplinary proceeding against an outspoken critic of hers, court officer union president Dennis Quirk.
Earlier this week, Law360 reported that the misconduct charges against DiFiore have been frozen due to her resignation, according to confidential documents and sources with direct knowledge of the probe.
During DiFiore's tenure, the state court system enacted a strict policy for the use of state vehicles.
"Personal use of a state vehicle is prohibited," the 2018 policy memo states. "A state vehicle may be used only for official state business."
The memo further states that "a state vehicle may never be used to transport passengers unless they are state employees engaged in official business or non-state employees engaged in official business with state employees."
DiFiore's post-resignation detail appears to be unusual, if not unprecedented. Former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman did not receive a court officer detail after his resignation in 2015, according to sources familiar with his arrangements, and neither did former Chief Judge Judith Kaye upon her departure in 2008.
While the state court's spokesman denied that DiFiore's use of the state-owned car violated any rules, he declined to elaborate. He further declined to say whether any other resigned judges have received such a benefit.
The two court officers observed by Law360 picking up DiFiore from her luxury penthouse in Westchester had been on her security detail when she was in office, according to sources with personal knowledge of their work assignments. The two made nearly $300,000 combined in 2021, including overtime, payroll records show.
While it's unclear what the total cost of DiFiore's detail is, the two officers seen on full-time duty have an annual pay rate of more than $87,000 each per year, before overtime. Any other officer on the detail would be expected to make around the same, perhaps slightly less, according to a pay schedule reviewed by Law360 and sources familiar with the work.
The officers' three months of work since DiFiore resigned would then cost the state an estimated $43,000 on the low end, solely for the officers' time and not accounting for gas, mileage, tolls and any other costs associated with providing this service for the former chief judge.
--Editing by Adam LoBelia.
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