2004-05-28 / Front Page

Split Decision In Baxter-Sirota Battle

By Howard Schwach

Split Decision In Baxter-Sirota Battle

By Howard Schwach

A jury in Queens Supreme Court found local attorney Howard Sirota guilty of harassment on Friday of last week, bringing to an end the criminal phase of the bizarre case that began in September of 2001 with an exchange of letters to the editor in the pages of The Wave.

The jury had earlier found Sirota not guilty of the more serious assault charge on which he was being tried.

Neither Baxter nor Sirota was happy with the outcome.

Baxter is suing Sirota in civil court for eight million dollars. While he refused to comment for The Wave, saying only, "You never asked me to comment before. I don’t want to be quoted in the same story as a convicted criminal," Baxter did tell Daily News reporter Scott Shifrel, "I’m satisfied that he was found guilty. It was a lesser charge, but they found him guilty."

Baxter told the jury that Sirota came up to him on the beach outside of Sirota’s Beach 128 Street home and sucker-punched him.

Sirota, however, tells a different story. He told The Wave this week that he "defended himself against a bully" in the fight with Baxter.

According to Sirota, Baxter had made arrangements to meet with a local friend on the beach near Sirota’s home even though neither lives on that block. Sirota says that Baxter came up to him and started talking about Sirota’s two daughters.

"Baxter threw the first punch while he was talking to me," Sirota says.

He says that he is "Obviously disappointed" at the jury’s decision, but says that he will continue to defend himself in the civil suit.

Sirota blames politics on the reason he was even tried in the first place.

"The District Attorney spent more than a million dollars in taxpayers money to get a conviction on a charge that amounts to nothing more than jaywalking or littering," he says, arguing that the DA’s Integrity Bureau came at him with its "senior trial attorney" only because Baxter has political clout as the local leader for the Independence Party.

On September 3, 2001, The Wave published a letter from Baxter claiming that the city was illegally closing down Single Room Occupancy houses in Rockaway, stating that they were necessary for those who could not afford better housing.

On September 10, Sirota answered with a letter of his own, claiming that Baxter’s SRO was one of the worst in the area and offering a large sum of money to Baxter if he would allow his hotel on Beach 116 Street to be inspected. Sirota wrote that if the inspector did not find a specified number of violations he would pay Baxter $25,000.

Baxter answered by leading a group of protestors to Sirota’s house, many of whom threatened harm to Sirota should he continue to write letters.

Sirota claims that there were also a series of threatening telephone calls from Baxter. While Baxter admits to making at least one of the calls, he told The Wave that he did not consider them threatening in nature.

The fight on the beach followed closely afterwards.

Sirota could get up to 15 days in jail for his conviction, and he told The Wave that, because of the "political aspects of the case," he expects the worst.

As for Baxter’s eight million dollar lawsuit, Sirota says that "Baxter’s case is worth eight million less than the eight million he’s suing for."

Sirota says that he will appeal the jury’s decision in State Appellate Court on the grounds of "Prosecutorial Misconduct."

"There is a line of cases in the law to support my appeal," he says.

Sentencing has been set for July 14.

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