2010-11-26 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Fairy Tale Wedding Leads To Horrific Decisions
Commentary By Howard Schwach

The New York Times wedding announcement in its April 21, 2002 edition said it all.

“Elizabeth Seidman, who directs a nonprofit organization in New York and Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis were married last evening at the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing Meadows.

“Ms. Seidman, 49 is keeping her name. She is the executive director of the FJC Charitable Fund, which provides advisory services and administrative grants.

She is also on the board of Fountain House, a self-help group for the mentally ill.”

On it’s website, Fountain House says that it is “dedicated to the recovery of men and women with mental illness by providing opportunities for our members to live, work, and learn, while contributing their talents through a community of mutual support.

“Our goal is a high quality of life for all members, ongoing improvement and the ultimate elimination of stigma against those with mental illness. Success depends upon our ability to inspire partnerships between members, staff, board members, corporate partners, medical providers and the larger community. Our vision is that people with mental illness everywhere achieve their potential and are respected as co-workers, neighbors and friends.”

This from an organization fronted by the wife of a federal judge who recently ruled that the mentally ill now residing in adult homes in Rockaway and elsewhere in New York City have the right to move out of those homes and into assisted living units in the community.

Was there some “pillow talk” involved in getting Judge Garaufis to make that ruling?

Can a wife influence the decisions of a sitting judge?

Does a bear do you-know-what in the woods?

Garaufis’ ruling means that many of the 1,700 mentally ill residents of those homes in Rockaway will have to be moved to supported housing units in the community, where they can live independently while still receiving specialized treatment and services.

His ruling said that the roughly 4,300 adult-home residents in 28 adult homes in New York City were not being cared for in the most integrated setting, a violation of federal law.

The plan would give nearly all current and future adult home residents the opportunity to move to supportive housing scattered throughout the community, where they could live independently, while still getting visits from nurses, psychologists and other support staff.

The ruling has sparked debate on what it would mean for Rockaway, which has a dozen of the 28 homes throughout the city named in the original lawsuit that led to the judge’s decision.

There are some who say they would be glad to see the large homes disappear and that it would be positive for Rockaway.

There are others, however, who see the mentally-ill being housed in one and two-family homes in Rockaway Park and Belle Harbor and who say the decision will destabilize those neighborhoods.

Taken together, what Garaufis’ wife does for a living and her passion involving the mentally ill and his ruling on the adult home issue seems to be a clear conflict of interest, at least to me.

And, I am not alone in that belief.

In fact, the issue came up during the first hearing on the lawsuit in 2007.

In open court, Garaufis told both the attorney for the plaintiffs, another mental illness advocacy group and the attorneys for the state, which was defending the adult home program, that his wife was involved in the issue through her own group and through Fountain House and that she was a long-time advocate for the mentally ill being involved with the community in which they live.

“I want to give a notice of this, although I don’t think it has anything to do with my ability to decide this case,” he said.

According to the trial transcript, neither of the parties to the case objected and the trial proceeded.

When the New York Post asked him later about a possible conflict of interest, he refused to comment, saying that the issue had already been settled in court.

To my mind, however, the issue is not settled. Garaufis has always been involved in what could be considered liberal causes.

He was the Chief Counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration. He worked as the Chief Counsel for Queens Borough President Claire Shulman.

And, the adult home decision is not the only one that has become highly controversial.

Last year, Garaufis ruled that the New York City Firefighter exam was racially tainted because an insufficient number of minorities passed the test and were hired for the job.

He ordered the city not to hire any firefighters until he was satisfied with a racially-neutral test.

When the city argued that it needed to hire new firefighters because staffing levels were dangerously low, Garaufis ordered the city to follow one of several quota systems he outlined.

One of the plans would let the FDNY hire by picking at random from a pool of candidates that matched the racial and ethnic makeup of all the people who took the test. The pool would be composed of the 2,500 top scorers, with two exceptions: the lowest-ranked white candidates would be replaced by the highest-ranking minority candidates below the 2,500 cutoff number.

Some of the other options outlined by Garaufis were outright quotas, something that should be an anathema to a liberal judge.

Something that the Supreme Court ruled in a New Haven firefighter case a year ago.

The mayor refused, as well he should.

One has to wonder if Liz Seidman was frightened by a firefighter.

That’s the only thing that makes sense.

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