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State Bar Association Secretary Walter Lesnevich will not challenge the unprecedented move by the nominating committee to knock him off the ladder of succession to the association’s presidency. Lesnevich — the first officer in the State Bar’s 102-year history not to be supported for the next position up — bowed out bitterly last Thursday, calling Bar leaders “an old boys’ club” serving the “financially elite” at the expense of minorities and women. He explained his decision in a circulated letter. State Bar President Barry Epstein dismisses Lesnevich’s criticism as sour grapes. “It’s unfortunate to me that Walter has chosen to be negative and unfairly critical of the good works of the Bar in making his public decision not to run.” Edwin McCreedy, who was selected for treasurer by the association’s nominating committee on Feb. 13, calls it “unfortunate that [Lesnevich] chose to take shots, by misrepresenting the interests of the Bar, which has a great deal of interest in diversity, and is far from being an elitist organization.” Though genuine issues separate Lesnevich from many Bar trustees and officers — such as the association budget, a dues increase and his support for the unpopular “best practices” mandates — the dumping of Lesnevich appears to have been for the most part a matter of a difference of style and personality. Lesnevich supporters describe him as outspoken, independent-minded and unafraid of playing the maverick. “In my opinion, this happened because Walter spoke his mind,” says John Sakson IV, a former trustee who last year chaired the nominating committee that chose Lesnevich over Stuart Hoberman. This year Hoberman resubmitted his name and was selected by the new nominating committee to be secretary, the post that Lesnevich holds until May. Sakson says that Lesnevich, who he calls a friend, is just too liberal and too much of a trial-lawyer advocate for some among the established Bar. Stephen Latimore, chairman of the State Bar’s Individual Rights Section, which endorsed Lesnevich last year and this year, says of the nominating committee’s move: “It’s their prerogative to do that, but whenever somebody from any organization takes an unprecedented step without any good cause, I question motives. It doesn’t smell right.” Lesnevich was also endorsed by the Women in the Profession Section and, according to three Bar sources, the Minorities in the Profession Section. That section’s chairman, Ramon de la Cruz, did not return a call. Lesnevich’s detractors cite the same trait of being independent and outspoken, but say they demonstrate Lesnevich’s lack of leadership qualities, his inability to be a consensus-builder and his curt attitude with those who disagree with him. In short, many who support the nominating committee’s aberrant move simply don’t like Lesnevich and don’t want him to be the leader of the State Bar. They also scoff at his suggestion that the New Jersey Bar caters to the large firms. By way of example, they point to the several small-firm or solo lawyers who served as Bar president recently: Epstein, Ann Bartlett, Joseph Bottitta, Jay Greenblatt, Harold Sherman and Alan Pogarsky — as well as the current treasurer, Karol Corbin Walker, who is black. The majority of trustees represent the counties, who usually endorse former local presidents, leaving the State Bar little wiggle room for diversity, except for the three at-large positions, which are set aside for blacks and Hispanics. Lesnevich, with a three-lawyer firm in Tenafly, failed to gain the backing of his home county of Bergen last year and this year. By comparison, Bar President Epstein received Bergen’s endorsement when he became a candidate for the secretary’s slot five years ago. One Bar leader in Hackensack notes, though, that the county bar doesn’t usually endorse candidates for a State Bar post unless they have gone through the county bar, as Epstein had. Epstein served as county bar president and then went to the State Bar as the county’s trustee, a common route to the trustee board. Lesnevich had not been active in Bergen and was never an officer, trustee or section chair. Instead, he rose to the trustee board through the sections, becoming a trustee in 1993. He submitted his name to the nominating committee last year, as did Hoberman and another section/committee trustee, Christine Bator. Ann Bartlett, State Bar president last year, used her two appointments to the seven-member nominating committee to name Sakson as chairman and Lourdes Santiago as a member. The Feb. 13 tally on Lesnevich was not disclosed, but the anti-Lesnevich camp believes Sakson and Santiago voted for him. At the same time, they believe, Bartlett used her influence as the ex-officio, nonvoting trustee liaison to push for him. Bartlett did not return a call seeking comment. Sakson, though barred from discussing the workings of the committee, is unabashed in his praise for Lesnevich, calling him a “strong trustee who spoke his mind” for seven years on the board. Many, though, apparently assumed Hoberman would gain the nod. McCreedy himself, when asked why he didn’t run last year if he was so interested in becoming secretary and ultimately president, says, “The truth is I didn’t know what was going on last year. I heard Hoberman was probably going to be the nominee,” adding that he likes and respects Hoberman and chose not to fight him for the nomination in 2000. McCreedy says he has steadfastly declined to criticize Lesnevich. When asked whether some Bar leaders put him up to running against Lesnevich, he says, “No, it was my decision. I’ve been thinking about it for some time. Hoberman is running now [for secretary]; he should have been the nominee last year.” He adds, “I checked the bylaws and saw that they provide for such a challenge … and though I know it’s unprecedented, I’m surprised no one’s ever done it before.” Fast-forward to last fall. Epstein chose as his two appointments to the nominating committee Terry Paul Bottinelli, the current Bergen Bar president, and Kenneth Domzalski of Burlington. Epstein said he picked Domzalski to increase southern New Jersey representation. Pro-Lesnevich lawyers see Bottinelli as Epstein’s man on the committee, adding that Epstein was among a number of officers and trustees seeking to dump Lesnevich. Bottinelli did not return a phone call seeking comment. Then, last October, the General Council, which also has two seats on the committee, chose former State Bar President Bottitta, an unusual selection because ex-presidents rarely run for such a post. Five sources familiar with the matter say Bottitta is clearly in the anti-Lesnevich camp. Bottitta, according to the nominating committee report last month, recused himself from deliberating or voting on the treasurer’s post, apparently to avoid any appearance of bias. Bottitta declines to comment on any aspect of the race. The final twist: Bottinelli put his name before the nominating committee headed by Sakson last year, but was turned down. This year he chaired the nominating committee that reversed the key decision made by the committee under Sakson. In 1993, Bottitta, denied the nomination for secretary, mounted a successful election and defeated association nominee Raymond Londa. In 1998, Bottitta became the first lawyer to serve as New Jersey State Bar president without the blessing of the nominating committee. In 1995, a group of Bar insiders moved to block first vice-president Sherman from becoming president by supporting corporate lawyer Raymond Tierney, who submitted his candidacy to the nominating committee. But the committee stuck with Sherman. Tierney chose not to seek a membershipwide election, and Sherman went on to serve as president. In his letter, Lesnevich attacked the latest dues hike — to $225 from $195 for most members — as excessive and hurtful to minorities and small-time practitioners. But Epstein says it’s the first hike in six years, adding that part of the new revenues are to be used to provide members with a legal research resource on the Bar’s Web site. In his letter, Lesnevich also attacked the midyear conventions, saying many members can’t afford to take such trips. “These types of conventions do not foster diversity. You can talk the talk about diversity, but if the Bar … continues holding expensive conventions and requiring trustees and officers to attend, only the financially elite will be in leadership. This is wrong.” Epstein counters that the last convention, in Monte Carlo, was attended by 400 lawyers and was an affordable trip. Epstein says that when the budget was adopted by the trustee board, only two dissenting votes were cast — by Lesnevich and trustee Martin Allen — with all the women and minority trustees voting in favor of the budget with the dues increase. Lesnevich, in his letter, also took the opportunity to criticize the nominating committee for not renaming Allen to the board. He called Allen a “strong voice for women and minorities in our profession” who was also endorsed by the Women in the Profession and the Minorities in the Profession sections. But one Bar leader notes that Allen already has served for six years and that the nominating committee, faced with six candidates for three slots, simply chose new section/committee trustees.

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