Michael Lippman, who had been counsel to the public administrator in the Bronx for more than 30 years when he was terminated in April 2009, pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges of taking excessive fees for his work on five estates, amounting to $300,000.
A 15-count indictment brought by the Bronx District Attorney’s Office also accused Mr. Lippman of filing false documents to conceal the excessive fees.
Mr. Lippman surrendered yesterday and prosecutors agreed to his release without bail by Acting Supreme Court Justice Steven L. Barrett (See Profile).
Mr. Lippman’s lawyer, Murray Richman, said “there is no basis for the charges.” The alleged thefts took place before guidelines set in 2002 by the Administrative Board of the Offices of the Public Administrators were adopted, he added.
The guidelines set a fee of 6 percent on the first $750,000 of an estate with the percentage decreasing incrementally on greater amounts.
Mr. Lippman also was accused of concealing his overcharges from Bronx Surrogate Lee L. Holzman by misstating in court documents the amounts he had taken from the estates.
If convicted of the top charge, second-degree grand larceny, Mr. Lippman could be sentenced to a maximum of five to 15 years in prison.
The New York Daily News first reported in October 2009 that Mr. Lippman was being investigated by the New York City Department of Investigation and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office.
The indictment names five cases: Estate of Cushman, Estate of Greenbaum, Estate of McGoldrick, Estate of Laskhoff and Estate of Risso. One source close to the investigation said thefts had occurred in far more than the five case and that Mr. Lippman used money taken in new cases to replenish funds missing from older matters.
Excessive fees was an issue in 2005 when the New York Court of Appeals removed then-Brooklyn Surrogate Michael R. Feinberg from the bench for routinely awarding 8 percent fees to the then-counsel for the Brooklyn public administrator, Louis R. Rosenthal. Mr. Rosenthal was suspended for two years and the Attorney General’s Office has taken legal action to recover the excessive fees from him. No criminal charges were brought against either Mr. Feinberg or Mr. Rosenthal.
There is no suggestion in the indictment that Surrogate Holzman was aware that Mr. Lippman had charged excessive fees. In fact, in a statement distributed by the Bronx District Attorneys Office, prosecutors said that “in some instances” Mr. Lippman underreported his fees “in reports filed with the court to hide the excessive fees.”
The indictment also accused Mr. Lippman of taking advances for his fees from the estates.
The guidelines do not specifically address the issue of “advance fees,” but the practice in Manhattan for many years has been for counsel to the public administrator to submit for 60 percent of the fee when an accounting is filed and the remaining 40 percent when the decree is issued.
Mr. Richman vowed a vigorous defense, saying that the alleged criminal acts took place after the five-year statute of limitations had expired. The only way that those acts could be prosecuted, he said, would be if the position of “counsel to the public administrator” were to be considered a public officer, in which case the statute would run for 10 years. Given that the counsel position is created by statute, he said such a legal conclusion was unlikely.
Mr. Richman also said that to focus on five cases out of the roughly 1,000 that Mr. Lippman handled during the seven years covered by the indictment made it a “stretch” to maintain he had a criminal intent. He added that Mr. Lippman may have charged fees before he knew the size of an estate or the amount of work involved, but he returned the amounts when he realized the changed circumstances.
The counsel to the public administrator processes the estates of persons who die without a will and with no close relative to wrap up their affairs.
A joint statement issued yesterday by Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson and Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn also asserted that Mr. Lippman had been tardy in filing accounting, resulting in estates “lingering for years.”
@|Daniel Wise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.