ALBANY — Lawmakers are up in arms in the wake of a new report detailing how a top court official misled legislators last month when pressed about security provided to former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.
Acting Chief Administrative Judge Tamiko Amaker testified during a budget hearing that the full-time taxpayer-funded security detail for DiFiore, even after she stepped down last year, was justified due to threats made against the former top jurist’s life.
While Amaker told lawmakers DiFiore repeatedly received threatening messages and that a stalker once followed her to a vacation home and confronted her in 2018, she left out numerous details about the alleged incidents and whether they posed a serious threat to DiFiore’s safety, Law360 reported.
Lawmakers were incensed by the revelations, which included the fact that a threatening letter sent to DiFiore came from a Florida man already in prison and the alleged stalking incident was never reported to the police.
“This is why, as a matter of practice, every individual that testifies at a legislative hearing should be administered an oath and sworn in,” tweeted Sen. James Skoufis (D-Hudson Valley). “People lie. When they do to the Legislature, there ought to be consequences.”
Amaker also noted that DiFiore’s name and photograph were found in a car used by a man who killed the son of US District Judge Esther Salas in New Jersey in 2020. Law360 previously reported that DiFiore’s security detail costs as much as $1 million a year.
Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), whose questioning of Amaker during the budget hearing focused on DiFiore’s security detail and Acting Chief Judge Anthony Cannataro’s personal use of state-funded chauffeured cars, said more transparency is needed.
“It is unacceptable that the NYS judiciary has the audacity to mislead the public and the legislature,” Gianaris tweeted on Monday. “Our court system has serious transparency and corruption problems.”
Gianaris and Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal (D-Manhattan) penned a piece of legislation last month that would allow the Commission on Judicial Conduct to publicize investigations once a formal charge has been filed against a judge. It would also extend the commission’s jurisdiction to allow investigations to continue after a judge resigns or retires.
Joseph Russo, a retired special agent in charge with the US Secret Service and a senior adviser to T&M Security, said Amaker was in the right to be vague about details when questioned by lawmakers in a public setting.
“Beyond the whole debate about should she have had security, should she have not, should the state have footed the bill on it, it’s counterproductive to be reading about anything specific about any public official,” Russo said, noting that, in general, threats have increased in recent years.
Josh Vlasto, a spokesperson for DiFiore, defended the former jurist, saying she did not “participate in or direct” court officials when it came to her security detail.
“Any threats targeting the chief judge were reviewed by law enforcement and security professionals charged with guarding the safety and security of judges and staff of the Unified Court System,” he added.
A court spokesperson said that Amaker wasn’t trying to muddy the water with her testimony.
“Much has been made about the factual misstatement contained in Judge Amaker’s testimony, but it was never her intention to mislead anyone,” court spokesman Lucian Chalfen said. “She stated the facts as she knew them at the time of her testimony and is writing a letter to the Legislature to clarify the record.”
DiFiore retired last summer amid a state ethics probe into whether she wrongly interfered in a disciplinary hearing of the president of the state’s court officers association.
Senate Dems’ relationship with the courts has been bumpy in recent years as they have accused the DiFiore-led Court of Appeals of leaning too far to the right and the state’s highest court rejected Dem-drawn political maps last year.
Last month, Dems in the Senate formally rejected Hector LaSalle, Gov. Hochul’s pick to replace DiFiore as the state’s top judge, following a drawnout battle over whether a floor vote was necessary for the nomination.
“This is just sour grapes over redistricting,” one Democratic insider said of the griping from lawmakers. “Pure pandering politics.”