Authorities take action against company run by NY family court judges, attorneys

Authorities take action against company run by NY family court judges, attorneys



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NEW YORK, June 17, 2014 — The IRS has revoked the tax exempt status of a New York corporation founded and operated by sitting family court judges and the professionals who appear before them for failure to comply with federal tax laws.

This is just the latest string of punitive actions authorities have taken over the years against the national trade association whose members oversee cases involving the State’s most vulnerable children and families. Legal industry professionals are now asking questions about whether the authorities should do more to protect families from sub-regulatory corporations, and whether or not a bigger cover up is afoot?

“It is incomprehensible that this particular corporation, the AFCC, would not have been aware of its obligations to the IRS whereas it is an organization often comprised of and/or closely aligned with the legal industry,” says Maureen Martowska, who holds a J.D. degree from Southern New England School of Law. “IRS Form 990, Return of Organization Exempt form Income Tax, is a standard tax return form with which nonprofit organizations are usually intimately familiar.”

According to their website, The New York Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts corporation is led by New York City based family law attorney Karen Rosenthal and the Honorable Jane Pearl, a sitting family court judge from New York County, who serve as co-presidents.

Past and current leaders include family court industry professionals such as Nassau County District Court Judge Andrea Phoenix, attorney Teresa Ombres, child advocate and GAL Robin D. Carton, Yale educated forensic psychologist Dr. Alberto Yohananoff, State University of New York psychologist and professor K. Daniel O’Leary, as well as Dr. Daniel Kremin, who sits on the faculty at both Hofstra University and Adelphi University.

Apparently, New York’s highly regarded family court professionals are not above the law when it comes to paying its’ share of taxes. In May 2013, the federal tax agency’s website shows it automatically revoked the family court industry charity’s tax exempt status after NY-AFCC failed to file the necessary 990 tax forms for 3 years in a row.

“This appears to be either complete incompetence by AFCC management or something quite possibly is being hidden” says Martowska, citing her past experience managing tax filings for a similar nonprofit, as well as her own experience when dealing with AFCC chapter members and their perceived lack of transparency with the public in family court matters in a neighboring state.

Martowska says she first became aware of the AFCC’s sub-regulatory operations after articles in the Washington Times featured a State investigation into the Connecticut chapter’s activities. According to the CT-AFCC’s incorporation documents leaders included several sitting CT family court judges. An AFCC-affiliated Judicial Branch administrator sent an AFCC solicitation from her State work account to hundreds of industry professionals, including attorney Barry Armata, the guardian ad litem (GAL) appointed onto her son’s [8-year long] out of control family court case.

Martowska notes that in 2012, the NY State Bar Association Family Court Task Force consulted with Armata and CT-AFCC judge Lynda Munro in producing a report containing policy recommendations affecting the NY family court system.  Martowska said the CT-AFCC is already under a cloud of suspicion by many parents in Connecticut who became aware of judges that were on the AFCC Board of Directors who often hired other AFCC members who were GALs, a practice she considered unethical.

She further noted that the CT Committee on Judicial Ethics recently issued an advisory decision which seemed to share that sentiment that sitting Board of Directors of a nonprofit corporation that awarded contracts to their AFCC colleagues would violate their Code of Judicial Ethics, leaving an appearance of impropriety.

COLLABORATION OR COLLUSION? AFCC RUNS AFOUL OF THE LAWS IN OTHER STATES

First registered with the New York Secretary of State’s Office in 2003, the  (NY-AFCC) describes itself as “the premier interdisciplinary and international association of professionals dedicated to the resolution of family conflict.”

A recent newsletter states that as of Fall 2013, the chapter was “11 years old and is about 180 members strong,” including individual judges, lawyers, court administrators and personnel, mental health professionals, mediators, and “all those concerned with the welfare of children and families.

Atlanta based advocate Deborah Beacham also says it is a big deal when corporations like the AFCC do not follow the laws when it comes to taxes and registration. Beacham is the founder of MyAdvocate Center, an Atlanta based nonprofit support agency. She points out that these professionals have a lot of influence over cases and policies involving the State’s most high-risk families.

This month NY-AFCC held a conference which trained judges and other family court industry professionals how to initiate custody switches using pedophile friendly phony psychological conditions and legal techniques which were previously deemed by the National District Attorneys Association to pose a real “threat” to the “integrity of the criminal justice system and the safety of abused children.”

“Maybe these activities don’t rise to the level of a crime” says Beacham, “but litigants are bound to perceive misconduct any time judges and the professionals who appear before them go into business together, and those litigants are then court ordered into business relationships with the corporation’s affiliates.”

But according to TWT, the AFCC’s checkered past is riddled with conflicts of interest and run-ins with the law.  In 1999, InSight Magazine reports authorities raided the Los Angeles family court’s administrative office seeking records pertaining to the AFCC’s accounts, which were operated by State employees from their courthouse offices. By 2001, several court administrators who oversaw the accounts were sentenced to prison time for running “pay to play” scams from their offices.

“When I first joined AFCC in 1996, there were three active chapters – California, Arizona and Massachusetts” says AFCC Associate Director Leslye Hunter. “Today there are 19 chapters (in three countries) with three more groups actively working on their applications, and several others at various other stages of formation.”

According to the Guidestar and IRS websites, there are currently 13 AFCC chapters listed in good standing. However, the authorities have revoked and/or involuntarily dissolved previously formed AFCC chapters in California, New York, Florida, Kansas, and Illinois.

Although the AFCC website acknowledges collecting membership dues for chapters in Connecticut, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, Illinois, and Indiana, there could be legitimate reasons why IRS does not list these organizations as approved charities.

In 2012, the FBI carried out search warrants on AFCC Task Force Member Ann Marie Termini’s office in the Lackawanna, Pennsylvania court administrator’s office seeking records pertaining to the family court’s guardian ad litem program (which was overseen by Termini). The investigation came about as a result of complaints and a federal lawsuit filed by parents who alleged that Danielle Ross, the court’s only GAL, was engaged in a “kids for cash” extortion and tax evasion scam.

Parents alleged that Ross caused them to lose custody and access to their children if they were unwilling or unable to pay Ross’ fees out of pocket, but that those fees were also occasionally double billed to the county. In 2013, a Federal grand jury indicted Ross on tax evasion charges.

“This is a serious offense; [Ross] is a lawyer,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Olshefski. “She should have known better. She was in a position of trust and she violated that trust.”

In 2014, Senior U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo accepted Ross’s guilty plea on tax evasion charges and sentenced her to  one year in federal prison, one year of supervised release and ordered Ross to pay restitution in the amount of $63,124.

At Ross’s sentencing hearing, Caputo noted the seriousness of Ross’s crimes.

“Tax evasion is a serious offense,” said Caputo. “It’s a pure act of dishonesty.”

Although Termini’s employment in Lackawanna County ended in 2012, Termini was never charged with any crimes and no disciplinary actions were taken against her.

Although there is no indication that the NY-AFCC has acted criminally, Beacham says an explanation is needed from the professionals running the corporation whose day job it is to uphold the law.

“Who’s watching out for the rights and safety of consumers if the company is not even on the map or in compliance with the regulations and agencies who are supposed to oversee them?” asks Beacham.

Martowska also reserves caution on the issue.

“The issues presented and AFCC members who had influence over the CT and NY Task Forces should provide food for thought for reform advocates in both states as we continue our work to improve the Family Court system.”

 


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