N.Y. court official admits taking bribes in divorces

Prosecutors say some who have remarried might be bigamists

September 22, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- The chief administrator of the Manhattan Matrimonial Court has accepted tens of thousands of dollars in bribes over the past seven years to expedite hundreds of divorces and get approvals on others that were fraudulently prepared, prosecutors said yesterday.

The administrator, Steven Singer, admitted Friday that he accepted bribes ranging from $10 to hundreds of dollars to take divorce papers and -- without having verified the authenticity of the papers as required -- quickly forward them to a judge for signing as uncontested divorces.

Prosecutors said some of the documents involved a wide array of fraud, including husbands forging their wives' signatures on divorce settlements that required the husbands to make only paltry child support payments. In other cases, Singer said, he took the bribes simply to expedite the cases for impatient couples, cutting the wait to a couple of days from two to four weeks.

The cases that were expedited, court officials said, would likely be allowed to stand. But divorces that involved fraud would probably be thrown out. As a result, people who believed they were legally divorced and remarried might be bigamists, prosecutors said.

The Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, said yesterday that his office was reviewing about 2,000 divorces granted by the Manhattan Matrimonial Court, but he cautioned that it was not yet known how many of the divorces might have involved fraud.

Two divorce lawyers have previously been indicted in the schemes and two clerks were indicted yesterday, prosecutors said, and as many as 20 other divorce lawyers and court employees are under investigation.

Prosecutors said that all of the cases being investigated came from low-cost legal offices, known in the field as "divorce mills," that cater to immigrants and the poor with relatively low-cost services.

Singer, who was arrested in June, pleaded guilty Friday to multiple counts of accepting bribes. He is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 10, facing up to seven years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The investigation was started in 1997 over a child support case. A woman complained to court officials that she had received a copy of an uncontested divorce settlement that she never agreed to. The settlement included a far smaller amount of child support than she wanted.

Pub Date: 9/22/99

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