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Source: Frontier News™

Veteran Manhattan judge leaving the bench. Retirement or removal?
by: Mel Katznelson in Moscow and Victor L. in New York
 February 4, 2012

On Wednesday Bernard Fried, a justice in the Manhattan Commercial Division of the New York Supreme Court formally announced that he would leave the bench in July of this year. (Reuters, Veteran New York judge Fried to retire in July.)

Justice Bernard Fried

The news stunned New York County courthouse insiders. "Bernie never said anything about retiring" said a long-time acquaintance who did not wish to be identified. "He loves being a judge, this courthouse is his whole life" she said. Fried indeed cherished his job. "It’s the best job there is" he said to the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at his confirmation hearing on May 5, 2010, when he unsuccessfully sought to be certificated as a full-fledged Supreme Court justice.

Fried was facing mandatory retirement in 2010, the year he turned 70. The judge however applied for an appointment to the position of interim justice, which would allow him to stay on the bench until age 76. In April 2010, Governor Paterson approved Fried’s application, and in 2011 Fried was certificated as a full Supreme Court justice - - after 27 years of serving as an "acting justice". His current judicial term was to run until the year 2019, but for his unexpected retirement.

Fried’s "official" explanation is that he wants to work less and spend more time with his wife Nina Gershon, who is a Federal judge in Brooklyn. But many remain skeptical.

And some believe that Fried’s departure was not voluntary, that Fried was permitted to retire gracefully as an alternative to the humiliation of being publicly removed from the bench.

Six months ago LB published an article raising questions about the propriety of Fried's handling of the ownership dispute over Buddha Bar (now Ajna Bar NYC), a landmark restaurant in Manhattan's meatpacking district (Doubts raised over NY Judge's controversial Buddha Bar Decision). The LB report addressed a 16-month long hearing before Fried, following the much reported March 2010 raid on Buddha Bar premises.

The "black widow"

As reported here and elsewhere, on March 31, 2010, a contingent of 20 to 30 men armed with guns and steel batons stormed into Buddha Bar, threatened the employees and locked out its management dating to the company's inception. Leading the pack of intruders were Martin Russo and Sarah Khurana, two lawyers with a small Wall Street firm, Gusrae, Kaplan, Bruno & Nusbaum PLLC, and a French national Jean-Yves Haouzi, former manager of Buddha Bar. Haouzi was fired by Buddha's holding company, Little Rest Twelve, Inc. in 2007. Buddha's official version of Haouzi's firing was that the Frenchman lacked sufficient experience to run the 700-seat restaurant. (Global Glitch, NY Post). Court filings however show that Haouzi was fired for theft and fraud. 

Inna Gudavadze

Russo, Khurana and Gusrae Kaplan are lawyers for Inna Gudavadze, a Russian national and estranged wife of a deceased Georgian billionaire investor and philanthropist, Badri Patarkatsishvili. Badri passed away in February 2008.

Immediately following the businessman's death, suspicions were broached that Badri, a perfectly healthy  52-year old man, according to his friends and doctors, did not die of natural causes. Gudavadze, who following Badri's death became an instant mega-millionaire, hastily retained the world's most expensive public relations firms to tout to the press the theory that Badri might have been murdered by the security forces of the Republic of Georgia. In 2006 Badri ran for the presidency of this small mountain nation against the incumbent Mikhail Saakashvili. His run was unsuccessful with Badri's getting just over 5% of the vote, amidst Saakashvili's decisive victory.

Despite Gudavadze's massive public relations campaign, allegations have persisted that Gudavadze, who is sometimes dubbed "the black widow" by Eastern European media, was herself complicit in Badri's death aspiring to seize control of his fortune. According to one wrongful death lawsuit against Gudavadze, Badri's "death was caused by intentional unlawful acts of defendant Inna Gudavadze, Badri’s widow, in conspiracy with defendant Boris Berezovsky, a notorious Russian "oligarch" wanted by Interpol on international arrest warrants." (Gudavadze, Berezovsky, Implicated in Death of Badri Patarkatsishvili, Lawsuit Alleges) Gudavadze vehemently denies allegations of involvement in Badri's murder.  

Literally days following Patarkatsishvili’s untimely death, Gudavadze commenced a belligerent worldwide court battle against  other members of Badri’s family over the remnants of his estate including Buddha Bar. Her principal foes were Joseph Kay, Badri's cousin and former partner, Olga Safonova, Badri's second wife, and their minor child David. Gudavadze sued Safonova in a Moscow court and succeeded in annulling their marriage posthumously claiming that Badri had not formally divorced Gudavadze.  "I am not surprised" said one  Russian lawyer who was following the bewildering "post-mortem divorce" proceedings, "in Russia you can get a court to annul person's birth too if you have enough money".

According to allegations filed in the wrongful death lawsuit, one of Gudavadze’s motives for murdering Badri was scorn over  his relationship with Safonova. .

"Buddha Bar is dead"

Following the raid, Buddha's management filed an emergency application to Fried asking the judge to remove the intruders. Fried promptly issued an order referring Russo and Haouzi to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.  "It strikes me as there may be a basis for criminal investigation here", Fried said. (Lawyer Martin Russo Referred to Manhattan DA for Criminal Investigation, MT~NewsWire™)

Martin Russo

Curiously however, Fried declined to remove them and instead directed a hearing ostensibly to determine which attorneys should represent Little Rest Twelve. Buddha's management's objected to Fried's decision to permit the intruders to remain in control of the restaurant, Fried however assured that the hearing would  take no more than a day, adding "I'll set aside a half a day, I don't think it will take more than that".

But the hearing took longer than half a day... It took longer than a month ... It took longer than a year.  In the meantime the raiders remained in total control of the jumbo restaurant with its management being locked out. (Judge Taking Year to Decide Buddha Bar Motion).

In an interview one year later, Nina Zajic, Little Rest's CEO said: "I have not received my salary in a year, "creditors are breathing down our necks, we can't pay our lawyers and I don't know what to do, except to file for bankruptcy ... it is no longer our restaurant, even if we ever get it back, we'll never be able to restore it to what it was, Buddha Bar is dead", she said. Indeed, by leaving Gudavadze's proxy in control of the restaurant for over a year, Fried de facto signed a death warrant to Buddha, as New-Yorkers and foreign visitors knew it.  Although the restaurant is operating to this day, it bears little resemblance to the the formerly famed hangout "for select few hundreds" often featured in international media.

Shortly thereafter, the company's larger creditors indeed filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against Little Rest Twelve.

After nearly 16 months of hearings, Fried had finally issued a 45-page decision, essentially awarding control of Buddha to the individuals he had referred to the Manhattan DA's Office.

Buddha's management appealed Fried's decision. Experts believe however that its chances are not high because Fried's decision is largely based on his own perception of witness credibility, something on which appellate courts usually defer to trial judges. "The judge cleverly crafted his decision to make it virtually appeal-proof", one lawyer said, "it is all based on his personal impressions that every witness who testified against Gudavadze 'not credible'" .

"It's all about money"

Fried's controversial Buddha decision came on the heels of controversy over Gudavadze’s alleged boasting respecting her ability to influence courts’ decisions through extra-judicial means and by paying off witnesses to give perjurious testimony. Gudavadze's niece, Yaffa Yakoubov, testified in the related bankruptcy proceedings about her conversation with Gudavadze in an effort to broker peace in the family. But Gudavadze said that she did not need to engage in any settlement talks and blustered that she "took care" of a judge in Gibraltar in order to get a favorable ruling there, and is doing the same in New York court. "It's all about money" Gudavadze said, according to the witness' testimony. Others confirmed Yakoubov's account in radio and TV interviews.

Following Fried's decision, one non-party witness depicted by Fried as "not worthy of belief" said in an interview that he would  file a complaint questioning Fried's motives with judicial ethics bodies. Another subpoenaed non-party, Elaina Burstein, also found by Fried to be not credible, wrote to Fried pointing to the "multiple alterations and deviations" in Fried's recitations of her testimony. Burstein suggested that Fried may want to double check the transcript and correct these errors. The judge has never responded to Burstein's letter and never corrected his obviously erroneous recitations. Stenographic transcript of the proceedings reveals that Fried significantly mischaracterized and mis-recited the testimonies of the witnesses he found “not worthy of belief”. "This foul decision  is still on the public court's site soiling my reputation" said the witness. "And whatever Fried's motives for making these unfounded findings are, I will do all I can to ensure that these motives are brought to public limelight and thoroughly investigated", he said. 

AJ has learned that at least one complaint questioning Fried's partiality to Gudavadze's proxies was indeed filed with the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct late last year. The complaint recites Gudavadze's blustering about her ability to influence judicial decisions and notes that "in light of [Fried's] Decision, which many believe to be at least unorthodox, these events may be tainting the integrity of New York Judicial system"

In mid-January of this year the Commission concluded that "there was insufficient indication of [Fried's]  judicial misconduct to justify judicial discipline".  Although the complaint against Fried was dismissed, his puzzling decision to retire two weeks later is viewed by some as an unlikely coincidence.

"In the past the Commission was criticized for being too harsh on the judges" said one insider, "it would take a lot of will to prosecute a complaint against a veteran Manhattan judge."  Instead, some believe, Fried was privately "talked to" and advised to leave the bench immediately, as an alternative to demeaning probe and risk of being removed in disgrace.

Fried said that  he would take a job with JAMS, a company that provides mediation and arbitration services. "JAMS is a respected mediation organization", the insider said "but after 27 years on one of the most powerful benches in the country, this is a significant downfall." 

Fried could not be reached for comment.

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Badri Patarkatsishvili, Olga Safonova and their son David


 Fried's May 10, 2010 State Senate Confirmation hearings.

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