An investigation by the Great Neck Record has uncovered documents, suggesting that Gerard Terry, the disgraced politician, was illegally practicing law and deliberately misled a federal judge, who recently inquired about the matter. If this is true, Terry may face new state charges for the unauthorized practice of law. He may also face additional jail time for intentionally providing false information to a federal judge.
Terry was the longtime Democratic leader in the Town of North Hempstead and a stalwart in Nassau County Democratic politics since the 1980s. In October, he pleaded guilty to felony tax evasion in federal court. On Tuesday, May 29, he was back in federal court, before Judge Joanna Seybert in Central Islip. The sole purpose of Tuesday’s hearing was to allow Terry the opportunity to address the court and persuade the judge that he has accepted full responsibility for his crime. At the conclusion of the hearing, Terry was sentenced to three years in jail, followed by three years’ supervised release.
At the very beginning of the hearing, the judge surprised nearly everyone in the courtroom when she raised her voice and announced angrily, “I have received information that the defendant has been practicing law.”
Seybert made repeated references to an article that appeared in the Great Neck Record on May 23, which provided evidence that Terry practiced law without a license—in the Nassau County District Courthouse in Hempstead—seven months after he was disbarred.
Steve Scarring, the defendant’s attorney, objected immediately and told the court, “I am troubled that the court is looking at a newspaper article and reaching conclusions.”
The judge was initially unyielding on the matter and replied, “There are many articles that include false information, but this article includes quite a lot of detail.”
Seybert repeatedly informed Scarring that she found his client’s request for leniency to be disingenuous, because of the new information contained in the newspaper article. “I have a picture from the Great Neck Record with a photo of him practicing law,” she said.
Terry was disbarred on Sept. 25, 2017, when he pleaded guilty to criminal tax fraud in the fourth degree, a class E felony. Despite the revocation of his law license, the Great Neck Record published strong evidence that Terry was practicing law on May 2, 2018.
The judge said that she was so troubled by the information contained in the article that she arrived at the courthouse early and spent a few moments in her chambers researching Section 90 of the New York Judicial Law. Seybert said that the law was unmistakably clear. Lawyers convicted of felonies are automatically disbarred and strictly prohibited from practicing law.
Scarring said that he was surprised by the judge’s hostile tone and that he was hopeful that the court had not reached any conclusions based solely upon a newspaper article.
Seybert assured Scarring that no conclusions had been reached.
“I am not hostile, I am surprised,” she said. She went on to explain that if she concluded that the defendant was practicing law without a license, the consequences would be serious; and the defendant would forfeit any leniency that might be forthcoming. The judge informed Scaring that the primary purpose of Tuesday’s sentencing proceeding was to determine whether the defendant earnestly accepted responsibility for his crime. Practicing law without a license “is dispositive of accepting responsibility,” she told him.
“Maybe there’s an error in the [Great Neck Record] article,” she said. “I’m not accepting it entirely.” However, the information “certainly suggests obstruction of justice and a lack of personal responsibility.”
Scarring asked for a copy of the article and requested a recess to allow him a few moments to speak privately with Terry. Following this recess, Scarring informed that court, that the defendant was not engaged in the illegal practice of law on May 2. Scarring suggested that the newspaper article was a complete fabrication and the story was manufactured by “someone who doesn’t like” his client.
Instead, Scarring explained, the defendant had simply accompanied his wife to the courthouse. While Terry may have been physically present in the courtroom, he was merely keeping his wife company. Terry was most assuredly “not practicing law.”
Court documents recently obtained by the Great Neck Record, however, reflect that Seybert was misled. According to these documents, Terry committed the crime of unauthorized practice of law on at least three separate dates.
Although Scarring specifically informed Seybert that Terry was simply keeping his wife company on May 2, this appears to be a complete falsehood. According to the documents, Terry was practicing law.
Terry not only identified himself as an attorney, he also negotiated the resolution of the case. Terry’s signature appears above the words “Gerard Terry, Esq., Attorney for Respondents.” Similar documents confirm that Terry was practicing law on March 7 and April 26, 2018. These records are further confirmed by the information contained in the database of the New York State Unified Court System.
During the sentencing hearing, Scarring told the court that the judge’s earlier interpretation of the judiciary statute was misplaced. According to Scarring, the statute was vague. Scarring suggested that Terry was still allowed to practice law for about seven months, even though he was convicted of a felony. Scarring told Seybert that the “official disbarment” did not occur until May 9, when Terry’s name was removed from the list of active attorneys.
According to Matthew K. Flanagan, a Jericho attorney with a practice devoted to matters of attorney discipline and malpractice, this is nothing more than wishful thinking.
“New York has an automatic disbarment statute so that the disbarment of the attorney is triggered by the felony conviction, not the formalities which follow it,” said Flanagan. “The Court of Appeals issued a decision on this specific issue over 60 years ago in the seminal case of Matter of Isidore Ginsberg. The court concluded that the procedure of removing an attorney’s name from the rolls is entirely ceremonial.”
Flanagan said that the Court of Appeals reviewed the issue again “when John Mitchell, [former President Richard] Nixon’s attorney general, tried to practice law while his felony convictions were being appealed. The court turned him down, concluding that it would be unwise to allow him to continue practicing after the felony conviction. The court said that allowing a ‘convicted felon to continue to appear in our courts and to continue to give advice and counsel would not advance the ends of justice,’ but instead would invite scorn and disrespect for our rule of law.”
The decision also makes sense “from a public policy perspective,” said Flanagan. “The felony conviction is sufficient evidence for the courts to conclude that the individual lacks the integrity that is expected of licensed attorneys in our state. They want to protect the public from any further damage that a convicted felon with a working knowledge of the practice of law might cause in the months before his or her name is formally removed from the list of active attorneys.”
Seybert asked the prosecutor, Artie McConnell, if the information provided by Scarring about the illegal practice of law was accurate and the prosecutor appeared to express marginal interest. “I have no information aside from what I read” in the Great Neck Record, he told the court.
When Terry finally addressed the court, his remarks reflected a man who spent a lifetime speaking at political fundraisers in the suburbs. He began his remarks by recognizing the assembled members of the clergy, an orthodox rabbi and a Catholic priest who sat next to each other in the last bench of the courtroom. He identified the individuals by name and repeatedly thanked them for coming. Terry quoted Ernest Hemingway before assuring Seybert that he was accepting full responsibility for his actions.
Seybert has the authority to recall Terry’s case and revise the term of imprisonment. Although judges are extremely reluctant to pull defendants from jail and return cases to the docket, this scenario is unique as Terry appears to have deliberately misled the judge while pretending to accept responsibility for his crime.
In state supreme court on June 4, Terry was sentenced to six months in jail and five years’ probation. He must also pay $250,000 in restitution to the NYS Department of Taxation and Finance. The judge said he would stick to the terms of the previous sentencing, despite district court documents confirming that Terry practiced law, on three separate dates, after being disbarred.
Diane Peress, of the Nassau County district attorney’s office, said that her office had no intention of prosecuting Terry for unlicensed practice of law, because he went to court on behalf of family members, which appeared to be an “isolated incident.”
Read the May 23 Great Neck Record article here.