In 2007, a Nassau County Surrogate’s Court judge tapped Steven Schlesinger — then an influential attorney for the Nassau County Democratic Party — to manage the multimillion-dollar Kermit Gitenstein Foundation, a private family trust with no heir.
It was a lucrative appointment, but an even better perk was that the job made Schlesinger a generous benefactor: It required that he give away to charity hundreds of thousands of dollars from the estate each year.
A Newsday review of the Gitenstein Foundation court file found that Schlesinger directed $250,000 of the estate’s money to the Elena Melius Foundation, a nonprofit run by political power broker and Oheka Castle owner Gary Melius. Tax records show that Melius’ foundation finished 2013 with just $7,245 before the donation from Schlesinger, who is one of Melius’ closest friends.
Schlesinger asked the court system to approve the donation to Melius’ foundation four days after Melius was wounded in a February 2014 unsolved shooting, records show. That request also fell two days before Schlesinger held his wedding at Oheka Castle, Melius’ Gold Coast estate and one of Long Island’s most lavish wedding venues. According to a check Schlesinger provided to Newsday, he didn’t pay for his wedding until five months after it occurred.
The state attorney general’s office, which oversees charitable organizations, and the judge responsible for the Gitenstein Foundation case both approved the $250,000 donation to the Elena Melius Foundation, which is named after Melius’ deceased mother and was created to promote children’s health and welfare.
Though Schlesinger hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing, the Surrogate’s Court’s decision to have him handle the Gitenstein case, and the way he directed the foundation’s money to Melius and other organizations where he has personal ties, raises questions about cronyism and political favoritism that the state court system has been trying to eliminate for more than a decade.
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