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Wagner Casts Shadow over BLS Consolidation

As scores of Brooklyn residents and legal advocates began publicly protesting plans to consolidate the branches of Brooklyn Legal Services, the memory of deceased attorney Rick Wagner loomed large over the demonstrations.

Wagner, an attorney with Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A since 1985, died suddenly in his home on September 20 from an apparent heart attack.He was widely regarded as one of the leading advocates for the city’s poor affected by the mortgage foreclosure crisis.His work was concentrated in North Brooklyn, particularly Ocean Hill, Brownsville, and East New York, which are one of the epicenters of predatory lending in New York City. This past year, he won two civil cases (Watson v. Melnikoff, et. al. and Johnson v. Melnikoff) in Kings County Supreme Court, which may prove to be influential in other proceedings as the foreclosure crisis shifts to the judicial system.

“Mr. Wagner’s lasting legacy will be his passion and commitment to social justice, and the application of his legal acumen for the needy,” said Rep. Ed Towns (D-Brooklyn), who recognized Wagner in the Congressonal record. “Under his leadership, Brooklyn A has cemented its sterling reputation as a model community-based law practice embedded in and responsive to the neighborhoods it serves. He worked tirelessly and will be remembered dearly by the many lives he touched.”

In the months preceding his death, Wagner was intensely involved in discussions with Corporation A attorneys and other stakeholders opposed to preliminary plans to restructure Legal Services New York’s Brooklyn offices.Those plans were set in motion in November 2008, when LSNY Executive Director Andrew Scherer circulated a memo suggesting that the Board would be exploring ways to make Brooklyn Legal Services more efficient. In an interview, Scherer indicated that Wagner’s death did not affect discussions to restructure Legal Services and he was saddened by the loss to the organization.

“Rick Wagner was one of the fiercest, feistiest, most creative, most effective, most fearless and most articulate lawyers I ever worked with," said Scherer. "Truth is, he was sometimes a royal pain as a colleague, but mostly his formidable energy was focused on righting wrongs and working with his clients to defend and improve their lives and their communities.  His passing is an enormous loss."

Several of Wagner’s colleagues, including Jessica Rose at Brooklyn Corporation A, noted that Wagner was opposed to any consolidation plans and was passionate about the issue.

“He cared very deeply about the future of Brooklyn A and its presence and connection to our local communities,” said Rose, who called his presence “larger than life” and that “he was the best storyteller I ever met.”

Brooklyn Corporation A attorney Marty Needelman called Wagner “his best friend” and believed that if Wagner were still alive, he would not have survived a consolidation move.

“He was in his own special way, neighborhood based, worked with community organizations and he wouldn’t fit with a city-wide model,” said Needelman.“His personality and inclinations towards community group representations.He would have been out.”

“There were times he just made me crazy.I started talking about him, and I found myself in tears,” said Bryan.“He would just make you crazy, but the thing about it, is that it was almost always about the work. Both of us would get wound up about it. It’s like losing a north star; there was a certain sense of direction he provided.That’s just gone. The rest of us is trying to find a way to step in.”

Los Sures Executive Director David Lopez, who invoked Wagner’s memory at a LSNY demonstration in Manhattan, believes that it will be more difficult to fight not just the consolidation efforts but the range of predatory lending and foreclosure cases facing thousands of Brooklyn homeowners.

“Nobody did more in Brooklyn regarding mortgage foreclosure than Rick Wagner,” said Lopez.“The main thing is many tenants are suffering and he did a wonderful job there.It’s sad, it’s a loss.”

A memorial service for Rick Wagner will occur on November 5 from 4 p.m. - 6 p.m. at Trey Whitfield School in Brownsville at 17 Hinsdale Street.For more information, call Brooklyn Corporation A at 718-487-2300.

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