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Brooklyn District Attorney Candidates Address Criminal Justice Reform at Forum


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Brooklyn DA candidates at Thursday's forum (photo: @FaithinNewYork)


The candidates for the Brooklyn District Attorney race gathered at St. Francis College in Brooklyn on Thursday for a forum hosted by criminal justice and civil rights advocacy groups, focusing on contentious issues revolving around criminal justice in the borough. Five candidates offered their takes to an audience of community advocates and Brooklynites concerned about mass incarceration, police abuse, bail, and other contentious issues.

The candidates present were Acting DA Eric Gonzalez, City Council Member Vincent Gentile, Ama Dwimoh, Marc Fliedner, and Anne Swern. Candidate Patricia Gatling, who attended a previous debate in June, was not present.

The presence of former DA Ken Thompson, who died in 2016 after a bout with cancer and for whom Gonzalez stepped in, hung above the forum throughout the night. Thompson had widely been praised as a reformer after replacing the controversial longtime DA Charles Hynes. Gonzalez, in his opening statement, framed himself as a continuation of Thompson’s legacy.

“I stand with all of you to say that I believe that we can end mass incarceration while continuing to keep our city and our borough safe,” Gonzalez said. “In 2014, Ken Thompson chose me to help him run that DA’s office, and I stand with all organizations who want to see a continuation of the policies that started in Brooklyn and the expansion of those policies, because I believe we can send less people to prison than we’re currently doing, and make sure that Brooklyn continues to be safe.”

Fliedner was formerly chief of the Civil Rights Bureau under Thompson; he left after a dispute over the handling of the Peter Liang case, in which an NYPD officer received no jail time despite being convicted of manslaughter in the shooting death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man. Fleidner jumped out of the gate with stinging criticisms of Gonzalez.

“You cannot vote for acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez into office,” Fliedner said, eliciting both claps and boos. “In the short time that he was in charge of that office, he’s committed more acts exhibiting a disregard for the rule of law, a lack of respect for victims, and out and out acts of corruption.” Audience members frequently and freely engaged with the candidates throughout the night, loudly calling them out on answers they deemed unsatisfactory or dishonest.

Dwimoh, a former prosecutor under Hynes, also left the office due to a “difference in values” with the then-DA, she said. She emphasized “proactive justice,” meaning a focus on prevention rather than punishment, and “rebuilding trust between the community and law enforcement.” But she also erred towards a “tough on crime” mentality in some areas, saying that crime is going up in some neighborhoods and being the only candidate who didn’t support ending mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession.

Swern, a former Assistant District Attorney (ADA) under Hynes who also has experience as a defense attorney, claimed her experience as the latter gave her a unique connection and empathy among the candidates for those on the other side of the justice system: the defendants. In her opening statement and throughout the night, she focused her argument on making the DA’s office more transparent and the DA him- or her-self more accountable. She said she would hire a statistician for her office to determine how actions and policies undertaken by the DA disproportionately affect people of color.

City Council Member Gentile, who is term-limited from running again for his current position, framed himself as the “only independent person” running in the race. Gentile, who had a career as a prosecutor under the Queens DA rather than the Brooklyn DA, was referring to the fact that he was the only candidate at the forum who was not working at the DA’s office in the time period where numerous wrongful convictions occurred under Hynes, which were later uncovered and undone by Thompson.

The candidates were all largely in agreement on many of the major, big picture issues: all candidates supported either diminishing or eliminating reliance on cash bail, which has come under intense scrutiny after young Bronx resident Kalief Browder committed suicide following a two-year stay on Rikers Island after not being able to post bail. All the candidates supported diminishing the use of broken windows policing, though they didn’t offer specific solutions, with the exception of Fliedner who noted low-level drug offenses and gravity knife offenses as two crimes that wouldn’t be prosecuted under his stewardship.

The candidates also all stated their support for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ call for an independent commission into wrongful convictions, as well as for term limits of two or three terms -- there are currently no term limits for District Attorneys.

[Related: Candidates for Brooklyn District Attorney Seek to Set Themselves Apart]

The shouting matches, interruptions, and audience interjections mainly concerned the candidates’ records. The candidates routinely accused Gonzalez of malfeasance and not 'walking the walk,' as well as co-opting the legacy of Ken Thompson.

Hertencia Petersen, the aunt of Akai Gurley, a young black man killed by NYPD officer Peter Liang in an apparently accidental stairwell shooting, rose to ask a question and accused Gonzalez of mishandling the Liang case. Liang was sentenced to five years probation and 800 hours of community service, a move that had been widely criticized by criminal justice reform advocates. Petersen chastised the DA’s office, then under Thompson, for failing to adequately communicate with the Gurley family during the legal process and for recommending that Liang serve no jail time, which the family only found out about in press reports.

For Petersen, Gonzalez is a continuation of that kind of leadership; she referred to him as having been a “crony” to Thompson throughout the legal process. Petersen also explicitly admonished Gonzalez for seeming to run as the second Ken Thompson without necessarily presenting his own plan. “Run on your own vision, she said to loud applause. “Give the people of Brooklyn what you want for your family.” After the debate, Petersen tweeted, “#ERIC GONZALEZ IS NOT FOR THE PEOPLE OF BROOKLYN.”

Defending himself, Gonzalez pointed to the fact that Liang had been convicted, and denied that the office had maintained inadequate contact with the Gurley family.

“She’s upset because Ken Thompson recommended a no jail plea on Peter Liang,” he said. An audience member shouted to Gonzalez, pointing out that he had been Thompson’s “chief advisor” (Gonzalez was Chief Assistant District Attorney under Thompson).

Gonzalez also received criticism for continuing to impose punishingly high cash bail despite his stance that its use should be diminished. “$500 is asked for bail for a homeless person who steals cheese, and the Assistant District Attorney responds to the defense attorney, ‘well, it was expensive cheese,’” said Swern. “We will never close Rikers Island,” she said, referring to the fact that many held at the jails there are pre-trial detainees unable to post bail.

Fliedner said that if he is elected, his office would not seek bail “on cases where we’re not seeking jail,” and further reprimanded Gonzalez on his supposed failure on bail reform, citing a case where bail was set at $1,000 for a turnstile jumper.

Gonzalez was also singled out on the issue of wrongful convictions -- since he worked for the DA’s office under Hynes -- despite the fact that all candidates with the exception of Gentile had worked at the Brooklyn DA office under Hynes in some capacity.

In this regard, Gentile seized the opportunity to paint himself as the only candidate separate from the failures of the Hynes era. Concerning the spate of wrongful convictions, Gentile said this “all happened under the tutelage of Charles Hynes...and Eric Gonzalez is a creation of Charles Hynes. He spent most of his years as prosecutor under Charles Hynes and only three years under Ken Thompson.” He proceeded to say that he has “never gotten the answer” to his inquiries into the policies that led to the Hynes-era wrongful convictions.

Nonetheless, Gonzalez resolved to defend his record, touting for example a “Young Adult Court” diversionary program for young offenders created by Thompson’s office (Swern insisted that it was created in 2012, prior to Thompson’s ascendancy to the office). He also said that he has “done more work on wrongful convictions than all the other candidates put together.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: This article has been updated.

Council Speaker Contenders Spread the Wealth to Colleagues


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Speaker Mark-Viverito (center) and Council Member Johnson (r) (photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council)


A number of City Council Members who are jockeying to replace Melissa Mark-Viverito as the next Speaker of the City Council seem to be stepping up efforts to curry favor with their colleagues and other elected officials through strategic campaign donations.

The latest campaign finance disclosures filed on Monday show that Council Members Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams -- all contenders for Speaker of the 51-member legislative body -- have made significant contributions to fellow Council members and candidates running for open City Council seats. Other Speaker candidates -- Council Members Donovan Richards, Jimmy Van Bramer and Robert Cornegy -- also made similar, but smaller contributions.

The speaker, perhaps the second most powerful elected official in the city, is chosen through an internal vote of the Council every four years after an election. Current Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will be term-limited out of office at the end of the year. She won the post with the help of a coalition of progressive Council members and the active involvement of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who swayed Brooklyn Democrats to support her and in the process undercut the Bronx and Queens County machinery that had decided the speaker’s race in the past.

Council Member Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat and a prolific campaigner who is seen as one of the leading Speaker candidates, has so far contributed over $50,000 to other elected officials’ campaigns, far outpacing other speaker hopefuls.

According to Campaign Finance Board (CFB) filings, Johnson’s campaign has disbursed the maximum contribution of $2,750 to 15 Council members who are running for reelection and also to two Council candidates, for a total of $46,750. Those incumbents and potential future members of the Council could determine whether Johnson holds the Speaker’s gavel next year. Johnson also made three other donations collectively worth the mayoral contribution limit of $4,950 to Mayor Bill de Blasio, and contributed $2,500 to Comptroller Scott Stringer, for a total of 19 candidates who received donations from him. All are Democrats.

Johnson, who is not a participant in the city’s public matching funds program, has raised over $462,000 and spent about $271,000 this election cycle, making candidate contributions almost a fifth of his entire spending. He retains about $191,000 on hand. His Council donations were heavily weighted to outer-borough incumbents, with just two going to members from Manhattan. Five of Johnson’s donations went to Brooklyn members, four each to members in Queens and the Bronx, and one to a Staten Island member. Johnson has spent the last few months aggressively courting his colleagues, campaigning on their behalf in their districts. In one weekend in June, he made appearances with several Council Members across four boroughs.

[Related: Corey Johnson’s Very Busy Campaign Weekend]

Johnson also donated to State Assemblymember Francisco Moya, who is seeking to fill the Queens seat of Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who will step down at the end of the year. Ferreras-Copeland chairs the Council’s powerful finance committee and was considered one of the leading Speaker candidates before she announced she would not be running for reelection for personal reasons. Johnson’s other donation went to Carlina Rivera, a candidate for Council District 2 in Manhattan, which is currently occupied by term-limited member Rosie Mendez. Additionally, Johnson bundled almost $13,000 in donations for Rivera’s campaign. Johnson’s campaign did not respond to calls seeking comment.

The closest competitor in contributions is Council Member Mark Levine, whose campaign has given $31,000 to other candidates and colleagues. The contributions include 11 of the same incumbents and both Moya and Rivera. He also gave to Bronx Council Member Fernando Cabrera and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., for a total of 15 candidates. Levine has raised just over $376,000 in the campaign so far and has spent about $191,000, leaving him with about $185,000 on hand. He has also been actively campaigning for Speaker and is considered one of the top candidates for the position. Levine’s campaign did not respond to calls from Gotham Gazette.

Manhattan Council member Ydanis Rodriguez comes in third for his donations. His campaign has given $24,000 in 12 separate contributions of $2,000 to 11 Council incumbents and District 2 candidate Rivera. Rodriguez contributed to eight of the same Council candidates as Johnson and seven of the same candidates as Levine. His own campaign account holds about $94,000, after raising $247,000 and spending about $153,000.

Jumaane Williams personally gave $12,000 in 11 contributions, 8 of them to incumbent Council members and three to candidates, including Rivera. Williams’ contribution list differed somewhat, including four Council members that none of the other three top-contributing speaker candidates had given to.

All four gave to Council members Margaret Chin of Manhattan; Antonio Reynoso, of Brooklyn; and Rafael Salamanca, Jr., of the Bronx.

Among other speaker candidates, Donovan Richards personally gave $2,000 to two incumbents, $2,750 each to two Council candidates, including Rivera, and $500 to de Blasio, for a total of $8,000. Robert Cornegy gave $2,750 each to Moya and Queens Council member Elizabeth Crowley, plus $500 to District 41 candidate Henry Butler, for a total of $6,000. Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer gave $1,500 between two incumbents and $175 to Diana Ayala, who is running for Mark-Viverito’s seat in District 8.

The amounts involved appear to already dwarf the direct candidate contributions that current Speaker Mark-Viverito and her campaign made during the 2013 election cycle, after which she was elected speaker. According to CFB data, Mark-Viverito spent only $3,000 in candidate contributions that cycle.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

 

City Council Passes 'Right to Counsel' For Low-Income Tenants in Housing Court


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Council Member Levine and Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council)


The New York City Council passed a bill on Thursday to guarantee free legal services to low-income tenants facing eviction in housing court. The bill codifies an agreement, announced in February this year, between the Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio to fully fund anti-eviction legal services in the next five years.

The “Right to Counsel” legislation, Intro. 214, was sponsored by Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, who have consistently advocated for the bill since introducing it three years ago. Under the new law, the first of its kind in the country, the city’s Office of Civil Justice Coordinator will provide low-income tenants -- those with household incomes below $49,200, or 200 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four -- with legal representation free of cost, phased in by zip codes over five years. The law will also provide legal consultations to those whose income is higher than the bill’s threshold and establish a legal services program by October this year for New York City Housing Authority tenants facing administrative proceedings to terminate their tenancy. The city has allocated $15 million to implement the new provisions in fiscal year 2018, increasing that to $93 million by 2022 by when it is expected to serve 400,000 New Yorkers.

The mood in the Council chambers before Thursday’s vote was celebratory as Council members expressed their support for the bill and congratulated their colleagues on achieving a key priority of the dominantly progressive body. At one point, the chamber filled with whoops and cheers from tenant advocates who had fought for the legislation and were there to see its passage. The bill passed with an overwhelming majority, with 42 Council members voting for it and one abstention. Only the three Republican members of the body voted against the bill.

“This is an incredibly historic moment for this Council,” said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, before the vote. “This attention to the needs of our most vulnerable residents will keep families together and in their homes, and that importance cannot be overstated.”

Celebrations began even earlier on Wednesday at a morning rally held at the New York County Lawyers’ Association. Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr., Speaker Mark-Viverito, and Council Members Gibson, Deborah Rose, Mathieu Eugene and Margaret Chin were all in attendance.

“We know that the worst of the landlords have been using housing court as a weapon,” said Council Member Levine at the rally. “They called tenants in the court on the flimsiest of grounds because they knew in the vast majority of cases, the tenant would not have a lawyer.”

Public Advocate James, whose office has placed a particular focus on tenant protection and advocacy, said, “We are bringing power to the people. Tenants with a child on their hip and a pen in their pocket -- that’s all that they had. Tenants who came into housing court crying to the judge, and the judge would say ‘Shut up and sit down, I don’t recognize you...’ Those days are over.”

According to the Office of Civil Justice's 2016 annual report, 99 percent of landlords in eviction proceedings in 2013 were represented by an attorney, compared to one percent of tenants. The de Blasio administration’s focus on anti-eviction programs and funding -- a key component of the mayor’s plan to control and reduce homelessness in the city -- has already increased the number of tenants in housing court with legal representation to 27 percent. The new law aims to make that access universal.

“You know they said it couldn’t be done,” said Council Member Levine. “Again, again, and again, we were told that Right to Counsel for tenants was never gonna happen anywhere in America… But they do not know us. They do not know New Yorkers. They do not know the countless thousands of tenants who for years, for decades, have been in the trenches, fighting to save their buildings, fighting to turn around their blocks, fighting to improve their parks, to start local community nonprofits, to start local small businesses. We know those New Yorkers. We are those New Yorkers.”



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