Gotham Gazette Sun, 29 Nov 2020 11:36:46 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) The NYPD is Undermining Our Ability to Hold Them Accountable. The Mayor Must Act pol com shea

NYPD Commissioner Shea, Mayor de Blasio, other police officials (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

As an international non-governmental organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports on human rights abuses in every part of the world. Recently, its work brought it to New York City and more specifically, the Bronx. In a newly released report, HRW documented rampant police violence during a summer protest against police brutality, revealing that the NYPD’s actions violated international human rights law.

On June 4, after the city’s misguided and short-lived curfew went into effect, the New York City Police Department executed a planned assault on peaceful protestors. Using a tactic known as ‘kettling,’ officers trapped, rounded up, and arrested hundreds – with no warning. Among them: bystanders, medics, and legal observers.

The NYPD’s conduct that night – which included firing pepper spray and beating protestors with and without batons – resulted in the injuries of at least 61 people and violated international human rights law.

Equally as troubling was the NYPD’s targeting of legal observers, who are neutral, third-party spectators and do not partake in protest. First established in 1968, National Lawyers Guild Legal Observers have monitored New York City protests for decades with an important job: ensuring people are able to exercise their first amendment rights without interference from law enforcement.

While their presence at public demonstrations, rallies, and marches often serves as a deterrent to police violence, when that fails, legal observers record notes, photos, and videos to document police misconduct and potential civil rights violations. At times, these reports lay the groundwork for legal action.

The NYPD’s own Patrol Guide lays out protections for the work of legal observers: “individuals have a right to lawfully observe and/or record police activity including, but not limited to detentions, searches, arrests, or uses of force.”

The manual further states: “All members of the service will extend every courtesy and cooperation to observers. Observers shall be permitted to remain in any area, or observe any police activity, subject only to restrictions necessitated by personal safety factors, as determined by the incident commander.”

As essential workers, legal observers were exempt from the city’s curfew. My office reached out to Mayor de Blasio’s staff to confirm essential status for people providing jail, legal, and medical services to protestors. The mayor’s staff confirmed this on two separate occasions.

In addition to donning neon green hats clearly labeled “National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer,” LOs also carried documentation of exemption that night. They described an entirely peaceful protest until the NYPD got involved.

Yet, none of those things stopped the NYPD from crying “illegal counter-surveillance,” seizing privileged notes, using excessive force, and detaining at least 12 legal observers during the Mott Haven protest.

Not only did many officers fail to wear face masks, many also covered their badge numbers to prevent identification. Legal observers described being marshalled together and prevented from doing their job.

It is clear that the NYPD acted to prevent legal observers from bearing witness to police actions that night. This is in line with the attacks on legal observers happening across the country. During Black Lives Matter protests in Buffalo, Portland, Detroit, Cleveland, Sacramento, and Atlanta legal observers have reported being beaten, detained, and shot with rubber bullets.

Like a free press, legal observers are critical in ensuring our police department and government answer to the people. It should worry us immensely that the NYPD acted to undermine the watchdog role of legal observers. Open season on legal observers and journalists erodes our ability to hold the NYPD and other police departments accountable.

Despite the NYPD’s efforts to cover its tracks, as many as 100 lawsuits in an aggregate amount of hundreds of millions of dollars could be filed against the city. Forcing the burden onto the taxpayers, during a time of financial crisis no less, does not resemble anything close to accountability.

The very act of detaining legal observers demonstrates the brazen actions of a police department gone rogue. Unafraid of consequences and growing emboldened by the day, the NYPD does not expect to be disciplined.

This should come as little surprise considering the culture of impunity Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Shea have enabled. While the appetite for police reform and calls to defund the police grow, the NYPD is working to strip New Yorkers of yet another tool for accountability.

Under the leadership of Mayor de Blasio, who has been deferential to Police Commissioner Shea, the NYPD has descended into lawlessness. Instead of having meaningful conversations about demilitarizing and divesting from the police department and investing in communities, we are once again at odds with a police department that routinely tramples on the rights of New Yorkers.

The Human Rights Watch report highlighted systemic and indisputable police abuse in the Bronx. Fortunately, it didn’t leave us empty-handed, suggesting various structural reforms like disciplinary action against the Police Commissioner, an NYPD hiring freeze, and budget transparency. Mr. Mayor, it’s not enough to condemn the NYPD’s attack on our constitutional rights that night – what are you going to do about it?

New Yorkers demand accountability.

Dan Quart represents parts of Manhattan's East Side in the New York State Assembly. He is a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney. On Twitter @AMDanQuart.

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This column has been corrected to note that up to 100 lawsuits could be filed, not have been filed as originally stated.

The NYPD is Undermining Our Ability to Hold Them Accountable. The Mayor Must Act Sun, 18 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
All 9 Democratic Candidates for Manhattan District Attorney Appear at LGBTQ-Focused Forum 5x4

Top (l-r): Tahanie Aboushi, Alvin Bragg, Eliza Orlins, Janos Marton, Tali Farhadian Weinstein
Bottom (l-r): Liz Crotty, Dan Quart, Diana Florence, Lucy Lang

The nine Democratic candidates currently running for Manhattan District Attorney in next year’s June primary shared the Zoom debate stage for the first time Tuesday night at a three-hour forum hosted by the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, an LGBTQ-focused political organization. Each candidate was asked questions individually on a wide range of issues relating to LGBTQ rights, police accountability, and more, but there were some instances in which candidates challenged each other.

The forum came a month after the NYC Program Council hosted the first five declared candidates for the inaugural forum of the 2021 Manhattan District Attorney race, which is unfolding amid uncertainty about whether incumbent Democratic District Attorney Cy Vance will seek another term.

The nine candidates participating Tuesday night were Assemblymember Dan Quart; former Chief Deputy State Attorney General Alvin Bragg; former ACLU attorney Janos Marton; former Assistant District Attorney and criminal defense lawyer Liz Crotty; Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel in Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez’s office; former Assistant District Attorney Diana Florence; public defender Eliza Orlins; civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi; and, Lucy Lang, a former Assistant District Attorney and the director of John Jay College’s Institute for Innovative Prosecution.

Quart has made his name in the Assembly sponsoring criminal justice reform laws like reducing the use of cash bail. Bragg touts his work in the State Attorney General’s office, investigating Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and others. Marton helped lead the Close Rikers campaign and organized decarceral efforts nationally with the ACLU. As an ADA, Crotty prosecuted street crime, among other offenses, and represented families of 9/11 victims in private practice.

In the Brooklyn DA’s office, Weinstein created the Post-Conviction Justice Bureau to review previous convictions for possible exonerations. Florence, who left the Manhattan DA’s office earlier this year over allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, touts her leadership of that office’s Construction Fraud Task Force. Orlins says her decade defending low-income New Yorkers makes her the best candidate to lead the office in a new, more progressive direction. Aboushi has sued the NYPD over misconduct allegations. Lang touts her leadership in developing data-driven criminal justice reform.

District Attorney Vance did not participate in the forum and has not stated whether he will run for reelection. The entry of Lang, a Vance ally, into the race last week and Vance’s paltry fundraising numbers in the first six months of the year are believed to signal that Vance is unlikely to run, especially given the all-important Democratc primary is now less than 10 months away. Lang’s Institute for Innovative Prosecution is funded in part by grants from Vance’s office, which funds many causes, mostly through massive settlements it has reached with financial institutions.

The Jim Owles Club, the forum host, advocates for the decriminalization of sex work and repeal of the “walking while trans” law, among other criminal justice reforms, as well as LGBTQ rights, universal healthcare, and reproductive rights, among other progressive causes. The club is one of New York’s two major citywide progressive LGBTQ political clubs affiliated with the Democratic Party, along with the Stonewall Democrats.

The club’s president, Allen Roskoff, said in a statement that the forum was “a historic opportunity to get an early look at the candidates for one of the most important offices in the country.” The forum had about 100 digital attendees throughout the three-hour event.

“We consider this one of the most important races of 2021,” Roskoff told attendees at the start of the forum. He noted that the club distributed over 50,000 pieces of literature in support of candidates during the 2020 state primaries and would be making its endorsement in the Manhattan District Attorney primary coming months.

“We don’t want a district attorney who is just qualified…and continues to do the status quo. We want a district attorney that people across the country will take note of,” Roskoff said, pointing to San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez as models. “We want a district attorney who’s going to get people out of prison and not spend all their time locking people up.”

There was widespread agreement on many of the issues brought up during the forum. All nine candidates voiced support for Manhattan State Senator Brad Hoylman’s elder parole bill and for repeal of the “walking while trans” law, and promised to visit constituents serving prison terms and to at minimum continue the current sanctuary city policies in the borough.

All but one candidate, Weinstein, expressed support for sex work decriminalization and were against the Nordic model. Florence said that the state “needs to be mindful of the way we draft the bill,” voicing concerns about human trafficking, and said she would “tread lightly” on the issue. Weinstein said she “was not there yet” on sex work decriminalization but that she was “open to revisiting her position” and supports the Nordic model, which maintains the criminalization of buyers of sex while decriminilizing sex workers themselves.

On police funding, several candidates called for the city to reduce the NYPD budget. Florence said that the police department’s nearly $6 billion annual operating budget “makes no sense” when other agencies are underfunded. Aboushi said that “the city has come to rely on the NYPD to enforce social inequities and make them crimes.” Lang called for “community-coordinated responses to conduct that doesn’t need police involvement.” Bragg said he’d advocate to “undo Bill de Blasio’s bloating of the NYPD budget” and denounced the “funny budget math” on moving school safety officers to the Department of Education.

The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY) was a contentious issue at the forum, with several candidates promising not to join the organization, which has come under scrutiny by criminal justice reformers. Orlins, Aboushi, and Quart said they would not join the association. Quart said “it’s a fallacy to believe anyone can join that organization and reform it.” Aboushi called it “the antithesis of what I stand for.”

Lang said she would join the DAASNY because a “diversity of voices makes a difference” and she would try to change others’ minds. Bragg said that he would have an “adversarial relationship” with the group while joining it. Florence said she would join, but said she had “brought other DAs to more progressive stances” and would do the same at the DAASNY.

When asked whether they would support the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences, all the candidates in attendance at the time (Weinstein was not yet present) said they would, except Crotty, who said “jails exist for a reason” and that mandatory minimums “only exist for violent crimes.”

Lang called for more “judicial discretion” in the sentencing process, to which Aboushi pushed back, saying that “guardrails” were necessary to ensure that judges did not impose overly punitive sentences. Marton promised not to seek sentences longer than 20 years, except under extraordinary circumstances. Marton has also pledged to reduce Manhattan’s prison population by 80% during his tenure.

“I’m running for district attorney against some very good lawyers who would all make a better district attorney than Cy Vance,” Quart said at one point during the forum, an acknowledgement that many of the candidates running had similarly-progressive answers to most questions asked Tuesday night.

With his 80% decarceration goal and other proposals, Marton has tried to establish himself as the furthest left, most radical candidate in the race, while Quart repeatedly pointed to his legislative record as evidence of his own progressive bona fides, as well as his calls for Vance and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea to resign. Bragg, the lone Black candidate in the race, often cites his lived and prosecutorial experiences as reasons that he would make an effective DA. Similarly, Aboushi noted that she would be the first woman and person of color to hold the position. Other candidates, notably Crotty, dissented from the consensus progressive stances on issues like mandatory minimums and cautioned against defunding the NYPD budget.

Each candidate was asked to fill out a lengthier questionnaire and return it to the club before they make their endorsement in the race before petitioning starts for the primary.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

All 9 Democratic Candidates for Manhattan District Attorney Appear at LGBTQ-Focused Forum Wed, 19 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Without Vance, 5 Democratic Manhattan District Attorney Candidates Participate in First Debate 5 candidates

(l-r) Dan Quart, Alvin Bragg, Tahanie Aboushi, Janos Marton, Eliza Orlins

With the 2021 Democratic primary for Manhattan District Attorney now under a year away, five candidates for the office participated in a forum hosted by the New York City Program Council and Columbia Law School’s Black Law Students Association. Manhattan’s current District Attorney, Cy Vance, has not yet said if he will seek reelection next year as the borough’s top prosecutor and law enforcement officer, but he was a frequent target of his potential opponents during the event.

The kickoff of the primary comes amid the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and national reckoning around racism in policing and criminal justice, as well as several successful elections of progressive district attorney candidates across the country, plus public defender Tiffany Cabán’s near-win in the Queens District Attorney primary last year.

Vance has faced heavy criticism in recent years over his handling of sex crime cases, including Harvey Weinstein’s, and his decision not to prosecute members of the Turmp family over potentially fraudulent real estate deals, among other controversies. There are currently six Democrats who have declared campaigns, with five of them participating in Tuesday’s virtual forum.

The five participating candidates were Assemblymember Dan Quart; former Chief Deputy New York Attorney General Alvin Bragg; former ACLU attorney Janos Marton; civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi; and public defender Eliza Orlins. (Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, announced her candidacy this week and did not participate in the forum.)

As many as 400 people watched as the five candidates discussed their backgrounds and stances on issues ranging from cash bail to police brutality to alternatives to incarceration. The candidates often agreed on the issues, but tried to cast themselves as the person best-positioned to actually deliver change.

The question of how to hold police accountable for potential misconduct was the top issue of the forum. Each candidate proposed how they would ensure independence, an important theme given that police and prosecutors largely work on the same team. Bragg called it “the essential issue” and that it’s been his “life’s work,” noting that he has previously prosecuted police for misconduct. He would have prosecutors in his office who specialize in police misconduct and would not be beholden to police for other cases.

Marton said he was “the only candidate to hold Andrew Cuomo accountable” through his work for Cuomo’s prematurely shuttered Moreland Commission to address public corruption, though he didn’t go into specifics, and he would take the same independence to handle cases of police misconduct. He said he would use a “full court press” that would hold as many officers accountable for breaking the law as possible.

Orlins called for independent investigators with civilian oversight to handle allegations of police misconduct. “These prosecutions must be done by someone with no connection to law enforcement,” she said. She also said untrustworthy police officers should not be allowed to testify in court.

Aboushi said that the district attorney’s office is currently the “personal law firm for those with a badge” and said she would “listen to victims of police violence,” promising transparency and accountability in prosecutions of police officers.

Quart pledged to reform the early case assessment bureau and to publicly disclose untruthful police officers.

The candidates rarely took shots at each other and instead directed much of their ire at Vance, bringing up several scandals that have dogged the incumbent in recent years.

Quart said that Vance had “failed to use the incredible powers of the district attorney’s office to reform the system” during his tenure.

“I wish [Vance] could get his 30 seconds, but I know he’s not here tonight,” Orlins said at one point, referring to the rebuttal time candidates were allowed if another candidate mentioned their name during the debate.

“We need fundamental change in Manhattan and I’m the one to bring it,” said Bragg, who said he believes that “incarceration should be a matter of last resort.” He would make pretrial alternatives for mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment more widely available, especially to communities of color, he said.

The candidates agreed on much, such as all five supporting an end to cash bail and more aggressively prosecuting the financial services industry, and arguing that DA Vance should be doing more to reduce the jail population during the coronavirus pandemic. All five candidates also expressed support for ending the so-called trial penalty, whereby defendants know that they will face tougher potential sentencing if they take a case to trial over accepting a plea bargain. Quart and Marton committed to rarely seek sentences of longer than 20 years.

Throughout the forum, Quart pointed to his “actual history of achieving results” as a legislator implementing changes to the criminal justice system, including cosponsoring cash bail reform and voting against recent rollbacks of the bail changes passed by the Legislature last year.

Marton, a decarceration activist who helped lead the campaign to closer the Rikers Island jails, argued that he has “the boldest positions in this race,” including a plan to reduce the number of people in jail from Manhattan by 80%. He also opposes the city’s plan to build new community jails to replace Rikers Island, saying, “I believe in a world without prisons.”

Bragg frequently pointed to his experience as a prosecutor in both the State Attorney General’s office and at the Southern District of New York as a federal prosecutor. He boasted about successful investigations of President Donald Trump for Trump University and major corporations like UPS for shipping untaxed cigarettes. He pitched himself as an “experienced manager” who oversaw an office of 1,200 while Chief Deputy Attorney General for New York State.

Orlins argued she is unique among candidates, saying, “I’m the only candidate here who has been on the frontlines as a public defender for over a decade.” As proof of her managerial expertise, she said she has managed up to 200 cases at a time.

Aboushi cited her experience working directly in communities as a civil rights attorney who “has spent the last ten years in people’s living rooms protecting their rights.” She said she is “the only candidate who has forced the NYPD to change discriminatory practices,” likely referring to a lawsuit she led against the NYPD’s policy regarding religious head coverings during arrests.

All five candidates said they would not take campaign donations from law enforcement unions. Quart, Bragg, and Marton each said that they would not take campaign donations from defense attorneys. Marton said he also would not take funds from the real estate industry and Bragg said he would not accept donations from corporations or lobbyists.

The Democratic primary for Manhattan District Attorney will be held in June of 2021.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect Bragg said he would not accept donations from corporations or lobbyists -- the word "not" had been previously left out accidentally.

Without Vance, 5 Democratic Manhattan District Attorney Candidates Participate in First Debate Tue, 14 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
The 2021 Manhattan District Attorney Race is Officially Underway Cy Vance Manhattan DA speaking

Cy Vance (photo: @ManhattanDA)

Five candidates vying to become the next Manhattan District Attorney will participate in a forum on Tuesday, just under a year before the primary election and over a year after the first candidate in the race announced his campaign. The event, featuring all Democrats, is being hosted by the NYC Programming Council and Columbia Law School. Current District Attorney Cy Vance hasn’t said whether or not he will seek reelection in 2021 and is not participating in the first debate of the race.

The event comes a week after Vance notched a significant win in the nation’s highest court in Trump v. Vance, a landmark case over a grand jury subpoena of the president’s tax returns. In doing so, Vance earned a precedent-setting victory over the President of the United States. While it’s not immediately clear that Donald Trump’s tax returns will be made available to Vance’s investigation, it is a win of some magnitude, especially against a figure as reviled in Manhattan as Trump, that would typically be something most politicians could only dream about heading into an election year. But this is no ordinary situation.

Embattled DA Noncommittal About Reelection Bid
Appearing last week on NY1, Vance again wouldn’t say whether he will be seeking a fourth term as Manhattan’s top law enforcement official. Despite several recent Vance victories, including the successful conviction of Harvey Weinstein earlier this year, he’s come under intense criticism in the past few years for his handling of the Weinstein and other sexual assault cases, as well as cases relating to the Trump family, and more.

And while at times Vance, who has been Manhattan DA since 2010, has led his New York City district attorney colleagues on progressive reform, which will be a focus of the 2021 Manhattan primary race, he has also been criticized for not going far enough.

Vance’s third term has been under a cloud of suspicion, since details re-emerged in late 2017 about his decision not to prosecute Weistein, a famous film producer (and now convicted sex offender) over a 2015 allegation of sexual assault that NYPD investigators believed met the evidentiary standards for prosecution. Vance received a five-figure campaign donation from Weinstein’s attorney that same year, leading many critics to argue this influenced Vance’s prosecutorial judgement. By that point in 2017, Vance had already secured renomination as the Democratic candidate and was unopposed in the general election, but one in ten voters wrote in somebody else on their ballot.

Weinstein’s misconduct wasn’t the only sexual assault-related case that has come under scruitny during Vance’s decade-long tenure as Manhattan’s top prosecutor. In 2011, a prosecutor in Vance’s office argued in court for Jefferey Epstein’s sex offender status to be reduced. That year, DA Vance also faced criticism for declining to prosecute Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund, for sexual assault relating to an incident in a New York hotel. In 2016, his office negotiated a plea deal with an OB-GYN who abused dozens of patients in which the doctor received no jail time.

Another frequent criticism of Vance has been his handling of cases related to former Manhattanite Donald J. Trump and his family’s business dealings. Similar to the Weinstein case, Vance decided against prosecuting two of the now-president’s children, Ivanka and Don Jr., over a potentially fraudulent SoHo real estate deal in 2012 after Trump’s attorney donated and fundraised for the district attorney.

Vance has denied all wrong-doing or any undue influence.

Aside from these headline-grabbing cases, opponents contend that Vance’s office too aggressively prosecutes low-level offenses, such as nonviolent misdemeanors, against poor defendants and people of color. These critiques are in line with national and local decarceral movements that seek to reduce the prison population through the non-prosecution of nonviolent offenses such as fare evasion, sex work, and drug possession.

In January of this year, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams called for Vance to resign and tweeted “if you are black, brown, or a woman in NY county, you have a right to believe that you will not get justice when the other party is someone who has money or is connected.” The City Council’s entire Women’s Caucus has also called for Vance’s resignation, as have victims of the doctor, Robert Hadden, and other advocates, elected officials, and others.

In recent years, Vance has taken steps to attempt to remedy past mistakes, taking on Trump over his tax returns and securing the conviction of Weinstein earlier this year. However, for many critics, these moves are too little too late.

Vance touts a long list of what he calls accomplishments and reforms, including his work to clear old summons warrants; fund the review of old rape kits; increase cyber security; and limit the prosecution of low-level offenses like fare evasion.

While Vance has not formally made a decision yet, his fundraising (or lack thereof) would seem to indicate he won’t be running in 2021. Vance has only raised $25,600 over the last six months of 2019 and had just $105,000 in cash on hand in January, per his state campaign finance filings.

"Well the status of my decision-making is, number one, it’s an amazing office and it’s a privilege to hold it," Vance said on NY1. "I think it’s a good thing that, not just this office but other DA’s offices around the country are attracting a lot of attention, and I hope a lot of good candidates. And so I think the attention and the focus on the District Attorney’s race is important, but for me right now we are in the midst of a crisis that we have not seen in — I’m not sure ever. We have the court system functioning at 10 percent operation. We have a huge backlog of significant cases that we need to manage. We have an office and a community that has undergone enormous pain and self-questioning as a result of the incident that happened with George Floyd in Minneapolis and other fatal police encounters with civilians, and these are very tricky times. My focus is on making sure the office is running properly, making sure that I am addressing some of the issues that are raised by the George Floyd killing with regard to race in our criminal justice system, our policies, our practices, and our personnel, and that’s where my attention is. But I’m glad to see that there are individuals that are interested in running for the Manhattan DA’s race. That is a healthy thing to happen."

Candidates Emerge
As Vance faced growing criticism and calls to resign, candidates emerged -- either to take Vance on in the Democratic primary or to pursue the “open” seat if the incumbent declines to run again.

They include the five candidates who will debate Tuesday night: Assemblymember Dan Quart; Alvin Bragg, the state’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General; Janos Marton, a decarceration activist and former ACLU lawyer; public defender Eliza Orlins; and Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights attorney.

A sixth candidate, Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel in Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez’s office, just announced her candidacy this week, but will not be participating in the debate.

Tuesday's debate comes just before candidates will make new fundraising filings public, which will give new insights into the state of the race in its early phases. Fundraising numbers for January through early July will soon be filed by the campaigns, then made available by the state Board of Elections (District Attorney positions are technically part of state government, not city government, so the elections are not part of the city's public campaign finance system).

According to the hosts, Tuesday's "forum comes at a crucial moment as New York City citizens and people across the United States pay close attention to the policing, mass incarceration, and the role of prosecutors in the criminal justice infrastructure.The candidates will answer questions related to he Black Lives Matter movement, alternatives to incarceration, mental health diversion, police accountability, and the role of prosecutors in mass incarceration."

The New York City Program Council is "a trade association of organizations that provide programming in [Department of Correction] facilities around New York City," including the Rikers Debate Project, which has led the organizing for Tuesday's debate among the five Democratic district attorney candidates.

Dan Quart
Quart has represented the Upper East Side and Midtown East in the State Assembly since 2011. He cosponsored legislation to end cash bail in 2019 and chairs the Legislative Commission on Administrative Regulations Review. He has continued to work as a criminal defense attorney throughout his tenure in the State Legislature.

Quart faced some criticism as a “double-officeseeker” for running for reelection to the Assembly this year while also campaigning for District Attorney. He is ahead of his well-funded opponent Cameron Koffman in the Assembly primary that is still playing out with the counting of absentee ballots.

It has been evident for several years that Quart was eyeing a campaign for Manhattan District Attorney. He promises a host of progressive reforms if he were to be elected to the position, including the abolition of cash bail, the decriminilization of sex work, and an end to surveillance-based gang indictments. He has promised to treat substance abuse disorder as a public health issue, as opposed to a criminal justice issue, and would also decline to prosecute low-level offenses such as fare evasion and marijuana possession. Quart has focused on criminal justice issues during his decade in the Assembly, passing a law to compensate exonerated inmates, among a number of other issues he’s either advocated or passed legislation on.

Alvin Bragg
Bragg, who hails from Central Harlem, has been an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York (headquartered in Manhattan) and the Chief Deputy Attorney General for New York State. In the latter office, he oversaw a lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein for a hostile work environment at his production company, a challenge to the constitutionality of the Trump Administration’s citizenship question in the 2020 Census, and major criminal cases involving bribery, securities fraud, and Medicaid fraud.

Bragg vows to make the Manhattan DA’s office “progressive and accountable.” He says his default position would be to decline to prosecute low-level crimes and treating them as a civil matter where appropriate. He promises to dedicate independent prosecutors to exclusively investigate allegations of police misconduct. He would prioritize harm-reduction strategies and seek the low-end of sentencing guidelines in most cases, he says.

Janos Marton
Marton, who was born and raised on the Upper West Side, has held several prominent legal positions throughout his career. He was special counsel to the Moreland Commission, convened and prematurely disbanded by Governor Andrew Cuomo, that investigated political corruption in New York State. He was a leader in the campaign to close Rikers Island jails and later worked as states campaign manager for the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

Marton says he would be a “progressive prosecutor” and takes inspiration from Tiffany Cabán’s unsuccessful campaign for Queens DA last year. He wants to reduce the number of Manhattan residents in jails by 80% through declining prosecution on low-level offenses, expanding diversion and restorative justice programs, and reforming bail. He also promises to end charge-stacking and other “coercive plea bargaining practices.” He would decriminalize sex work and “end the War on Drugs,” through changing laws and enforcement practices, he says. 

Eliza Orlins
Orlins is a Manhattan public defender who says she has represented over 3,000 low-income New Yorkers over the past decade and an advocate for criminal justice reform. Some may recognize her from her participation on CBS’s reality competition shows “Survivor” and “Amazing Race,” which has helped her amass a large social media following.

As Manhattan DA, Orlins says she would decriminalize sex work and simple drug possession. She also believes the criminal justice system criminalizes poverty, which she would work to undo, through declining to prosecute low-level offenses. She points to her work as a public defender (the only one currently in the race), an experience she shares with Cabán, as well as progressive DAs across the country, such as Larry Krasner (Philadelphia) and Chesa Boudin (San Francisco).

Tahanie Aboushi
Aboushi is a progressive attorney, as well as a member of Manhattan Community Board 10 and board member of the New York Civil Liberties Union. As an attorney, Aboushi touts legal fights against racism, discrimination, and abuse of power, as well as lawsuits on behalf of bullied school children, people of color harassed and falsely imprisoned in the criminal justice system, and rape victims.

Aboushi would “transform our justice system from one that targets historically marginalized communities into one that uplifts and builds up our neighbors and neighborhoods.” She promises to establish a Police Accountability Unit to investigate police misconduct and focus on alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenses. She will also decline to prosecute charges stemming from “crimes of poverty, mental illness, sex work, and substance use disorder.”

Tali Farhadian Weinstein
While not participating in Tuesday’s candidate forum, Tali Farhadian Weinstein is the latest addition to a growing field of potential replacements for Vance. Farhadian Weinstein just stepped down as general counsel for Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez. She has also served as a federal prosecutor and counsel to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in the Obama administration. Holder endorsed her upon her entrance into the race.

Farhadian Weinstein says she supports abolishing cash bail, but is in favor of allowing judges to hold defendants if deemed dangerous, a standard opposed by many criminal justice reformers. When announcing her candidacy, she told Politico that “I agree with some things [Vance]’s done and disagree with others. I think it’s really important to focus on what the office ought to look like in its next chapter.”

Another candidate, criminal defense attorney Liz Crotty, is also not participating in the candidate forum.

The candidate forum is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Tuesday night. The event is virtual and anyone interested can sign up here.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated to clarify portions of the section on DA Vance's decision-making and tenure.

The 2021 Manhattan District Attorney Race is Officially Underway Mon, 13 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Voters Should Be Able to Track Their Absentee Ballots, Lawmakers Say 3 mount kisco gov

Voting has changed dramatically in New York (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

As hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots are being counted more than two weeks after the June 23 primary elections, state lawmakers are pushing a bill that would allow absentee voters to track their ballots and would require election administrators to provide an individual explanation when a ballot is disqualified.

The latest effort to pass the legislation, which was first introduced in 2013, comes amid an unprecedented increase in absentee voting due to the coronavirus pandemic and changes to the eligibility criteria for receiving them. The bill sponsors, Assembly Member Dan Quart and Senator Brad Hoylman, two Manhattan Democrats, say they want to see it signed into law in time for the general election, but it faces a number of legislative and technical hurdles.

"I think the current situation with so many thousands of voters voting by absentee demonstrates how critical this legislation is," Quart said in an interview. "I've heard from many constituents that they have deep concerns that their vote, something so critical, will be counted this year."

"In the age of pandemic democracy, we've got to take into account the fact that voters need to know whether their absentee ballot was counted or not," Hoylman said.

In April, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order expanding the eligibility for an absentee ballot to include anyone with COVID-19 or at risk of contracting the virus, effectively encompassing all registered voters, in order to prevent the virus from spreading at poll sites. Cuomo also ordered boards of elections to distribute absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters, with state lawyers asserting that he could not constitutionally order ballots themselves sent.

As the process unfolded, hundreds of thousands of registered New York City voters requested an absentee ballot through the New York City Board of Elections, with roughly 765,000 ballots sent out by the BOE and 384,000 returned by voters to the BOE, which is now just beginning the process of tallying up those votes.

But, the rapidly expanded absentee system was marred by confusion with some voters not receiving their requested ballot in time to vote absentee. Many others did mail their ballot but have no way of knowing if their vote was received and counted. The BOE will undoubtedly throw out a number of those votes on technicalities as part of the review process, as it does with affidavit ballots.

The lawmakers’ proposal would require county boards of elections to provide written or online confirmation when an absentee ballot has been received. If the ballot is rejected, which can happen on a number of technical grounds like failure to provide a signature or including an extraneous piece of paper in the ballot envelope, the board would have to explain why, and how it can be corrected.

Many other states have online systems for voters to track ballots cast by mail. At least 19 states require some kind of tracking system by statute, and another 14 (including the District of Columbia) have voluntarily established websites to serve that function, according to the National Conference of State Legislature website.

"It's time for New York to conform to the absentee ballot standards in other states," Hoylman said. The bill has not moved out of committee since it was first introduced, even after 2019 when Democrats took control of both houses of the State Legislature and passed a number of voting reforms. The 2020 primaries have been the first elections with widespread absentee voting, but it has often been used by people who are older and who have health and mobility impairments, as well as people who travel or live elsewhere temporarily.

The legislation leaves it up to elections administrators to implement the system and come up with the rules and regulations governing it.

Federal law already requires New York State to allow overseas residents and military voters to track their ballots, which the State Board of Elections does via an online portal, and Hoylman thinks local boards can take a similar approach.

Through the state's current website, military and overseas voters can see when their ballot is sent to them and when it is received by the board of elections, according to John Conklin, a spokesperson for the State Board of Elections. But the system has limitations: it does not allow those voters to see whether their vote was counted.

"It would be local boards of elections but they would work in conjunction with the state to implement it," Hoylman said. This is not atypical of state legislation dealing with elections, which are administered in New York State at the county level by local boards of elections under the oversight and regulatory framework of the State Board of Elections.

Quart suggested that the bill would not only create a system to track whether an absentee ballot was received by the board of elections, but whether it was sent out to the voter in the first place. "So they are not waiting until the last minute for an absentee ballot that's not going to come," he said. Voters are currently responsible for applying for an absentee ballot, even under the broadened eligibility, and many have reported not receiving a requested ballot in time for the primary or at all. But the bill language and accompanying sponsor's memo do not make explicit mention of the ballot application, only saying that the ballots themselves would be tracked (and the explanation of rejection appears to only apply to the ballot, not to applications for a ballot).

Questions remain whether the legislation will be passed and if in time for this year’s fall general election, when even greater numbers of absentee ballots are expected to be cast, pending an extension of the governor’s executive order or legislation that would keep all voters eligible to vote absentee.

"As more is revealed about absentee ballots and voters who may not have had their ballots received in time or their votes counted, I think there is going to be a public call for this type of action," Hoylman said, without indicating whether the bill had support from Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and the majority of the Democratic conference.

Quart did not say whether he had spoken with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie either but both said they believed it should be in place for the fall presidential election, which will coincide with the general election for all seats in the State Legislature and House of Representatives, among others.

Spokespeople for the Democratic majorities in both chambers of the State Legislature did not return requests for comment on the bill.

"I'm more optimistic of the chance of success, especially in advance of November -- such a critical election not just in New York State but in the history of this country." Quart said. "Thousands upon thousands of people will be casting their vote by absentee ballot."

Even if it is signed into law before November, whether New York's decentralized and notoriously error-prone election boards will be able to successfully implement the brand new system is a big unknown.

"We have to demand that they do or nothing is going to get done," Hoylman said. "The fact that so many voters have reported not receiving their requested ballot in time to vote by absentee remotely is a scandal in and of itself. But those that did receive a ballot and were able to vote by mail never got any confirmation that it was received and counted." (Voters can eventually check with their local board of elections office whether their vote was counted.)

A spokesperson for the New York City Board of Elections said the agency had no comment on the bill.

"The State Board does not comment on legislation unless the Commissioners have formally voted to support it," Conklin wrote in an email.

Both sponsors of the bill had primary challengers in their districts this June, and while Hoylman is leading his race by a wide margin, Quart's contest is much closer as the BOE is starting to count the absentee ballots. According to the latest figures from the New York City Board of Elections, as of July 2 the board received almost 31,000 ballots in Hoylman's race (22,000 fewer ballots than the BOE distributed in the district), and roughly 11,000 in Quart's race (9,000 fewer than the BOE distributed). These figures include in-person and mailed-in ballot.

The issue of widespread absentee voting may remain with or without a pandemic. Five states allow voting by mail in all elections and 12 other states allow vote-by-mail in certain elections. In New York, a state constitutional amendment to allow no-excuse absentee voting (which allows all voters to qualify for an absentee ballot, similar in effect to the current executive order) was passed by both houses of the State Legislature. But it still needs to pass both houses again in the next legislative session before it goes before voters in a referendum.

"Voters are going to need to have the confidence in the integrity of our elections," Hoylman said. "And again, New York is an outlier state for not having this in place already."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Voters Should Be Able to Track Their Absentee Ballots, Lawmakers Say Wed, 08 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York Must Pass the 'Rape is Rape' Bill gov andcuomo doc

(photo: the governor's office)

At the end of August, NBC New York ran a story about a young woman who was raped after going out to a Manhattan bar. Despite the fact that she came forward, wanting justice to be done, the Manhattan District Attorney refused to prosecute the case.

When a reporter questioned his decision not to pursue charges, DA Cyrus Vance’s staff shared a letter he wrote to Governor Andrew Cuomo insisting that he cannot bring forth rape charges in cases in which victims were voluntarily intoxicated. In other words, if you go out in Manhattan, get drunk, and end up being raped, there is nothing the Manhattan DA can do for you.

It’s a disingenuous claim.

The idea that “prosecutors cannot bring sex crime charges in cases where the victim becomes voluntarily intoxicated and was unable to consent” is simply untrue. We know it’s untrue because the Manhattan DA himself brought charges in a similar case: People v. Johnson.

In that case the Manhattan DA secured a Rape 1 indictment where the victim was voluntarily intoxicated. The Appellate Court ultimately vacated the conviction, but only because DA Vance’s office botched the plea deal. 

This is not the first time DA Vance has declined to press charges in a sexual assault investigation, and he’s not the only one with a follow-through problem. Time and time again, law enforcement fails survivors of sexual assault. It’s not a problem unique to DA Vance or New York City but a nationwide “epidemic of disbelief” as Atlantic writer Barbara Bradley Hagerty put it.

Survivors of rape are regularly met with skepticism. Though it’s the police who investigate and DAs who secure convictions, the state Legislature cannot be absolved of responsibility.

Currently, under New York state law, only forced vaginal penetration is considered rape while forced oral and anal contact are labeled criminal sexual acts. Not only is this definition restrictive, it is archaic. There are consequences to this omission: refusing to call rape by its name reduces the perceived severity of the crime.

The Rape is Rape bill (A00794C) would amend the penal code to redefine rape to include forced anal and oral contact, and eliminate the penetration element that is legally necessary to establish that a vaginal rape has occurred.

At first glance, the bill appears an easy sell. Who would disagree that forced anal or oral sex should be considered rape? Equally important is the underlying question. Who would argue that the law shouldn’t recognize that a man has been raped? Well, the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, for one. The lobbying arm of the state’s DA association has proved a major hindrance to any sort of progressive reform and in 2013, then-DAASNY President Cy Vance wrote to the Assembly opposing the bill on bogus claims that it would reduce penalties for sex crimes. 

A similar reluctance to evolve has pervaded the NYPD’s approach. Up until this year, the NYPD was undercounting rape in New York City by as much as 38%, excluding reports of forced oral and anal contact in its official reporting system despite a state mandate to include these crimes in its statistics. Following the Newsy report, we called on the NYPD to immediately bring its system up to federal standards, and the department did.

While the NYPD works to implement a “victim-centered” approach – a result of a scathing city Department of Investigation inquiry that found the Special Victims Division was undertrained and understaffed – the Legislature must do its part and pass the Rape is Rape bill in January, when the next legislative session begins.

And our work does not end there.

We must also elect District Attorneys who will be thoughtful in their prosecutions of sex crimes and take all rape cases seriously, not just the ones they think they can win.

It is especially important that we have DAs who understand that the Penal Code should not only be used to prosecute crimes, but to inform the public of what is acceptable behavior. When we call a rape—whether it is vaginal, oral, or anal—anything but rape, we delegitimize the crime and invalidate the survivor’s experience.

Perhaps the Me Too movement is the cultural awakening this country needs to take sexual violence seriously. That being said, these cultural changes will not happen overnight and in the meantime, we implore the NYPD, New York’s District Attorneys, and the state Legislature to do better.

Everywhere we look our institutions, designated to protect, serve, and deliver justice, are failing survivors. We must take responsibility for these failures and adopt survivor-centered policies while we work to change society.

Dan Quart & Aravella Simotas are members of the New York State Assembly representing parts of Manhattan and Queens, respectively. On Twitter @amdanquart & @AravellaSimotas. (Quart is also a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney.)

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New York Must Pass the 'Rape is Rape' Bill Mon, 09 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
In Opioid Fight, City Expands Access to Crucial Medication-Assisted Treatment New York City opioid treatment

(photo: Edwin Torres/Mayor's Office)

New York City is showing modest progress in the fight to curb the explosion in drug overdoses, with the health department reporting 38 fewer deaths last year compared to 2017, after a concerted $60-million effort focused on substance abuse prevention, treatment, and education, especially with regard to opioids.

One aspect of that fight has been the expansion of access to medication-assisted treatment, which experts and activists say is a crucial element in preventing overdoses, curbing addiction, and helping those suffering from substance abuse disorders to reclaim their lives. The city has continued some advancement on that front, training thousands of more prescribers, while a state bill that could help that effort, which passed the Legislature this year, languishes unsigned by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Medication-assisted treatment involves prescribing and administering drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine, which help mitigate the symptoms of withdrawal and curb cravings.

Methadone is itself an opioid, albeit a relatively weaker one, that can help those suffering from addiction wean off stronger narcotics. Buprenorphine acts similarly and is an even more effective treatment drug since its effects level out no matter the size of the dosage. Both, however, are stringently regulated.

Methadone treatment programs are subject to oversight by numerous federal agencies, and the drug must be administered to patients on site under observation. For buprenorphine, doctors must receive waivers to prescribe the drug after undergoing an eight-hour training. In the United States, compared to other countries, the treatment remains vastly underutilized.

“Medication-assisted Treatment (MAT) is a standard of care for opioid use disorder and it is critical for treating addiction, and also is a protective factor against overdose,” said Dr. Denise Paone, Director of Research and Surveillance at the city Health Department’s Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Use. “So we've invested a lot of effort into the expansion, particularly of buprenorphine, because as you know, methadone is federally regulated.”

Since the March 2017 launch of HealingNYC, the city’s multi-faceted strategy to combat the opioid crisis, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has trained 1,800 new buprenorphine prescribers, surpassing the original goal of 1,500. The aim of the program has been to increase buprenorphine prescriptions by 20,000 by 2022.

There has already been some success, with prescriptions up from 115,167 in 2017 to 126,002 in 2018.

Besides training new prescribers, the city has also expanded a Nurse Care Manager program – where registered nurses coordinate treatment for patients and with providers – to 26 primary care clinics around the city, and is funding 9 of 14 syringe service programs to provide on-site buprenorphine.

“In actual clinical practice, we are providing funding to these federally qualified health centers that serve those that are underinsured or not insured. And we provide support so that these primary care clinics can provide on-site buprenorphine,” Paone noted.

It’s hard to draw a through line from the investments in buprenorphine access to the reduction in overdose deaths, Paone said, because of the many elements of HealingNYC that work in concert. “But buprenorphine obviously plays a major role,” she said.

There are still numerous challenges as the city attempts to increase the number of doctors prescribing the life-saving drug. The first is the required physician waiver. “There is an effort across the country, supported by a lot of attorneys general, as well as health departments to work at the federal policy level to have this waiver removed,” Paone said, citing a letter sent by several attorneys general to congressional leadership, calling for eliminating the waiver. But that effort has seen little movement. 

In New York State, buprenorphine prescribers are also required to get prior authorization from insurance companies. A bill sponsored by Assemblymember Dan Quart and State Senator Pete Harckham passed the Legislature earlier this year and would do away with that requirement but it has yet to be signed by Cuomo. “The bill is under review,” said Caitlin Girouard, a Cuomo spokesperson, in an email. 

“From social stigma to regulatory barriers, people seeking treatment for substance use disorders are faced with significant obstacles,” Quart said in a statement. “While this bill won’t remove all existing roadblocks, it will cut red tape and wait times, guaranteeing New Yorkers faster access to lifesaving treatment. The opioid epidemic has devastated communities across the state and I encourage the Governor to sign my bill into law, and ensure those seeking treatment have swift access to the care they need.”

Harckham, a Democrat representing parts of Westchester and the Hudson Valley, chairs the Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse and is also co-chair of Joint Senate Task Force on Opioids, Addiction & Overdose Prevention, which was created earlier this year and held its first hearing last month.

“We want to find out what's working, what the gaps are, what we need to do from a legislative standpoint, what we need to do from a regulatory standpoint,” he said in a phone interview. “And certainly we have to break down any barriers we can to medication-assisted treatment because evidence shows, that's what saves lives.” Harckham expects that next year, the Legislature will pursue a robust package of bills to fight the opioid crisis based off the task force’s work. 

Removing the stigma around buprenorphine and methadone also remains a priority for the city, and the Health Department has sought to fight it with a $2.8-million mass media and advertising campaign called “Living Proof” displaying real stories of individuals who have benefited from treatment.

The ads ran on local television (2,141 times), newspapers, online, in social media, and on the subway system. Besides the millions that saw the ads on the subways and ferries, the health department provided data that social media ads led to 2 million online video views and over 80,000 visits to NYC Health’s “Opioid Addiction Treatment with Buprenorphine and Methadone” web page. “It was actually quite powerful, and then we're in the process of doing an evaluation of that campaign,” Paone said. 

“Expanding access to medication treatment is really probably the most critical response right now to the opioid epidemic,” said Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center, which has trained several hundred buprenorphine prescribers. “But what we also know from research is only about half of the people who are trained, actually go on to prescribe it and actually treat addiction and so we need to do more than just train people,” she added.

Besides that, Cunningham said the city needs to invest more in nurse care managers and that service providers need more support for mentoring and education in addiction treatment. “I think that the issue is there's not one thing to turn this epidemic around,” she said. “But all of these approaches are based in evidence to show that these are what the barriers are and these are the kinds of supports that are needed for providers to take this on and to provide treatment.”

Jasmine Budnella, drug policy coordinator at VOCAL-NY, an activist group, was among dozens who protested outside the governor’s New York City office last month, calling on him to take more action towards fighting the overdose epidemic. She said the prior-authorization bill is an important step to increase access to buprenorphine. “For low-income New Yorkers, that was the only bill that we were able to pass this last session that we know has proven evidence will work in reducing the overdose crisis,” she said in a phone interview.

Budnella believes the city’s approach to medication-assisted treatment needs to be more holistic and expanded past the areas where overdose deaths have been highest. She noted, for instance, that overdoses are a leading cause of death in homeless shelters.

“We need to continue expansion, but not just in areas of high need,” she said. “We need to make sure that we're extending to all people.” She urged the mayor to provide more funding to the health department and to the Department of Social Services, to ensure that the city tackles the nexus of the overdose and homelessness crises, particularly by investing in supportive housing for those who require addiction-treatment services.

“We need to make sure that we have wraparound services for folks,” she said. “We also need to make sure that the criminal justice system is not the first to get employed for people who use drugs…What we really need is infrastructure where we have social workers and public health experts who are the ones employed to go help people with substance use disorder or mental health issues, so that the police don't have to police poverty.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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In Opioid Fight, City Expands Access to Crucial Medication-Assisted Treatment Thu, 05 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Legislators Pursue Campaign Finance Reform for District Attorneys cy vance manhattanda

Manhattan DA Cy Vance (photo: @ManhattanDA)

District attorneys wield nearly unfettered discretion as to whether to prosecute potential defendants, but nothing in the law prevents lawyers for the accused from donating to a district attorney’s election campaign. Most New Yorkers became aware of this glaring blindspot in the state’s campaign finance law in 2017, following news that Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s campaign had accepted thousands of dollars from an attorney for Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood mogul who Vance’s office had declined to prosecute after he allegedly groped a woman and was caught on tape seemingly admitting to the act.

But the state Legislature could soon make sweeping changes to the rules governing district attorney campaign financing, as Assemblymember Dan Quart and Senator Liz Krueger, both Manhattan Democrats, are pursuing legislation to enact stringent restrictions on who can contribute, and how much, to candidates running for district attorney, of which there are 62, one for each county, across the state.

“Reforming of our campaign finance laws with respect to how district attorneys and candidates for district attorneys run is critical,” Quart said in a phone interview, “so that the public gets confidence that decisions made by district attorneys are on the merits and free of any conflicts.” Quart is rumored to be considering a run for Manhattan DA in 2021.

The proposed legislation would require that all district attorney candidates disclose to the state Board of Elections whether they have accepted campaign contributions from a law firm or an attorney at that law firm representing a criminal defendant in any New York state court. The bill would also mandate that the BOE create a statewide “legal dealings database” with the names of every licensed attorney, law firm or a firm executive who represents an individual or corporation in a criminal proceeding in any state court. The individuals and firms in the database would be restricted to donating only $320 to any district attorney candidate.

Spokespeople for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did not respond to requests for comment about support for district attorney campaign finance reform. Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo, said in a statement, "The Governor has put forward a comprehensive ethics package in the Executive Budget and we will review any additional legislation if it passes both houses."

The proposal was first introduced by Quart in October 2017, shortly after Vance, a Democrat, requested an external, independent review of his campaign finances to rebut allegations that his office gave favorable treatment to Weinstein and other wealthy actual or potential defendants, including Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., whose lawyers gave to this campaign and who Vance’s office declined to prosecute for alleged criminal fraud in the sale of condos in the Trump SoHo hotel development.   

The review was conducted by the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia University, which issued seven recommendations for district attorney candidates to prevent real and perceived conflicts of interest or unconscious bias by prosecutors. They include blind fundraising (so candidates are not aware of donor identities), refusing or limiting contributions from donors with real or perceived conflicts, a strict firewall between a DA’s office and campaign, refusing contributions from one’s own office staff and their spouses, strong donor vetting processes, requiring certifications of eligibility to contribute, and published campaign contribution policies.  

Quart and Krueger’s bill would establish some of those firewalls. Quart’s legal dealings database is modelled on New York City’s own “doing business” database that logs companies and individuals who have contracts with the city and limits how much they can contribute to candidates in local elections. The $320 limit applies to candidates for borough president, whose districts are equivalent to the jurisdiction of a district attorney in the city. “I took those rules and that principle and applied it to district attorneys’ races,” Quart said.

The proposal would apply statewide. So, for instance, a law firm representing a defendant in Suffolk County wouldn’t be able to give more than $320 to a candidate running for Brooklyn District Attorney.

"It is vital that every New Yorker be able to trust our judicial system to reach conclusions based solely on the fact of cases, without even the perception that other influences might affect the results,” Senator Krueger said in a statement. “District Attorneys hold a singularly powerful position in our system, and therefore must be held to the highest standards to avoid potential conflicts of interest. This bill will help ensure that in New York, justice remains blind.”

The bill doesn’t cover all of CAPI’s recommendations, however. Berit Berger, executive director of CAPI, said the legislation is a “good start” but could go further. “The legislation does not require district attorneys to adopt blinding procedures that shield them from learning their donors’ identities,” she pointed out, in an email to Gotham Gazette. Blinding standards are currently used by candidates running for judicial seats in New York.

“As we explained in our report, this approach would most clearly address the conflicts of interest issue and safeguard against any conscious and unconscious bias in favor of campaign contributors,” Berger continued. “While the increased transparency from disclosing contributions from attorneys or firms representing criminal defendants is a great first step, I think more is needed to truly preserve the integrity of this fundraising process.”

It’s unclear if the bill will be supported or opposed by the District Attorneys Association of New York. Morgan Bitton, a DAASNY spokesperson, said the association is reviewing the proposal and that its legislative committee is set to meet later this month.

If the bill passes into law, Quart believes it could be in place for the 2021 elections. If he runs for Manhattan District Attorney that year, it would put him in contest with Vance, who will be up for reelection but has not declared whether he will run again or not. “My dissatisfaction with Cy Vance, the Manhattan District Attorney is well known,” Quart said, insisting that he had not made any decisions about his own political future yet. “I have said that whether this legislation passes or not, I would self-police in a way if I were a candidate in 2021.”

Whether Vance decides to seek reelection or not, the 2021 race could be a crowded one. This year, with no incumbent running, the race to be the next Queens District Attorney features more than half a dozen Democratic hopefuls, while races in the Bronx and on Staten Island with incumbents running again have sparse fields.

For his part, Vance, a former DAASNY president himself, supports Quart’s proposal. “As DA Vance said last year when he announced the most restrictive voluntary campaign finance limits of any elected prosecutor in New York, ‘legislative action is the surest way to achieve lasting, mandatory campaign finance reform,’” said a spokesperson for his campaign, who also noted Vance’s support for a public matching funds program for DA candidates, which is not part of the Quart-Krueger legislation, but could potentially be included in any broader public campaign finance system that Democrats in Albany hope to pass this year. Assemblymember Tom Abinanti, a Democrat, has reintroduced a bill this year that would establish such a public financing system for candidates for district attorney and supreme court justices. 

But the Vance spokesperson did say the Legislature should consider the feasibility of the legal dealings database proposal, which would be far more vast than New York City’s doing business portal. “As Columbia’s report notes with regard to the City database, ‘the class of individuals subject to Doing Business restrictions in New York City is relatively small, and is limited to senior company executives, major stakeholders, and registered lobbyists’ – as opposed to the vast and fluid population of lawyers who represent criminal defendants in New York State,” the spokesperson said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note - This article has been updated to note that Assemblymember Tom Abinanti reintroduced a bill on public financing for district attorneys and supreme court judges.  

Legislators Pursue Campaign Finance Reform for District Attorneys Tue, 12 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Cy Vance and Jeff Sessions Versus Your Privacy justice unlockit police

Manhattan DA Vance leads a press conference (photo: @NYPDnews)

As an elected member of the state Assembly, one of my main priorities is to ensure New Yorkers have a government that works with them to protect their rights and their safety. That’s why I’ve become increasingly concerned by the steps Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance has taken to undermine digital privacy through his weak position on encryption protection.

Americans are rightfully worried about the confidentiality of their electronic information, from financial documents and medical records to simpler things like texts and emails. That fear is confirmed every time a major company or government agency has its system breached.

But DA Vance, along with President Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, wants unfettered access to the data and information stored on our smartphones by forcing manufacturers to weaken the privacy protection technologies they’ve created and to install so-called “backdoors” into the devices.

What they want is the ability to bypass the encryption technology that allows only the sender and the recipient of a message - like a text - to see it. They argue that these backdoors will help law enforcement solve certain crimes, but the reality is the very small percentage of cases that could be helped is far eclipsed by the danger of weakening encryption for the rest of us.  

They describe these backdoors as small, but in truth they are a wide-open front door for a hacker or foreign government to gain access to almost any smart phone in America. Vance and Sessions are naive if they believe that once a technology is created, only “good guys” will use it. Rogue hackers or hostile foreign governments will use the same tactics.

Vance and Sessions must look for real solutions that protect our privacy and do not involve undermining the security of our data.

Dan Quart is a member of the New York State Assembly representing Manhattan’s East Side. On Twitter @AMDanQuart.

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Cy Vance and Jeff Sessions Versus Your Privacy Wed, 30 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The Next Step to Reform District Attorney Campaign Finance Cy Vance District Attorney

Four NYC DAs  (photo: @ManhattanDA)

For the past four months, the people of Manhattan have grappled with accusations of their District Attorney cultivating a pay-to-play culture in which the rich and powerful skate by serious criminal charges -- if their lawyers contribute sizable donations to DA Vance’s campaign. In a public display of penance for allowing the appearance of corruption to permeate, Vance requested The Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School to investigate ways to better insulate our elected prosecutors from the influence of donors. The CAPI recommendations make for a good headline after months of bad PR for the DA, but will not change the status quo.

Following the report, Vance said he will adopt the ‘blind’ practice used for judicial candidates who are raising money for their campaigns. Unfortunately the failings of this model are widely known, and are surely no secret to Vance himself. It follows a legal fiction that removing the DA from the fundraising eliminates the potential conflict. That is absurd.

It is pure fantasy to suggest a candidate will have no knowledge of who is donating to their campaign. Full transparency is an ideal all elected officials should be striving for in our electoral system, especially when it comes to the funding of campaigns. That is why the records of who has donated to candidates are fully public, easily obtained by the click of a button. There’s no ‘blind’ approach to raising money when the names, addresses and amount of money donated are so easily accessed by the public, press, campaign, and candidates. Especially for a DA like Cy Vance who has been in office for almost a decade and has built a donor list based on strong relationships with certain criminal defense lawyers and law firms.  

Then we come to the donor cap recommendations -- riddled with far too many loopholes. By restricting the $320 donation cap to only attorneys appearing before the DA office, the policy is extremely limited, allowing many other non-appearing attorneys from the same law firm to donate individually up to $3,850. Undoubtedly, high-profile wins for firms are good for business. Perhaps that’s why Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s personal lawyer, had his coworkers raise over $18,000 for Vance just a few months after the DA chose not to prosecute the Trump children. Under the CAPI recommendations, this could continue to happen. In fact, under Vance’s new self-imposed fundraising rules, he would only have to wait six months after a case is resolved to accept donations from the exact lawyers who appeared before his office.

Even with the cap from partners and some lawyers, there are a multitude of ways that law firms with an attorney or attorneys who appear before the DA office can donate significant amounts of money to the DA. It will just take some creativity. This permits the existence of the conflict that CAPI admits exists -- attorneys donate to create "positive relationships" with the DA's office, "which, could, in theory inspire some of them to become contributors to the DA's campaign." An understatement to say the least.

The CAPI recommendations represent an incomplete addition to the conversation of reforming the way we fund our DA races, something the report acknowledges. This report should not signal the tidy conclusion of how the rich and powerful were seemingly able to curry favorable treatment through campaign donations by their lawyers. We need true comprehensive reform to make our system one New Yorkers can confidently rely on. I have legislation that will bring us one step closer to this by forbidding large donations to DAs from criminal defense lawyers or their law firms. Let’s get this passed and move toward a fairer system for all.

Dan Quart is a member of the New York State Assembly representing Manhattan’s East Side. On Twitter @AMDanQuart.

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The Next Step to Reform District Attorney Campaign Finance Thu, 25 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000