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Opinion

Cy Vance’s Approach to Jeffrey Epstein was No Aberration


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Manhattan DA Cy Vance (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


I don’t buy Cy Vance’s defense that his Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Gaffney “made a mistake” in interpreting the law when she asked for Jeffrey Epstein’s sex offender status to be downgraded in 2011. Five years later, as Deputy Chief of the DA’s Sex Crimes Unit, she asked for and got a downgraded sex offender status for the OB/GYN I and dozens of other women had accused of sexual assault.

The similarities between the DA’s case at the time against Epstein and that of the one against my abuser, Robert Hadden, abound. Both were wealthy, connected, white men playing out their deranged fantasies with no regard for the women and children they used. Both had dozens of victims, including minors. Both leveraged their position of privilege and wealth for protection. And, perhaps most notably, both had Cy Vance as their top prosecutor.

When the DA requested a lower offender status for Epstein, the judge expressed shock. She was aware of the large number of victims in his case and of the severity of his crimes. The request was denied.

At Hadden’s February 2016 plea hearing, the DA confirmed the Court’s agreement to “downwardly depart from the SORA regulations and find Dr. Hadden a Level 1 Offender” as a condition of his plea agreement. The judge only saw a narrow slice of Hadden’s alleged crimes. Would he have reacted differently had the DA pursued a second indictment or made other efforts to include the other victims who continued to report? To this day, brave women, including a minor Hadden himself delivered as a baby, continue to come forward to report crimes he perpetrated against them.

I don’t know if I would feel differently about the abuse I endured had Hadden been given a higher offender status. What I do know is that the outcome of the DA’s cases against both Epstein and Hadden continue to reveal details of a two-tiered system of justice in Manhattan. Prosecutors operate with almost no impunity and the public lacks critical information about how the unit operates. At a minimum, the DA’s Sex Crimes Unit must submit to an outside, independent review -- but I also believe Vance should resign.

Hadden’s defense attorney herself told BuzzFeedNews, “Poor people don’t do as well in this system as people who can afford more competent lawyers. If you can afford them, you’re treated differently in our criminal justice system.” She’s not wrong.

Hadden has access to support from his employer, Columbia University. Some have questioned contributions Vance took from people like Jonathan Schiller, the then-chair of Columbia's Board of Trustees. In response to multiple allegations of undue influence, Vance commissioned a report from Columbia’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) on how DAs can reduce conflicts of interest in campaign fundraising. The Hadden case and Schiller donations are glaring omissions from the report yet Vance touts it and his resulting pledge to not take money from attorneys with cases before him as reform. It’s not enough.

In June, Vance spoke at CAPI and cited the Raising the Bar report. He said “what I learned, above all, is it’s not enough for me to have confidence in my independence from donors. The people of New York deserve to be confident about this as well.”

Has he learned? More importantly, have we learned? The people have lost confidence in Vance’s leadership. We deserve better. How long will New Yorkers continue to let corruption, incompetence, and cowardice play out in front of the world before demanding meaningful change?

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Marissa Hoechstetter is an activist. On Twitter @MHoechstetter.

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Solving New York City’s Next Big Census Problem


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(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


New Yorkers got some great news last week when President Trump abandoned plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Adding the question to the Census would have resulted in a massive undercount of the city’s population, causing New York to lose its share of billions in federal funding for vital programs and services.

But there’s another wrinkle in this upcoming Census that could significantly depress participation across the city: the move to a digital Census. This will be the first-ever Census to be completed largely online. Though this change will be welcome news for many tech-savvy New Yorkers, it will bring new challenges in a city where 14 percent of residents live in households without a computer, 23 percent lack a broadband connection at home, and many more aren’t digitally proficient.

Just as city leaders stood up and fought the proposed inclusion of the citizenship question, New York City needs a wide-scale effort to make sure the move to a digital Census does not deter large numbers of New Yorkers from completing their forms. One way they can do this is by partnering in a big way with New York City’s branch libraries.

In recent years, libraries have extended far beyond their historical book-lending role to become the city’s most accessible technology hub for New Yorkers on the wrong side of the digital divide. In addition to providing computer stations, laptop loans, and free internet, they are also a place where those with limited tech literacy can get a helping hand from librarians.

Tens of thousands of New Yorkers already turn to branch libraries for tech help, whether it is applying to a job online, filling out Medicare applications, or simply staying in touch with family via email or Facebook. 

Beyond having a substantial technology infrastructure, libraries have unparalleled reach: the city’s 216 branch libraries are on the ground in nearly every community across the five boroughs. Importantly, libraries are also one of the city’s most trusted institutions, providing a range of services in multiple languages but never asking for personal information.

All this makes libraries a natural fit to extend their services to help New Yorkers fill out the digital Census.

Right now, however, it’s not clear that the city’s libraries have the capacity to do this effectively. Many branches across the five boroughs don’t have laptops to loan, and most libraries have at most six or twelve computer terminals, barely enough to serve existing demand.

Beyond the need for more dedicated computers, laptops, and tablets, libraries will need additional staff to help the many patrons who require significant assistance completing the digital Census. At most branches today, librarians are already overextended.

To his great credit, Mayor de Blasio has already launched an outreach campaign to ensure an accurate Census count, and the recently passed city budget includes $40 million to support this effort. The de Blasio administration should devote a portion of those funds to the city’s libraries. Doing so would empower branches across the city to ramp up their capacity and harness their considerable potential to boost participation in the online Census. 

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Jonathan Bowles is executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity in New York. On Twitter @jbowlesnyc & @nycfuture.

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A French Lesson in Fare Evasion


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(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


I just returned to New York City from a month in Paris, where my husband was doing legal work. A regular public transit user at home, I was the same in Paris, making use of its Metro system. But because I did not inform myself of all the rules, I violated one of them and had to pay a fine. The experience helped me think about the fare evasion challenge we’re dealing with in New York. 

As in our subway system, there is one fare to travel throughout the city on the Paris Metro. I bought discounted “carnets” of 10 tickets at a time at a cost of about 14.90 euros, approximately $18. The tickets are small white cards; you put them in a slot on the way in, and if the ticket is valid it pops up in another slot to be retained; high plastic doors then open to let you through. When you leave the station at your stop, you walk through exits (sorties), which have high doors that open when you press on them with your hand.

Since there is no need to use the tickets to exit (they are needed at stations where you transfer to rail connections) and they are only good for one fare, I was throwing them away after entering a station. Of course this was silly of me; why wouId the entrance machines give you back the tickets if you weren’t supposed to keep them? But I wasn’t thinking it through and didn’t want to get used tickets mixed up with new ones from my carnets.

After a few weeks, while transferring between one train line and another at Gare St. Lazare, a major metro transfer point, I encountered a line of transit employees (they have orange vests like our MTA New York City Transit workers) stopping passengers walking through a tunnel. They asked to see my ticket.

In halting French with English mixed in I explained that I had thrown it away. Non, non madame, said one of the inspectors.  You must retain your ticket. I shrugged, explained that I was a tourist, that I had been using the system for several weeks and no one had stopped me, and said I would go and buy a new ticket to present to the inspection team. Non, non madame, one of them said; you have to pay a fine right now.

She showed me a chart with different fines for different types of violations. I was shocked at how high they were. She ‘settled’ for a payment of 30 euros, about $35, whipped out a handheld charge machine, inserted my credit card and gave me a special receipt. The same thing was happening to people around me, who contended they had lost their tickets or didn’t have them for whatever reason. 

At about the same time this happened to me in Paris, back home in Manhattan Governor Cuomo announced a comprehensive fare evasion deterrence program for the subways and buses, including the assignment of 500 personnel, including New York City and MTA police officers and 70 “Eagle Team” members, as well as a number of structural changes like securing emergency exits at subway stations and installation of video cameras.

Fare evasion has been a growing problem on New York City subways and buses in the last few years, according to the MTA. An MTA report issued in March estimated annual lost revenue due to fare evasion at $225 million in 2018; the projection for 2019 had grown to $260 million by the time of the governor’s June press conference.

The problem is particularly acute on buses where one of every five riders doesn’t pay the fare, the MTA says. It is infuriating to sit on a bus and watch others simply walk on without paying; drivers cannot be expected to take the risk of arguing with these passengers. But it is also a problem on the subways; I am sure everyone reading this column has seen people walking into stations through the emergency exit doors.

Stopping fare evasion should not be about criminalization or persecuting poor people—it’s about the money. Evasion hurts all transit riders by depriving the system of much-needed revenue and making the costs higher for those who do pay. $260 million a year is A LOT of money – enough, for example, to pay for half-fare Metrocards for all low-income riders eligible under the recently adopted “Fair Fares” initiative by the City Council and Mayor de Blasio. The worthy program should be fully implemented as quickly as possible and soon evaluated for possible expansion.

The heightened presence of law enforcement personnel and other initiatives to discourage fare evasion in the new plan are all worth trying, but they must be done carefully. And I suggest that, in addition, the MTA consider doing what the French are doing in the Paris Metro. It is not as big as New York’s system, of course, but does carry more than 4 million people a day and is the second busiest in Europe (after Moscow). It devotes 1,200 staff to fare evasion.

Instead of issuing summonses for non-payment that can be ignored with minimal – and no immediate – consequences, the Paris inspectors assess “penalty fares” that must be paid on the spot; 1 million of these penalties are issued a year in Paris. 

New York City Transit, the MTA’s division that runs the subways and buses, should explore using  the technology that Paris has employed to give members of the Eagle Teams who go onto buses to look for evaders hand-held devices that can check whether someone’s Metrocard (if they have one) has been used for that trip and if not, charge and collect a penalty fare, much higher than the regular fare but lower than the $100 civil fine for fare evasion. Do the same in the transfer tunnels in large subway stations like Penn and Grand Central.

Those who want to challenge the fine or cannot pay on the spot should have the option to pursue administrative appeals, but I strongly suspect this method will have more of a deterrent effect than simply issuing paper summonses to everyone. I certainly was very careful to save my Metro tickets after this happened to me!

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Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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