Additional reporting by Yoav Gonen
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Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. is acting on his promise to reject campaign donations from anyone dealing with his office — aided by a special exemption from rules that normally bar government staff from working on elections.
Records show that in July, the city Conflicts of Interest Board gave Vance the go-ahead to use government personnel to screen out campaign contributions from donors with pending investigations and cases in front of the Manhattan DA’s office.
As THE CITY previously reported, Vance has not yet said whether he will seek re-election in 2021, but the new donation-vetting protocols suggest he’s gearing up for another run. He also retains a public relations firm for the not-yet-official campaign. A representative from that group said Vance’s position on a run has not changed.
The district attorney’s general counsel and an assistant are working with Vance campaign staffers to make sure anyone with business before the DA’s office isn’t donating to his campaign, according to letters sent from the COIB to Vance in late June and mid-July.
If such a donor is identified through the review, the Vance campaign commits to returning the money, according to the waiver.
The system has been in the works for months, according to the general counsel, Carey Dunne. It began in a 14-month period when Vance paused all fundraising and underwent an independent review after a stream of criticism of campaign infusions from lawyers representing Harvey Weinstein, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. — all of whom were being eyed by Manhattan prosecutors.
Ultimately, Vance promised to ban donations from attorneys working on cases before his office following a January 2018 report made at his request by the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) at the Columbia Law School.
His staff at the DA’s office said they have been using the new protocols since January, when Vance’s fundraising hiatus ended. Now, Dunne said, the office is going beyond Vance’s earlier promises, even screening for attorneys involved in probes that have not yet been made public.
“We had to expand our existing databases to make sure that we were accurately capturing the names of attorneys, for example, who were involved in investigations, but not yet in pending cases,” Dunne told THE CITY. “That was a more complicated process than you might have thought.”
‘We Were Not Going to Wait’
The new arrangement between the DAs office and the Vance campaign technically is in violation of the city’s charter, the COIB said, because it breaks rules on using government employees and confidential information for campaign business.
In 2014, the city Department of Investigation cited then-Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes for using his office resources to pursue reelection.
In Vance’s case, the Conflicts of Interest Board determined the benefit of the screening system outweighs the bending of regulations.
“The protocol advances the valuable city goal of reducing the influence of campaign donations in prosecutorial decision-making,” wrote Erika Thomas, acting chair of the COIB, in her letter to Vance.
COIB gave a green light for the fundraising methods in a July 12 letter after Vance’s office first requested guidance from the board in February.
Dunne said he had no doubt the ethics board would approve the screening process. But he made it clear the DA’s office readied the process months before COIB officially weighed in.
“We were not going to wait,” Dunne said. “We made sure they were ready to go as soon as any fundraising was reinstated.”
If the newly heightened screening process finds a donor has a connection to a confidential investigation, the money is held in an account separate from the campaign until it can be returned after the case concludes — so as not to tip prosecutors’ hands. No such donation like that had yet been identified, the COIB letters said.
Ethics watchdogs cheered on the effort.
“We support efforts to limit contributions by donors doing business with his office, which may necessitate communications between select staff members and the campaign to make that determination,” said Alex Camarda, a senior policy advisor with good-government group Reinvent Albany.
Fundraising on Low Flame
Vance has collected a modest amount of cash since his last election in 2017, state campaign finance records show.
He raised nothing in 2018 following his fundraising halt in October 2017. As of July, Vance pulled in $25,600 in 2019, leaving him with just over $105,000 on hand. That’s less than 10% of the $1.35 million he had in the bank two years before his 2017 run.
The laundry list of high-powered lawyers and law firms that once lined Vance’s campaign coffers haven’t yet donated to the DA. But his campaign has received some contributions from white collar and trial lawyers, as well as real estate executives, according to THE CITY’s analysis of campaign finance records.
The three-term Democratic incumbent already faces several primary challengers, including longtime state prosecutor Alvin Bragg and ACLU staffer Janos Marton.
Marton said the fundraising changes from Vance are “a positive step,” but stressed campaign finance laws governing district attorney elections are “in dire need of reform.”
“A system that values the collective support of the community, such as a public matching fund system, would be preferable to a system in which campaigns can receive $25,000 checks (or more!) from monied interests,” he wrote in an email, referring to the contribution limit in Manhattan of up to $50,000, depending on the number of voters in the county.
Said Bragg, “It’s stunning that it’s taken 10 years for DA Vance to set up a protocol to ensure that lawyers with cases before the office are not at the same time funding his campaign.”
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