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Fallout from “staggering” misconduct allegations against a top deputy of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. widened Wednesday as a judge tossed one of her cases, another defendant mulled withdrawing his plea and prosecutors began reviewing her work.
Diana Florence, the longtime head of Vance’s Construction Fraud Task Force, resigned two weeks ago after allegations surfaced that she’d deliberately withheld damaging information about her star witness in a multi-defendant construction bribery case.
On Wednesday, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus took the highly unusual step of dismissing all charges against defendant Kyriacos Pierides — finding Florence violated rules requiring prosecutors to turn over all evidence.
“The scope of the late disclosures is staggering,” Obus said.
Big Day for Defendants
A spokesperson for Vance, Emily Tuttle, later revealed the DA’s office is reviewing “related cases” where Florence used the same witness as in the Pierides case. The office is also considering whether to appeal Obus’ dismissal, Tuttle said.
Pierides, a former vice president at a Kansas-based firm who’d been charged with bribing a city bureaucrat to win lucrative contracts, choked up outside of court.
“I feel relieved and happy that this is over and I can put it behind me and start living my life again. But they ruined my life and my reputation,” he said, his eyes tearing and his voice cracking.
Earlier Wednesday, another defendant prosecuted by Florence came forward to seek redress in response to the hidden evidence allegations. ‘
Alex Spiro, a lawyer for Shahid Aktar, who pleaded guilty to bribery in a deal worked out with Florence, told a judge he was likely going to move to withdraw his client’s plea.
The judge in that case, Acting Supreme Court Justice Ellen Biben, set a hearing for Monday and said she would review Obus’ decision.
Another defendant, engineer Henry Chlupsa, was convicted in November in a non-jury trial prosecuted by Florence. His lawyer, Nelson Boxer, asked Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Thomas Farber last month to vacate the conviction, arguing that Florence had deliberately withheld evidence that was harmful to her case. That request is pending.
All three of these cases stemmed from allegations of informant Ifeanyi “Manny” Madu, a former mid-level bureaucrat for the city Department of Environmental Protection who was the sole cooperating witness against several engineering firms and contractors Florence hit with bribery charges.
As Florence’s cooperating witness, Madu claimed he’d received gifts such as lavish restaurant meals, Broadway tickets and work for a subcontracting company he controlled in exchange for providing insider information to firms bidding on city contracts.
His cooperation resulted in the unsealing of seven indictments in April 2018 in one of the first major cases for Florence’s Construction Fraud Task Force.
Several of the defendants subsequently worked out plea deals, Chlupsa was convicted by a judge and Pierides was about to go on trial.
But in early January — on the eve of Pierides’ trial — Florence suddenly turned over tens of thousands of emails and a 2015 tape of an interview with city Department of Investigation probers in which Madu swears under oath he never took bribes from anyone, as THE CITY revealed.
Pierides’ attorneys, Marc Agnifilo, Teny Geragos and Andrea Zellan, immediately asked Judge Obus to toss the case against their client. Days later, Florence resigned from Vance’s office and was replaced as head of the DA’s Construction Fraud Task Force. Her resignation is expected to take effect soon.
Fired Up Judge
In a 17-page written order released after a brief hearing Wednesday, Obus concluded “this is among the rare cases in which dismissal is appropriate.”
“While the Court rejects any characterization of the People’s nonfeasance as an intentional or deliberate attempt to unfairly prejudice the defense, it finds much of the People’s explanation troubling and inadequate,” he said.
Obus noted that back in July 2018, another judge had instructed Florence in plain language to turn over all emails from or to specific defendants to the defense team. Florence initially turned over 14 of such emails to Pierides, before giving the defense more than 130,000 on the eve of his trial.
The judge made clear that there was no excuse to withhold until the last minute Madu’s prior denial under oath that he’d received bribes from any contractor or engineer — rejecting Florence’s argument that Madu’s denial carried little weight.
Obus said that he “would expect the defense to make ample use of that material before a jury.”
Pierides’ lawyers, Agnifilo, Geragos and Zellan, issued a statement praising Obus’ decision as “a victory for Mr. Pierides, a PhD and engineer, who has had his professional life derailed by this prosecution, and all criminal defendants deserving fair treatment in our justice system.”
How this will play out with the two other cases now being contested remains to be seen.
After learning of Obus’ ruling, Chlupsa’s attorney, Boxer, stated, “We have maintained Henry’s innocence from the outset and believe the systematic, egregious, and perhaps knowing discovery violations strengthen our case for dismissal.”
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