Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance has spent nearly $715 million in money reaped from big-bucks case settlements on criminal justice programs, records show — leaving his successor, Alvin Bragg, with just a small fraction of the kitty.
The asset forfeiture funds — largely gained from banks doing business in a world financial capital — has paid for everything from the $38 million review of thousands of old rape kits throughought the country to smartphones and tablets for NYPD cops to NYCHA infrastructure safety upgrades.
Vance has also come under fire for tapping the dollars to travel across globe for law enforcement conferences — spending nearly $250,000 on meals and work trips to everywhere from Los Angeles to Paris, THE CITY reported in April 2019.
He continued the spending even after public exposure of his high-flying trips, expensing $20,327 for travel to Miami and Singapore as well as for various meals and cab rides in the year that began in June 2019, records provided by his office show.
Only once the pandemic shut down travel and dining did Vance pull back, charging just $205 in the fiscal year that began in June 2020.
Danny Frost, a Vance spokesperson, defended the overall spending.
The DA led “aggressive” probes into “11 of the world’s biggest banks, then directed hundreds of millions of dollars in the forfeited proceeds of their economic crimes to community-grounded organizations and projects that are supporting young people, crime survivors, and reentering New Yorkers in underserved Manhattan neighborhoods,” he said.
Vance also made “sustained investments in our neighborhoods so that fewer people became involved in the justice system in the first place,” Frost added, declining to address the three-term DA’s use of the funds for travel expenses.
Bragg Promises Transparency
Bragg won election as Manhattan’s first Black DA earlier this month after running as a reformer who vows to pull back on prosecuting certain offenses and to pursue alternatives to incarceration.
He also pledged to create a so-called participatory budget system similar to the one used by many City Council members, in which constituents vote on how to steer some spending.
“I want to have a process that’s more open,” Bragg told THE CITY, noting he prefers programs that focus on “mental health” and re-entry services for people coming out of jail and prison.
But Bragg will start with just $31 million, according to records — and those dollars are already dedicated to a City University of New York grant program called the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative.
Bragg says he has no plans to yank funds that Vance, who declined to seek a fourth term, already committed.
“We want to keep those going,” he said. “As the money dwindles we will really have to think strategically how to keep some of this good work going.”
‘Designed as Prevention’
The CUNY grant program, operating under the Institute for State and Local Government, started out with $250 million from Vance in 2016 and a focus on “impactful projects that will improve public safety, develop broad crime prevention efforts, and promote a fair and efficient justice system in New York City.”
It’s led by Michael Jacobson, the former head of the city’s probation and correction department during the Giuliani administration who went on to head the Vera Institute of Justice.
Jacobson and his team of roughly 11 full-time staffers spent more than a year mapping out how best to distribute the funds and put out dozens of calls for project proposals on themes that ranged from community reentry after incarceration to youth development to trauma response.
“Vance was clear that this was designed as prevention in the broadest sense because for him a crime prevented is better than a crime prosecuted,” Jacobson recalled.
One priority was helping launch new initiatives, such as the Center for Trauma Innovation at Exodus Transitional Community, Trauma-informed Abusive Partner Intervention at Urban Resource Institute, and community navigators at Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.
All told, the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative has 52 grantees and over 90 subgrantees, with many grants extending beyond Vance’s term in office.
“You can spend it quickly and stupidly or you can take your time and really be strategic about it,” Jacobson said. “This may be a self-serving thing to say, but I think we’ve done the latter.”
Jacobson hopes Bragg will keep him and his team on board to oversee the contracts and continue to study their results.
“We always knew this would be a multi-year thing,” he said. “And hopefully, a lot of these programs will continue to grow...to get other city or national funding and will be part of making a new evidence base and have national implications.”
Some legal experts and good-government groups have questioned how Vance has used the millions of dollars with minimal oversight — and a big potential for conflict.
Some of the grants have gone to traditional DA opponents, such as the Legal Aid Society, which is currently representing hundreds of criminal defendants in Manhattan. The group landed a $1.3 million grant for a “family and youth development program” designed to assist young people charged with crimes.
And legal ethicists have expressed concern that the Manhattan DA’s office has incentives to pursue criminal cases that could potentially yield financial penalties to boost their asset forfeiture kitties.
New York City has seen abuses of DAs’ forfeited funds.
The late Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes used asset forfeiture funds to pay more than $200,000 for a political consultant who worked on his unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2013, according to a city Department of Investigation report.
Staffers in Hynes’ office said they were pressured to take on cases that were likely to generate greater sums of money.
City Hall has tried to take more control of the funds. In 2009, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg accused then-Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau of hiding $83 million from banks in secret accounts.
“This is the public’s money and you just can’t have two sets of books,” Bloomberg told WNYC at the time.
Bragg, a veteran of the state attorney general and Manhattan federal prosecutor’s offices, noted that he has worked on asset forfeiture cases. He said he is keenly aware possible conflicts — and declared that his office will not prosecute based on potential money reaped for the fund.
“Certainly we have to be mindful that we are doing cases because they should be done — with putting in protocols and guardrails in place,” Bragg said.