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Manhattan DA Candidates’ Reform Talk Rattles Veteran Prosecutors

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office in lower Manhattan, June 4, 2021.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office in lower Manhattan, June 4, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

On the campaign trail, most candidates for Manhattan district attorney have promised major changes to the storied office. And some have pledged to shrink it.

For the hundreds of people employed by New York County’s top prosecutor, the thought of their next elected boss slashing staff — potentially trimming the office’s power to go after big fish like Donald Trump and shady banks — can be alarming.

Candidates Eliza Orlins and Tahanie Aboushi have both committed to a plan to cut the Manhattan DA’s nearly $145 million budget by half. Assemblymember Dan Quart has said major personnel changes would follow if he wins — citing as a benchmark the 28% staff turnover that took place in the first year of reform prosecutor Larry Krasner’s tenure in Philadelphia.

With the Democratic primary quickly approaching, current and former prosecutors tell THE CITY these campaign-trail promises have stirred up fears of careers ending, and a new boss who will reshape and gut the office.

Some staffers are already looking for the exits. A supervisor at the DA’s office says this election season has many veteran staffers eyeing an Albany bill that would allow early retirement for public workers over the age of 55 or with 25 years of experience.

“Any one of those people is jumping for the hills,” the supervisor said, speaking anonymously because they are not authorized to talk publicly. “People don’t want to work for somebody who they can’t respect.”

Manhattan has long been home to complicated and high-profile court cases. The successor to District Attorney Cyrus Vance will likely inherit the office’s Trump investigation, which moved to a grand jury recently.

Daniel Alonso — who previously served as the chief assistant DA under Vance between 2010 and 2014 and as an assistant district attorney under former Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau — said he doubts any of the candidates “are irresponsible enough to fire the members of the Trump team.”

But, given some of the candidates’ views, “I do think that some members of the Trump team might well leave on their own,” he said.

Quart told THE CITY he doesn’t “think much weight should be given to that subjective fear,” and that concerns from current and former prosecutors are “unwarranted.”

“I’ve been very direct with the voters about my vision for the office and I would have hiring practices and bring in personnel consistent with that vision,” he told THE CITY. “And that’s how democracy works. That’s why we have elections.”

A Need for Change

While some career prosecutors see the election of a new boss as a possible existential threat, reformers view changes to the office’s budget and payroll as necessary steps to changing a broken system

Keli Young, civil rights campaign coordinator at nonprofit VOCAL-NY — which is among the dozen groups that authored a platform calling for a 50% cut to the DA’s budget — said as the movement to reduce NYPD spending has gone mainstream, attention must also be paid to prosecutors “and the unchecked power that they wield.”

“They are some of the most powerful officials in our criminal legal system and the power they have has been used to devastate Black, Brown, and low-income communities,” she said. “This cannot be ignored.”

Some candidates have said they would redirect resources from prosecuting low-level crimes linked to mental illness, addiction or poverty — such as theft of food and toiletries, and loitering charges for sleeping on the subway — and instead focus on potentially more high-impact investigations.

Orlins, for example, wants to see more environmental justice and wage theft cases, she told THE CITY. Aboushi plans to look at police misconduct and unethical prosecutors, and vowed to take “a tougher stance on white-collar prosecutions.”

“Our mission is to achieve justice and with that will come change, but any changes we need to make will be done after we take the necessary time to conduct a comprehensive review of staff,” Aboushi said in a statement to THE CITY.

The former civil-rights lawyer added that she “values the expertise of the attorney and non-attorney staff of the DA’s office and looks forward to working with them to reimagine the office’s culture and operations.”

Even those candidates who have not made specific commitments to shrink the size of the office’s budget or personnel say they want to redirect its resources.

Alvin Bragg — the former chief deputy attorney general for New York State — has said he will push for more prosecutions of white collar crime and public corruption.

In a statement, he told THE CITY he will focus on “serious crimes and big, structural cases” and away from “minor offenses that now fill the docket and do not make us safer.”

“As in most transitions, I expect to bring in a new senior management team to help promote a culture change consistent with my values,” he said, adding that “we will look to prevent disruption in big, complicated, ongoing cases.”

“I expect some will not like the change and will choose to leave and others cannot adapt to the change and will be replaced,” he said.

Manhattan district attorney candidate Alvin Bragg pushes for the Adult Survivors Act during a press conference outside Columbia University, May 26, 2021.
Manhattan district attorney candidate Alvin Bragg, May 26, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Candidate Diana Florence, the former head of the construction fraud unit at the Manhattan DA office who resigned under fire, said she will refocus the office’s budget “to concentrate on crimes of power,” including gender-based violence, housing fraud, cyber crimes and corruption.

The majority of the Manhattan DA’s current $143.3 million budget is dedicated to personnel, according to data from the Independent Budget Office.

That means “budget cuts” would translate to “firing staff members, most likely including prosecutors, without replacing them,” said Alissa Marque Heydari, deputy director at the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College and a former prosecutor herself.

(DA candidate Lucy Lang previously served as director of the IIP, but Marque Heydari said she is not supporting any candidate in the race.)

“If you’re really going to cut the budget by 50%, you are obviously going to be making do with a lot fewer people,” Marque Heydari said.

As of late May, 1,088 of the office’s 1,514 current staffers are assistant district attorneys or community associates, a role that, according to a spokesperson for the DA’s office, most commonly includes paralegals, investigative analysts and discovery analysts.

Even as arrests have fallen, employment at the DA offices citywide is at historically high levels, according to a 2020 analysis by the Independent Budget Office. Staffing in Manhattan is more than double what it was in 1980, when there were just 706 full-timers — and crime was rampant.

To Brandon Holmes — co-director at the Freedom Agenda, also part of the group pushing a 50% budget cut for the DA — reversing the trend of expanding prosecutors’ offices is overdue.

“We need to draw a clear line in the sand that we’re not going to continue to give them the resources and to have the size and scope that they currently have…to over-police and over-incarcerate specific communities, most often low-income communities of color,” he said.

But to the current DA supervisor, making big cuts would mean one thing.

“You’re going to have a whole lot of really inexperienced people who are handling things that are way above their heads,” the supervisor said.

Know How

Marque Heydari noted “there has to be a balance between making sure you have people who will implement your vision for the office, but also acknowledging that being a prosecutor is a very specific job that requires training.”

“Especially with the rise in violent crime, you want to make sure that you have line assistants who know how to prosecute those cases,” she said.

Running a prosecutor’s office, “especially in a big city,” said one senior Manhattan prosecutor, “is incredibly complicated.”

Rules about arrest, questioning, arraignments, discovery, grand juries and the timing of all of it — that all takes years to perfect, and they worry inexperienced staff won’t have the experience to get it right.

“Criminal procedure law is very, very specific in a huge variety of ways,” they said.

They pointed to an account via the conservative National Review magazine of one disillusioned young prosecutor who found Krasner’s reform efforts in Philadelphia chaotic, as a cautionary tale for Manhattan. Despite his critics, Krasner won a mid-May primary on his way to reelection in Philadelphia.

The current supervisor in the DA’s office worries ideology will steer the office, rather than the facts of a case.

“We’ve now gotten to the point that politics dictates justice, rather than justice dictating justice,” they said.

Unlike other races in the city this year, the district attorney contest will not be conducted through ranked choice voting, because it is technically a state position, not a city one. That means the June 22 victor must win outright, without help from second- or third-place votes. And there will be no run-off if none of the eight Democratic candidates gets a majority — the nomination will go to the contender with the most votes.

Both Bragg and Tali Farhadian Weinstein — a former Brooklyn prosecutor who has amassed a war chest of millions through donations from the Wall Street world — are the financial frontrunners in the race.

In a statement, Farhadian Weinstein said she appreciates “the experience and hard work of the public servants who work inside of the district attorney’s office.”

“As is the norm, I look forward to meeting them and making staffing decisions upon assuming office” she said.

Tali Farhadian Weinstein is running for Manhattan District Attorney.
Tali Farhadian Weinstein is running for Manhattan District Attorney.
Tali Farhadian Weinstein/Facebook

Candidate Lang, the former director of the IIP at John Jay and a former Manhattan prosecutor, said “transforming the office will require more than simply reducing the budget — it will mean fundamentally transforming the DA’s office so that incarceration is treated as an absolute last resort.”

Conservative Democrat Liz Crotty, a favorite among some veteran prosecutors but lagging in the race, said “those who promise wholesale changes as a campaign promise are reflecting their misunderstanding of the job.”

“Experienced [assistant district attorneys] are the institutional memory of the office,” she added.

Leaving in a Huff

The new DA will have the power to clean house mostly how he or she sees fit. Unlike many public employees in New York, assistant district attorneys are at-will employees who are not represented by a union.

To Alonso, that raises a concern that the office will return to its very political history of 100 years ago when, with every new district attorney, a slew of firings based on political patronage would follow.

Liz Crotty is running for Manhattan District Attorney.
Manhattan district attorney candidate Liz Crotty,
Screengrab/Liz Crotty/YouTube

“The new DA would almost always be backed by Tammany Hall,” he said, “The line assistants — the regular ADAs — would be replaced, and the top criterion for who the new people would be: are they loyal to a particular district leader or party candidate?”

Famed prosecutor Thomas Dewey put a stop to that practice in the late 1930s, and a tradition of largely merit-based and apolitical hiring practices began, Alonso said.

Through Vance’s tenure, prosecutors’ jobs have been overall secure from one leader to the next. When Vance cut fewer than 10 prosecutors when he took office in 2010, “people were pretty shocked,” Alonso said.

“Not since the Tammany Hall days has there been such a risk to sitting assistant district attorneys,” he said.

Orlins told THE CITY she found that notion “categorically absurd,” while underlining that “the culture is going to change.”

“If people are not on board with the mission, and they want to leave, OK. That’s OK. I understand there are many career prosecutors who are deeply invested in the status quo,” she said.

Holmes says good riddance.

“Anyone who is not willing to take on this Herculean feat of transforming the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, the culture and the environment, we want you to leave,” Homes added. “And we do believe you should lose your job, because you have continued to perpetuate racist, discriminatory prosecution and unethical practices.”

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