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When the head of a nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated people applied for a grant from Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr.’s multimillion-dollar asset forfeiture fund, he met with a seemingly endless application.
“It was very long and repetitive and asked for information that wasn’t relevant or necessary,” recalled Thomas Safian, co-founder and executive director of Refoundry, which provides people out of prison with job skills and mentorship. “The whole process from start to finish was emblematic of inefficient, unimaginative, plodding and powerplay politics.”
Safian’s organization was not chosen after a review by the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative (CJII), the organization selected by Vance to help him decide what programs to fund.
Vance sits in a unique position: His office has collected more than $800 million in so-called asset forfeiture funds — largely money reaped from criminal case settlements with big banks doing business in a world financial capital.
The DA has allocated tens of millions for everything to smartphones for NYPD officers to clearing a backlog of untested rape kits across the country.
Four years ago, he separately set aside $250 million for his CJII-operated grants program, a sum that’s dwindled to $36.5 million, a review by THE CITY found.
Vance created a structure akin to a foundation, where proposals are screened by a team of CJII and DA’s office staffers. But Vance and his executive team ultimately decide who gets the money.
Some legal experts and good-government groups say that setup allows Vance to dole out millions with minimal oversight — and with big potential for conflict.
“The DA is not an administrative agency or the legislature,” said Carol Kellerman, the retired president of the Citizens Budget Commission.
“If money comes in from a legal settlement or from taxes, the government and the legislature are elected to decide how that money is spent,” she added. “The executive branch should oversee how that money is spent. Not the DA.”
Vance at a Crossroads
The funding of Vance’s CJII-run program is winding down as the top Manhattan prosecutor has come under fire for his handling of several high-profile cases and remains undecided whether he’ll seek a fourth term.
It also comes as one candidate seeking to unseat him is sponsoring legislation that would send half of asset forfeiture funds in deferred prosecution cases to state coffers and the other half to a borough president or a county executive.
“It creates a perverse financial incentive for a prosecutor’s office to have the means to create these slush funds,” Vance rival and state Assemblymember Dan Quart (D-Manhattan) said of the current setup, which applies to prosecutors across the state.
But Vance stands out from the crowd, thanks huge legal settlements with banks — including a record $8.9 billion penalty paid by BNP Paribas for violating United States sanctions by doing business with Sudan, Cuba and Iran.
Vance’s spokesperson notes that Quart’s bill would not cover some prior bank penalties, like the BNP Paribas case. Additionally, large portions of seized funds are already handed over to the state and city, said the spokesperson, Danny Frost.
For example, in a recent case that would fall under the bill, Vance is keeping $8 million out of a $1 billion fine, Frost said.
A $2 Million Budget
In 2016, Vance selected the City University of New York Institute for State and Local Governance to operate the CJII.
Michael Jacobson, former head of the city’s probation and correction department during the Giuliani administration, runs a team that’s the equivalent of 11 full-time staffers. The annual $2 million budget is covered by forfeiture funds.
Jacobson and his crew created an application process and disbursement system similar to ones used by city and state government entities and philanthropic foundations.
“Funding opportunities” are announced online and groups with unique ideas can also reach out directly to the CJII. They then fill out detailed applications tied to requests for proposals put out by the CJII.
All told, the institute has issued 24 requests for proposals since 2016, and is currently seeking groups to develop a center for trauma innovation in northern Manhattan.
The process is highly competitive.
Of the 380 applications received for projects since 2016, the institute has awarded funds to 51 organizations as prime contracts, and an additional 75 subcontractors.
Among the major initiatives being funded is a series of community-based hubs where young people and their families can go for health help and other services. The effort has received $46 million from Vance.
Another initiative, a college-in-prison program, has gotten $7.5 million.
Grant recipients range from Young New Yorkers, which has a $390,000 annual operating budget, to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, with an annual operating budget of $3.6 billion.
Some of the grants have gone to traditional DA adversaries, like the Legal Aid Society, which is currently representing hundreds of criminal defendants in Manhattan. The group notched a $1.3 million grant for a “family and youth development program” designed to assist younger defendants.
Jacobson, who also served as the head of the Vera Institute of Justice from 2005 to 2013, defended the grant.
“That’s one of those no-win positions for Vance,” Jacobson said. “He could be criticized for saying, ‘I’m never giving those people money because…they’re my adversary.’ Or he could be criticized for giving them money.”
Innovation vs. Establishment
But Safian, who runs Refoundry, contends that the grants system is designed to reward already long-established groups and doesn’t “encourage investment in many new models.”
Jacobson defended the process, saying the institute has made efforts to fund smaller and innovative organizations, and offered back-office support to some groups that needed it.
He pointed out that all the programs are evaluated as they progress and are asked to meet specific metrics. That information, he hopes, will be used to make better funding decisions in the future.
Some critics contend that the setup encourages Vance and other prosecutors to pursue criminal cases they believe will generate huge penalties to boost their asset forfeiture kitties.
“You have an incentive to go after defendants who still have their fancy cars. In a way, that skews professional judgement,” said Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School who co-authored a report on prosecutorial conflicts.
Frost denied fiscal implications play a role in criminal cases the office pursues.
“These funds come from DA Vance’s aggressive investigations against major banks,” Frost said. “So it is surprising to hear this from the people you are speaking with, unless you are speaking with a lobbyist for big banks.”
‘A Big Deal’
Vance also has come under fire for using the asset forfeiture money to travel across the country, and world, for law enforcement conferences.
THE CITY reported last April that he spent $249,716 on meals and work trips to everywhere from Los Angeles to Paris.
And the money doled out doesn’t just go to New York City organizations and isn’t always overseen by CJII.
In 2015, Vance’s committed $38 million in forfeiture money to help local prosecutors across the country with testing rape kits. The money has led to 165 prosecutions, with 64 convictions so far, according to The New York Times.
In 2014, the NYPD also got $90 million to pay for smartphones and tablets for cops — a grant that has also been questioned.
“I think it’s important that the two organizations [police and prosecutors] remain separate,” said Roiphe, who worked for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office during the Robert Morgenthau era.
“If he’s giving directly to the NYPD, that has an appearance of impropriety,” she added.
Frost denied there was any conflict, noting 25 cases where NYPD staff were criminally charged by Vance’s office since 2010.
“We have disagreements with the NYPD, on a range of issues, all of the time,” Frost said.
Roiphe argued Vance and other prosecutors should be doing everything in their power to avoid any possible conflict.
“The criminal justice system works not just because it is fair but also because the public believes it is fair,” she said. “Anything that seems like a defendant is not going to get a fair shot undermines the system. That’s a big deal.”
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