New York District Attorney On The Defense Over Handling Of Weinstein Allegations

Oct 13, 2017
Originally published on October 13, 2017 7:00 pm

If only because of its venue, the office of New York district attorney has long been among the highest-profile prosecutorial jobs in the country. The men who have served in it, legal legends such as Thomas Dewey, Frank Hogan and Robert Morgenthau, have often held the job for years, gaining enormous stature and political capital along the way.

Until recently, it seemed the current DA, 63-year-old Cyrus Vance Jr., might enjoy the same long tenure.

But controversies over the Trump SoHo development and the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein have raised new questions about Vance's prosecutorial discretion and even his ethics. Both cases involved wealthy, powerful individuals who had contributed to his election campaigns.

This week, as numerous actresses stepped forward to say they had been assaulted by Weinstein, Vance had to explain why he declined to prosecute the movie mogul, despite graphic audiotape of Weinstein harassing an Italian model in a Manhattan hotel. The tape was collected in 2015 as part of an undercover sting operation by New York police.

Despite the audiotape, Vance said prosecutors in his office had determined the evidence against Weinstein wasn't strong enough to pursue a case.

"I understand that folks are outraged by his behavior," Vance told reporters. "I understand that there are many other allegations that have surfaced, but in our case, we really did what I think the law obligates us to do."

"If we could have prosecuted Harvey Weinstein for the conduct that occurred in 2015, we would have," said Karen Friedman Agnifilo, chief assistant district attorney.

But criminal attorney Matthew Galluzzo, who once worked in the DA's sex crimes unit, told The Associated Press he believed the audiotape, in which Weinstein acknowledges touching Gutierrez on the breast, could have been used to pursue a case.

"She can testify about what happened, and you've got him acknowledging he did something wrong," Galluzzo said.

Before this week, questions were also being raised about Vance's handling of a fraud investigation involving the Trump SoHo, a condo hotel built by the Bayrock Group. Some early buyers of units at the hotel sued Bayrock, arguing that they had been misled about the hotel's sales records.

The Manhattan DA's office had considered pursuing fraud charges against Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., who played a big role in promoting the hotel. An investigation by The New Yorker, WNYC and ProPublica said prosecutors wanted to pursue a criminal case, but Vance said evidence to do so was lacking.

The report also noted that Vance had received a $32,000 campaign contribution from one of Trump's lawyers shortly after dropping the case. Vance had also received an earlier donation, which he had returned.

"It was improper for him to accept it in the first place. He responded by returning those donations and then apparently accepted them again after the fact," noted Jim Cohen, a professor at Fordham University School of Law.

Before these controversies, Vance, who was first elected in 2009, enjoyed a solid if somewhat low-profile reputation in the New York legal world.

"He is in general viewed with great respect. He's considered to be a straight shooter. But recent news events may ultimately end up changing that," Cohen says.

The son of Cyrus Vance, secretary of state in the Carter administration, Vance attended Georgetown University Law Center before taking a job in the Manhattan DA's office.

Although he moved to Seattle to work in private practice, he later returned to New York, where he was long seen as a potential successor to Morgenthau.

After Morgenthau chose not to run for re-election, Vance was elected as a Democrat to replace him. He was re-elected in 2013.

While Vance hasn't yet achieved the prominence of his predecessors, his office has handled major investigations such as the sexual assault case against former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

The Weinstein case has exploded just as Vance is preparing to run for a third term. He is running unopposed, which makes his re-election almost inevitable, says longtime Democratic consultant Jerry Skurnik.

But the controversies have definitely hurt Vance's reputation and make him more vulnerable should he choose to run again in 2021, Skurnik says.

"His name recognition has probably gone up. But most of this new name recognition is not positive," he says.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

This week, The New Yorker released an audio recording of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. He's heard trying to lure a model into his hotel room. She doesn't want to go. The tape was recorded by the New York police as part of a sting operation, but the investigation ended after the Manhattan district attorney decided not to prosecute. Now the DA is under scrutiny himself. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: If only because of the venue, the Manhattan district attorney is among the nation's most high-profile prosecutors. The job has attracted legal legends such as Thomas Dewey, Frank Hogan and Robert Morgenthau, who have tended to stay in the job for years, says New York political consultant Jerry Skurnik.

JERRY SKURNIK: When you get elected district attorney in Manhattan, it's sort of like a job until you decide to retire.

ZARROLI: Until recently, it seemed that 63-year-old Cyrus Vance Jr. might enjoy the same long tenure. The son of Jimmy Carter's secretary of state, Vance went to law school and then became an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. He worked in private practice in Seattle, then came back to New York. In 2009, he was elected to succeed Morgenthau. Skurnik says he hasn't cut a high profile.

SKURNIK: He hasn't been as prominent partially because the city's crime rate has gone down.

ZARROLI: But he has presided over some major prosecutions such as the sexual assault case against former IMF chairman Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Jim Cohen is a professor at Fordham Law School.

JIM COHEN: He is in general viewed with great respect. He's considered to be a straight shooter. But recent news events may ultimately end up changing that.

ZARROLI: This week's New Yorker story said that after Weinstein was taped sexually harassing the Italian model, some prosecutors wanted to pursue a case against him. But Vance overruled them, arguing there wasn't enough evidence. He spoke to reporters this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CYRUS VANCE JR.: I understand that folks are outraged by his behavior. I understand that there are many other allegations that have surfaced. But in our case, we really did what I think the law obligates us to do.

ZARROLI: The Weinstein case followed a report by ProPublica, WNYC and The New Yorker involving the Trump family. The DA's office had investigated Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. for fraud over the sale of units at the Trump SoHo. But as in the Weinstein case, Vance decided not to prosecute. The report said a Trump attorney had made a $25,000 contribution to Vance's campaign and then after the case was dropped gave an even bigger one, $32,000. Cohen says the donations raise serious questions about Vance's judgment.

COHEN: It was improper for him to accept it in the first place. He responded by returning those donations and then apparently accepted them again after the fact.

ZARROLI: Vance later returned the second contribution he received as well. Unluckily for Vance, the controversies have arisen at a time when he is running for a third term. Luckily for him, he has no Republican opponent and is almost certain to win. But Skurnik says the controversies have hurt his reputation.

SKURNIK: His name recognition's probably gone up, but mostly this new name recognition is not positive.

ZARROLI: Manhattan district attorneys have typically faced token opposition when they ran for re-election, and that's been true of Vance. But the Weinstein and Trump SoHo cases mean the political landscape could look a lot different if Vance runs for office next time. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "SEVEN MINUTE MIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.