Albany County District Attorney David Soares, who was sworn in this week as president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, compared an effort by state lawmakers to empower a board to investigate prosecutorial conduct to attempts by national Republicans to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Soares urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to veto the bill, calling it “the most misguided piece of legislation that we have ever seen proposed by the legislature,” in an interview.
Soares, a Democrat, replaced Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara as president of DAASNY this week. McNamara had reached the end of his term.
Soares is a graduate of Albany Law School, where he said he originally wanted to go into corporate law. That changed when he interned at Albany City Court, he said.
“I recognized just how the criminal justice system was having an impact on people that looked an awful lot like me,” Soares said “From that one experience as an intern, it changed my direction forever.”
Soares went on to intern at the Albany County District Attorney’s Office, where he then worked after law school. He was first elected DA in 2004.
Soares has begun his one-year term as president. The New York Law Journal sat down with him to talk about his career and his vision for prosecutors in New York state.
Is there a case that you’ve worked on as Albany County District Attorney that stands out?
The case that impacts me even today is the one involving the death of a young child named Kathina Thomas. I had never witnessed a community sort of galvanizing around one tragic event like that. I remember walking in the neighborhoods and having defendants, gang members walk up to me in public looking to provide information and speaking to me, a member of law enforcement, about that tragic event.
What does it mean right now to be a prosecutor in New York state?
I’m so proud of the work that prosecutors are doing all throughout New York state because the very first time I walked into the DAASNY winter conference meeting, I was attacked by another prosecutor and made to feel as if I didn’t belong.
[Former Westchester County District Attorney] Jeanine Pirro, that’s all you have to say. I had run on reforming Rockefeller drug laws and Pirro viewed that as a threat, not only to her, but to all prosecutors and so she delivered the rallying cry in the room in opposition to me. I look back at that experience and I look at where the association is now and it’s a radical departure from its previous posture. So many of the best practices that are in existence right now are coming from prosecutors. Prosecutors have taken the lead in alternatives to incarceration and reform. I feel very excited about the direction that the association is going.
[Pirro responded to Soares in a statement sent Thursday evening.
“Mr. Soares recollection of said meeting of the State DAs Association, occurring shortly after his election as the Albany County DA, is markedly different than mine. My criticism of Mr. Soares, also voiced by a number of my colleagues, had nothing to do with the Rockefeller Drug Laws. (Laws that during my term I supported being modified as well as having developed a drug treatment program in Westchester long before Mr. Soares took office). At the meeting, as the new DA was welcomed in a decidedly luke warm manner, I confronted him about a recent speech he gave in Canada. Unbeknownst to the new DA, his comments, which attacked the integrity of every DA in the State, were readily available on the Internet. Not all DAs who believe that people who distribute poison to children should be locked up are lacking in compassion. Interestingly enough, Albany County under Mr. Soares’ stewardship, has one of the highest per capita incarceration rates for drug offenders in the State. Sounds like he got the message," Pirro said.]
What will the priorities of DAASNY be over the next year?
The priority of the organization is to be more proactive and less reactive. We don’t know what the agenda for the state is going to be until the governor really sets [it] toward the end of the year. By waiting until there’s an announcement, we always appear to be reactive and I’ve challenged myself, as well as the association, to begin developing our own agenda and speaking to our leadership about what we see as experts on the frontlines every day.
What do you think is the No. 1 issue facing prosecutors in New York right now?
The No. 1 threat to public safety and public health is the opioid crisis. It’s the analogs, it’s the internet, the amount of product that you’re able to acquire as a result of the dark web. That is the No. 1 issue for prosecutors. Another issue is witness intimidation and overcoming the fear of people from the most marginalized in crime-scarred communities with cooperating with law enforcement.
The Legislature passed a bill creating a commission to investigate the conduct of prosecutors. Will that change the work of DAs going forward?
That is, perhaps, the most misguided piece of legislation that we have ever seen proposed by the Legislature, and it didn’t fall on deaf ears or blind eyes that they were proposing this as their former leader was being prosecuted in downstate New York.
We believe that the legislation is unconstitutional, but I want to make it perfectly clear that we don’t fear oversight. What we fear is interference and that we could be investigating or prosecuting someone and a member of a PAC could file a complaint and we could have members of this body summoning a prosecutor to respond to allegations in the middle of an investigation. It’s not unlike what we’re seeing right now within the GOP-led House and Special Prosecutor Mueller.
That bill will now be sent to the governor. Have you talked to anyone in his office about rejecting that bill?
We’re certainly going to maintain an open line of communication with the governor’s office, and we would urge the governor to veto that piece of flawed legislation.
The state could likely legalize recreational marijuana. Is that good or bad for prosecutors, or does it not really matter?
I believe that New York state will be engaged in a market regulation for marijuana. DAASNY has not yet discussed the issue, but I as Albany County District Attorney am helping to educate my community about what that means. I think it’s just a matter of time before we see that happen in the state of New York and then it will take prosecutors all over the state to help address the concerns of people.
Have you ever thought about running for another office?
I think those of us who answer this call do it because we enjoy having an immediate and direct impact in the kind of service that we provide to the public.
The area we want to explore and that we’ve set a course for in this term in this office is sealing—helping people who have paid their price who are now looking to improve their lives, helping them seal records of their previous convictions and helping them get on a proper footing to improve our lives.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.