When Queens District Attorney Richard Brown steps down from his post on June 1, he will turn control of his office over to his longtime right-hand man John Ryan, a veteran prosecutor who Brown calls a “close and trusted friend,” until a new district attorney is elected.
Brown, 86, who has served as Queens DA since 1991, announced on March 7 that he will resign before his term ends, citing health reasons; he suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He previously announced that he would not seek an eighth term for his seat, which has touched off what is already shaping up to be a competitive Democratic primary to succeed him.
As for Ryan, although he has worked as Brown’s chief assistant for 22 years, he said in an interview with the Law Journal that has no intention to run for the top spot himself, nor has he had any serious desire to do so through his tenure.
“I’m not political. I’m a registered independent with a small ‘i,’” Ryan said. He said he has worked on the investigative side of things throughout his career and that staying out of politics helps keep him conflict-free.
However, that doesn’t mean that Ryan is a stranger to the spotlight. The notable cases he’s worked on include the prosecution of William Morales, a suspected member of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, a Puerto Rican paramilitary group that took responsibility for a number of bombings in New York City in the 1970s.
During his stint with the New York Attorney General’s Office, Ryan worked on the high-profile Tawana Brawley case, in which an African-American teenage girl alleged that four white men sexually assaulted her, cut racial slurs into her body and covered her with feces.
The case fanned the flames of racial tension, but a grand jury concluded that Brawley was not raped and that she may have inflicted her injuries herself.
Ryan is a 1974 graduate of the St. John’s University School of Law. When asked what led him to become a prosecutor, he said he never actually intended to be one.
Every year when speaking in front of incoming classes of new assistants, Ryan said he recounts a scene from “The Graduate” in which a character tells the eponymous graduate, played by Dustin Hoffman, that he should get into plastics, a field that Hoffman’s character clearly isn’t interested in.
“When I was in law school, criminal justice and prosecution was the equivalent of plastics,” he said. But Ryan interned with the Queens DA’s office during his time at St. John’s, and the work eventually grew on him.
“We’re as proud of exonerating the innocent as we are prosecuting the guilty,” Ryan said. “There’s no feeling in the world to describe when you give justice to a family.”
The candidates running for Queens DA in the June 25 Democratic primary include Tiffany Caban, a public defender with New York County Defender Services; Queens Borough President Melinda Katz; Betty Lugo of Lugo & Pacheco, a past president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association; Mina Malik, a former Queens prosecutor who works for the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia; City Councilman Rory Lancman; retired state Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak; and Jose Nieves, a prosecutor with the New York Attorney General’s Office.
The candidates have all said, if elected, they intend to make changes to the Queens DA’s office, which under Brown has stood athwart some of the progressive reforms adopted by district attorneys in other boroughs.
Ryan said that some of the candidates’ proposals for changes to the office have raised his concerns, and that some candidates “really don’t know much about the office,” including that there are some 30 different alternative sentencing programs available in Queens.
But Ryan said he understands that, in an election year, there might be some hot air blowing.
“Judge Brown is a far smarter, wiser man than I and he tells me to calm down,” Ryan said. “I’m going to accept that a lot of political rhetoric is political rhetoric.”
Ryan said that, when a new district attorney takes the reins next year, he intends to leave the office and spend more time with his family. As for his time as acting DA, he said he intends to keep the office moving on the course that Brown charted for it.
“It’s my goal to keep doing what we’re doing — to keep doing justice,” Ryan said.