Daniel R. Alonso (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
Before becoming Manhattan’s Chief Assistant District Attorney, Daniel R. Alonso already knew what it was like to have wide-ranging “to do” lists.
By then, his legal career included being a Kaye Scholer litigation partner and serving on a state public integrity commission. Alonso had also been a Manhattan assistant district attorney and an Eastern District Assistant U.S. Attorney, where he was chief of the office’s criminal division.
But in the past four years, the top deputy post under District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has presented Alonso with the broadest array of responsibilities yet: tasks such as staff management, coordinating with various agencies and working on the office’s legal and policy questions.
“The variety of responsibilities was a first for me,” he said.
Now, Alonso, 48, is winding down those duties to get back to private practice. He formally stepped down from the chief assistant post on Jan. 31, but stayed through February in an advisory capacity. Karen Friedman Agnifilo has replaced Alonso as chief assistant.
More than 20 years ago, Alonso’s first job out of law school was five years as a Manhattan prosecutor when Robert Morgenthau headed the office. When he returned in 2010 to assist Vance as he assumed the reins, Alonso said the office was “remarkably similar” to how it was when he left.
A difference, however, was the way in which a case could be built given the Internet and technological advances, producing a surge in available evidence.
Alonso says he’s “sad to leave” the place where he launched his legal career but adds that he’s excited to get back to “practicing law full time.” He looks forward to the “great variety of matters” an attorney can take on in private practice—along with the prospect of getting back into the courtroom more often.
Q: Why did you join Cyrus Vance Jr. at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office? Why are you leaving now?
A: I joined D.A. Vance because it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Like most former ADAs in my office, I had always carried with me the lessons we learned from Mr. Morgenthau about fairness and non-partisanship. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to help carry those values into the office’s future.
Q: What functions did you perform as chief assistant district attorney?
A: Although I was in many ways a jack of all trades, a few areas took up a great deal of time. In particular, I oversaw the office’s litigating divisions—­the Investigation Division and the Trial Division—and advised on many difficult investigations and legal issues, working with division chiefs, supervisors, ADAs, and of course, D.A. Vance. In addition, I was responsible for overseeing our public communications and our legislative and public policy agendas. I also worked on many issues of legal ethics. One role that had not been expected, but was extremely rewarding, was working on the day-to-day operations of the District Attorneys Association during the year that D.A. Vance was the president. That included the report of the New York State White Collar Crime Task Force.
Q: Did you have the freedom to oversee operations as you saw fit?
A: My job was to help implement the D.A.’s vision for the office as he laid it out. Within that mandate, I think I was able to put my stamp on issues that were important to me, and do the job the best way I knew how.
Q: Can you elaborate on Vance’s vision?
A: When the D.A. ran for office in 2009, he said his decisions would be guided by the answers to two questions: Does it make us safe? And, is it fair? To that end, he and I came to this office looking at every way we could further drive down crime, and make our criminal justice system more fair. This meant implementing new initiatives, like the Conviction Integrity Program and the Cybercrime and Identity Theft Bureau, as a way to focus more resources and attention on newer, and growing, areas of concern. It also meant looking at how our laws are failing us, and working to change them. There was really no area of the law and no type of crime that went un-reviewed.
Q: Did you ever get involved in individual cases? Under what circumstances?
A: Yes, primarily in three ways. First, I briefed three appeals and argued two of them (the third will unfortunately be argued after I leave). Second, I handled six or seven shifts in Criminal Court parts, namely arraignment and all-purpose parts. Last, I worked on a grand jury investigation of perjury in a criminal trial, which resulted in the indictment of the defendant in the underlying case as well as his key defense witness. I undertook the last project because I believe that perjury goes unpunished far too often in our criminal courts, and our civil courts for that matter.
Q: How much time did you spend in court?
A: Unfortunately, very little compared to what I had done in my previous two stints as both an ADA and an AUSA. Other than the appearances mentioned above, I tried to watch trials and appeals when I could, but my regular job didn’t allow me to do that as often as I would have liked.
Q: What were your goals when you joined the office? Did you achieve them?
A: As I mentioned, the overarching goal was to carry forward the great traditions of the Manhattan D.A.’s office while helping to implement Vance’s vision. Every organization needs to modernize, and if we had one key goal, it was that. From the advent of intelligence-driven prosecution, to New York’s first Conviction Integrity Program, to our state-of-the-art Cybercrime Bureau and computer forensics lab, to the more modern internal metrics that we use, the office definitely works differently than it did four years ago.
Q: Did you make any mistakes? Do you have any regrets?
A: I’m sure that I made mistakes, as all human beings do. In terms of regrets, it would have been nice if my work schedule had lent itself to trying at least one case.
Q: What was frustrating about your job? What was rewarding about it?
A: What was frustrating about the job is also what made is very rewarding—there is just so much good work to be done in the criminal justice arena, in New York City as well as in the state, and it can be a challenge to get things done. For example, the fight to get important legislation passed in Albany was at times very challenging, but the reward of now having updated laws on our books that better protect victims of sex crimes and domestic violence is something I am extremely proud of. The same goes for the complex white-collar cases that we handle every day—frustrations usually lead to rewards, and great satisfaction.
Q: What are the memorable cases that the office handled during your tenure?
A: I hope you’ll let me answer this question by slightly redefining it. In my experience, the cases that the media considers significant are not necessarily those that we do. So, for example, we secured the conviction of many, many domestic violence murderers and vicious rapists, most of which barely merited a mention in the press. I always thought that was unfortunate because those cases are so important to a civilized society.
All that said, to me some of the most memorable cases I spent time on were the John Haggerty case [in which Haggerty was found guilty of defrauding former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in connection with his 2009 campaign], our pending prosecution of more than 100 retirees for Social Security disability fraud, some major fraud matters that I can’t get into, and the litigation with Twitter over whether the company would disclose public tweets to a criminal court pursuant to a subpoena. I’m also proud to have worked on several matters of a type the public doesn’t often think about: cases in which, after investigation and deliberation, the office decided not to pursue charges at all. Those cases usually never see the light of day, and rightly so.
Q: Do “press cases” like the investigation of Dominique Strauss-Kahn require any special handling?
A: As Morgenthau used to say, every case is important to the victim, so the short answer is no, every case requires the office’s best efforts commensurate with its complexity. But the communication effort in so-called press cases can involve quite a bit of special handling, mainly because we are required to field seemingly-endless requests for information from the media, such as court documents, trial exhibits, and the like. In the Strauss-Kahn case, for example, we literally had the world’s media camped out in front of our courthouse, and our limited staff spent a lot of time answering basic questions about court procedure.
Q: In what way had the office changed between your initial time there and your return in 2010? How has it changed under Vance and what lies ahead?
A: The office was remarkably similar in 2010 to what it had been in 1995, but the work had definitely changed. There had been, and continues to be, an explosion of available evidence in any particular case. From much-refined forensic science techniques such as DNA analysis to computer information obtained from smartphones or social media, our assistants today have many more sources of potential evidence available in any given case. But what that means is that any particular felony case takes much longer to prosecute today than it would have when I started in 1990, because obtaining that evidence can be very time-consuming.
As for how it is different from when Vance took over, the office is much more tech savvy. All ADAs have BlackBerries. Our cyber lab is now one of the best in the nation for a local prosecutor. And our Crime Strategies Unit mines data like never before in this office. All of that makes our cases stronger, and the office run more efficiently.
In his second term, I anticipate that Vance will focus on new priorities and new strategies, all aimed at preventing crime. But one priority that is the most overdue, and will be very welcome, is that he will seek to physically renovate the offices of our Trial Division assistants. That is long overdue. Something like 40 years overdue.
Q: What criticisms do you most often hear about the office from defense attorneys? Are any of them justified?
A: I would say that the defense bar is most disappointed that we have not expanded our discovery policy voluntarily. It’s certainly a valid point of view, but it’s ultimately not justified. Many of our ADAs and supervisors often agree to provide more than the law requires to defense counsel in particular cases. And Vance has been out front in calling for responsible legislative expansion of discovery in New York since he ran for office. But the key part of that is “responsible.” Witness tampering and other forms of obstruction of justice are far too big a problem in New York for discovery to be expanded lightly, or for that expansion to go too far.
Q: Morgenthau had been the D.A. for 35 years when Vance took over. Has Vance been able to put his own stamp on the office? How do the two D.A.’s differ?
A: It’s hard for me to answer that because I worked under Morgenthau when he had already been in office more than 15 years. By the time I got to know him better, years later, he had been D.A. for more than 30. So it’s hard to compare that to someone who just finished his first term.
But I have heard a lot about Morgenthau’s first term, and in their early years, I think they were similar in a key way. Both came in with ideas to change the office structurally, and those changes were not always received with open arms by veteran staff. But I think even now, Vance’s biggest innovations, such as the Crime Strategies Unit and the Conviction Integrity Program, are very well-received throughout the office, as Morgenthau’s certainly were.
Q: Last year you acted as the co-chair of a task force that made recommendations for changing the state’s white-collar crime law. Why was that effort important?
A: Although New York state prosecutors handle some of the most sophisticated fraud and corruption cases in the nation, the laws and rules under which we operate have never had a systematic review or overhaul in the 40 to 50 years they have been in existence. Although some relevant laws were overhauled in 1986, as part of Governor Mario Cuomo’s criminal justice initiatives, most have stayed remarkably similar. But although a lot has changed in all that time, our laws really haven’t caught up. So, at Vance’s urging, we undertook to do just that, with the goal of providing a blueprint to the Legislature and the Governor. The effort is crucial—from the prosecution of sophisticated investment frauds in Manhattan to those who defraud the elderly in Buffalo, New York is far behind where it should be. Our report lays this out in detail.
Q: Do you anticipate the recommendations will be implemented?
A: I am an eternal optimist, but it is too soon to tell, and we are well aware that passage of legislation often takes multiple sessions. To paraphrase Victor Kovner, legislative reform is not for the short-winded.
But I do feel strongly that the fact that some of our recommendations—such as eliminating automatic transactional immunity in the grand jury, as to which New York is a lone outlier —are opposed in some corners should not stand in the way of other proposals that one would be hard-pressed to challenge. How do you tell an identity theft victim from Ohio that she has to travel personally to the grand jury rather than submit an affidavit? How do you tell an elderly fraud victim that her caregiver can’t go into the grand jury room with her when the D.A. consents? Why are schemes to defraud victims out of $2,000 the same level crime as schemes to defraud victims out of $2 billion? My colleagues on the task force and I believe that these questions answer themselves.
Q: Has the office and the state district attorneys association been successful in achieving other legislative priorities?
A: Absolutely. The expanded DNA databank was Vance’s first major legislative victory, and that expansion has led to serial sex offenders who had eluded police being caught once they were convicted of misdemeanors and their DNA went into the databank. And last year’s passage of our Aggravated Domestic Violence legislation means repeat DV offenders can now be treated as felons—giving the court more supervision over them, longer orders of protection for victims, and so forth. Both of these bills have resulted in real safety increases for New Yorkers.
Q: You have been both a prosecutor and a defense attorney. Which do you enjoy more?
A: I think even defense lawyers who have been prosecutors, in my office or elsewhere, will tell you that it was the best job they ever had. The answer is no different for me.
Q: What are your plans for the future? How will your experiences in the district attorney’s office influence what you do?
A: After some quality time off with my family, I plan to return to the private sector and handle interesting assignments that come my way. My experiences in the D.A.’s office were invaluable, and they’ll always stay with me. I’m definitely a better lawyer and a better manager for having spent four years here.