Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter testifies before the City Council this week. He was joined by Jeffrey Friedlander, the office’s first assistant corporation counsel. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
New York City’s top prosecutors, corporation counsel and Legal Aid lawyers urged City Council members over the past week to maintain or increase funding that Mayor Bill de Blasio allocated for each office in his 2014-15 spending plan.
Some departments fared better than others in the mayor’s budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The City Law Department, for example, could see an $11 million funding bump, to $158.5 million if the council passes the mayor’s preliminary budget.
His spending plan also allocates $674 million for judgments and claims for the upcoming year, an increase from the $663 million now allocated for judgments against the city.
Despite the higher funding amounts, Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter pledged at a hearing Tuesday to find savings by avoiding some of the expensive, protracted legal battles waged by the Bloomberg administration.
“What we are trying to do is … to attempt to resolve as many cases by dispositive motion practice as possible, and that requires a substantial effort in early screening at intake,” Carter said.
Among recent payouts is a $98 million settlement of a seven-year hiring discrimination case involving the New York City Fire Department. Councilman Ben Kallos asked how the Law Department reached that figure in U.S. v. City of New York, 13-cv-3123.
Carter replied it was “simply a back pay figure” representing what the city owed nearly 1,500 claimants.
“It is a product, quite frankly, of the duration of the lawsuit,” Carter said. “If it had been resolved earlier, the amount … of the damages would have been lower.”
Kallos also asked the status of settlement talks in the Central Park Five case. The city has been fighting a $250 million lawsuit brought by five men who claim they were wrongfully imprisoned for the 1989 attack of a jogger for which another man claimed sole responsibility. Carter said the discussions are ongoing but declined to comment further.
Meanwhile, the mayor’s proposed budget trims funding to the city’s five district attorney offices and the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor by $1.4 million, to a combined $294.9 million.
The offices’ annual budgets are modified by the City Council throughout the fiscal year to include incoming revenue, plus state and federal grants the agencies receive after the budget is adopted. When accounting for modifications, the district attorney’s offices’ combined budget for the current year is $321.5 million, up from the adopted $296.3 million.
At a March 21 hearing, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson asked for more funding to ease the “fiscal mess … I inherited from the previous administration.”
Specifically, he asked for $500,000 for its Conviction Review Unit, which is now examining several potential wrongful conviction cases involving now-retired detective Louis Scarcella. In February, the city announced a $6.4 million settlement with David Ranta, who spent 23 years in prison for a now-vacated murder conviction that was based on Scarcella’s allegedly flawed investigative work.
Thompson said he plans to staff the unit with existing ADAs and investigators and wants to hire a dedicated special counsel.
“We need to give people confidence in the convictions that come out of the Brooklyn office,” Thompson said. “It’s important for us to get it right.”
Spending $500,000 to prevent the potential future civil settlements like Ranta’s “sounds like quite a bargain, quite frankly,” Councilman David Greenfield said at the hearing.
Several of the district attorneys asked for more funds to hire more assistant district attorneys and reduce heavy workloads.
For example, in Staten Island, the smallest prosecutor’s office in the city, 46 ADAs handle up to 250 matters each annually. The office had 57 ADAs in 2001.
Prosecutors don’t have annual caseload caps such as the 400 misdemeanors or 150 felony criminal defense case limits for Legal Aid Society lawyers, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan pointed out. Since those limits were enacted in 2009, the number of public defenders in each borough has increased, while the number of prosecutors has fallen or stayed the same.
That creates an “uneven playing field,” Donovan said, tilted in favor of the defense. In addition, the city’s ADAs, many of whom are paying off six-figure law school loans, make salaries of $70,000 after five years on the job. That is less than the $90,800 paid to city police officers and $85,400 to corrections officers, whose positions require only a two-year associate’s degree.
“Our lawyers need to be treated equally,” Donovan said.
The Staten Island office asked for $188,000 to hire two ADAs, a paralegal and secretary to support a Family Justice Center as domestic violence arrests on Staten Island have increased.
In Brooklyn, the incoming class of ADAs hired in February was down to 42 from last year’s 63, Thompson said, in order to keep personnel costs down. But under the mayor’s preliminary budget, Thompson said, the office would be forced to lay off up to 50 ADAs and freeze hiring until 2016.
Special Narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan asked the council for $530,000 to hire ADAs and investigators to manage a sharply-rising volume of heroin cases and expand its prescription painkiller unit. Deaths by heroin overdose citywide jumped 84 percent between 2010 and 2012, she said. The majority of ‘heroin mills’ are concentrated in the Bronx, where easy access to highways is making the borough a regional hub for drug traffickers.
Bronx Chief Assistant District Attorney Odalys Alonso, who appeared on behalf of District Attorney Robert Johnson, said the office has been strained by a recent push to clear case backlogs and reduce arrest-to-arraignment times. She asked for $371,000 to hire additional support staff. Alonso also requested $386,000 to create a new unit to assist ADAs in web-based investigations as more evidence can be found on social media sites.
The mayor’s plans to cut $20.4 million for indigent defense services in the next fiscal year are due mainly to a downsizing of its 18-B Assigned Counsel program for criminal defendants. Starting last September under the Bloomberg Administration, the city began transferring conflict case assignments to The Legal Aid Society, Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, New York County Defender Services and Queens Law Associates instead of 18-B attorneys.
The agencies’ conflict caseloads are expected to rise to 23,350 for the upcoming fiscal year from 17,514 currently. Savings to the city could reach $6 million next year, according to city estimates.
The Legal Aid Society’s $103.9 million preliminary budget allocation is $6 million more than it currently receives. The new funds will go to its larger conflict caseload.
In a hearing before the council Tuesday, Seymour James, Attorney-in-Charge of Legal Aid’s Criminal Practice, and Judith Goldner, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit, asked for additional funding for the agency’s civil initiatives as well. In particular, they requested $2.5 million more for a citywide civil legal services program for indigent clients and $2 million more for an anti-eviction program.
“One of the hardest things for us is when people come in and we hear their stories and we know that if we represent them, they would prevail, but we can’t help them because we don’t have enough people,” Goldner said.