Victor Olds ()
Among the more than 60 new hires that Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark has announced for her office in recent weeks was Victor Olds, an experienced litigator who has a job unlike any other in the state.
Olds, 65, will serve as the inaugural chief of Clark’s new Professional Responsibility Bureau, a unit that will be charged in part with reviewing ethics complaints against Bronx prosecutors.
The unit was formed after Clark, who took office in January, joined other New York district attorneys to speak out against a proposed bill in the state Legislature to form a disciplinary board for prosecutors similar to the Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Clark, however, decided to form an internal version of the board, signaling to the public that complaints against prosecutors won’t simply be ignored.
A Brooklyn Law School graduate, Olds was admitted to the bar in 1978 and began his career in public service as an assistant attorney general in charge for the New York Attorney General’s Office. He then worked as a prosecutor for a decade in the Southern District U.S. Attorney’s Office, first in its civil division and later in its criminal division.
Olds most recently served as first deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigations. Prior to that, he worked simultaneously as head of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Legal Services Corporation and as senior counsel to Legal Services NYC.
In his new role, Olds will review curriculum for the continuing education of prosecutors, oversee ethics complaints from defendants, civilians, police officers, defense attorneys and judges; and ensuring that Bronx DA’s office complies with the city’s conflict of interest rules.
Q: What attracted you to this position and what makes you the best fit for the job?
A: To be perfectly candid, when I was invited to interview for a position with the Bronx District Attorney, I assumed it would be for a position in litigation given my background as a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District. When DA Clark began to explain that they had me in mind for a novel position that would be one of the first of its kind in the state—if not the first—among local prosecutors, and involve a combination of training new assistant district attorneys in the areas of trial strategy and tactics, along with focusing the entire legal staff on ethics and professional responsibility, I went from being interested and intrigued to excited and enthusiastic. I’ve always been drawn to challenges, and the thought of being a part of something that had never before been accomplished, i.e., helping to build into the structure of a local prosecutor’s office an integral and practical component whose focus is to help our ADAs function both effectively and ethically, is something I found extraordinarily appealing.
I believe that I am the best fit for this job because it requires a skill set that I have been working to develop throughout my career, i.e., my litigation experience as a former federal prosecutor; my administrative capabilities that have been developed through a variety of leadership roles in government and public interest organizations; and finally, my professional responsibility tasks as a former member of the New York City Bar Association’s Executive and Judiciary committees, where I helped to tackle ethical issues involving judicial candidates and matters involving the legal community generally.
Q: What are the bureau’s primary goals?
A: Well, in an overall sense, DA Clark has made it very clear that her goal is for me to join in her determination to make the Bronx District Attorney’s Office the most effective and highly regarded local prosecutor’s office in the state (if not the country). To that end, the Professional Responsibility Bureau will focus its attention on providing litigation training, and establishing and overseeing a best practices committee and an ethics committee. Collectively, my bureau will be responsible for designing and implementing training for our assistant district attorneys, as well as investigating ethics complaints against our prosecutors from defendants, civilians, police officers, defense lawyers and judges. In addition, I will serve as the district attorney’s compliance officer for any matters arising under Chapter 68 of the New York City Charter and the Conflicts of Interest Board.
Q: Can this bureau help avoid instances or appearances of prosecutorial misconduct that could jeopardize jury verdicts or endanger the integrity of convictions?
A: Yes, absolutely. In fact, that is an essential role of my position. Look, I start from the premise that every prosecutor in this office wants to do the right thing. But even as experienced prosecutors will tell you, sometimes doing the “right thing” may not be so apparent. A good example of this can be found in our obligation to turn over exculpatory information to the defense. While that general standard is clear and one to which every ethical prosecutor would readily adhere, implementing that rule in the countless situations that prosecutors face on a daily basis can be tricky. Sometimes, for example, a document may legitimately, at first blush, appear innocuous or irrelevant as it relates to our Brady/Giglio obligations. The facts of the case might evolve in such a way, however, as to require a re-examination of how that document is treated under Brady. Moreover, it is entirely possible that two well-meaning ethical assistant district attorneys may each view that same situation differently, and thereby take different paths regarding disclosure. This is a problem that constantly confronts all prosecutors, because at the heart of what we are charged with doing is to seek a just outcome, whether or not that happens to be a conviction. My job, in part, is to sharpen the analytical eye of our prosecutors so that errors of this nature become less likely.
Q: What ethical issues do you think need to be reinforced for today’s urban prosecutors?
A: Well, let me first address a premise of your question, which is that the needs of rural and urban prosecutors are significantly different. I don’t view ethical issues as a function of geography. The same concerns in this regard that apply to a Bronx County prosecutor should, in the main, apply to prosecutors in rural settings, although they may play out in different ways based upon the cultural norms of a given community. That said, one concern that has recently been highlighted is the acknowledgement and awareness of “implicit bias.” Studies have concluded that all of us suffer from this condition which manifests itself in various forms and to varying degrees. As prosecutors with enormous power to affect the lives of people whom we encounter, whether as defendants or as victim witnesses, we must constantly be vigilant to ensure the our prosecutorial decisions are not improperly guided by our inherent biases in our quest to seek a just outcome.
Q: Are there certain vulnerabilities affecting the overall mission of the Bronx DA that you feel the Professional Responsibility Bureau could address?
A: One that readily comes to mind relates to something I alluded to earlier regarding our need as prosecutors to behave ethically when doing our job. We have to be sure that all of our “i”s are dotted and our “t”s crossed. Achieving this level of proficiency on a daily basis is admittedly a challenge, and particularly so for an assistant district attorney, because there is this built in tension within our adversarial system simultaneously to be a zealous advocate for our clients within the bounds of ethics and fairness while adhering to the overarching goal to “do justice.” These are not two separate goals; they are merely different aspects of a singular ideal. Navigating a path that achieves this unified goal can, however, sometimes be difficult in the day-to-day life of a prosecutor. I am hopeful that my background and experience has equipped me to be a source of guidance in this area, particularly to our newer ADAs.
Q: Coming in as the first head of a new bureau, you may be setting an example not only for future bureau chiefs but for other district attorneys’ offices. What mark do you hope to leave?
A: Let me first say that it is not lost on me that DA Clark has taken a courageous step in establishing the Professional Responsibility Bureau as the first of its kind among our local prosecutors. In that regard, I hope to be able to demonstrate her commitment to the view that ensuring professionalism and ethical behavior among prosecutors can, and is most effectively done internally. To assist me in achieving that objective, DA Clark has assembled a stellar executive and senior staff, led by former prosecutor and former Acting Supreme Court Justice Joseph Dawson and Teresa Mason, a former Bronx County ADA and former chief of staff to the late Delaware Attorney General Joseph “Beau” Biden, III. With their guidance and support, together with that of my other managerial colleagues at the Bronx DA’s Office, I hope to model a bureau that will become the template in this area for district attorneys’ offices throughout New York state.
Q: Are there any other primary goals that you hope to accomplish?
A: One of the most exciting and personally gratifying aspects of my role will be the opportunity to help mentor new ADAs who are in the nascent stages of their careers. The opportunity—and responsibility—to get them off on the right footing is both sobering and daunting. In thinking about an effective means for accomplishing that task, I am reminded of the approach taken by the late John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach. I once read that his philosophy for success was fairly simple and straightforward: attract talented and enthusiastic young athletes; subject them to a rigorous training regimen to ensure their fitness for the task ahead; teach them the fundamentals; and lastly, with continuing guidance and support, turn them loose to be successful competitors. That’s essentially what I hope to be able to accomplish with our nearly 100 extraordinarily gifted, newly hired assistant district attorneys: train and nurture them professionally; empower them appropriately; and finally, with continuing guidance and support, help them to mature into the outstanding public servants that I know that are capable of becoming.