In a joint appearance as candidates before next week’s Democratic primary, five of the six lawyers seeking to be elected Brooklyn district attorney sought to embrace the policies of Kenneth Thompson, who died in office last year, and distance themselves from the tainted legacy of ex-DA Charles Hynes, during whose tenure they all worked as prosecutors.
Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, as the presumed frontrunner in the race, was again targeted for barbs from the five opponents he met on stage on Tuesday night for a debate hosted by NY1 at BRIC in downtown Brooklyn.
In addition to Gonzalez, the debate participants were Ama Dwimoh, who is special counsel to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and who was a Brooklyn ADA from 1988 to 2010; Marc Fliedner, a civil rights lawyer who was an ADA from 1987 until last year; Patricia Gatling, an attorney with Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf and former commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights who began her career with the Brooklyn DA’s office; and Anne Swern, who worked for the office for 34 years, beginning in 1980.
The only candidate with no link to Hynes was City Councilman Vincent Gentile. Gentile, who represents parts of southern Brooklyn, is a former Queens prosecutor and has sought to cast himself as the outsider in the field.
The primary election is set for Sept. 12.
Hynes’ quarter-century tenure has become shadowed by a series of controversies, including a number of convictions secured by his office that were later thrown out.
Throughout the past several months, the candidates have worked to distance themselves from Hynes and to align themselves with Thompson, who ran as a reform candidate in 2013 and unseated Hynes in an upset. Thompson died after a battle with cancer last year before he could finish his term.
As Thompson’s health failed, he tapped Gonzalez, his second-in-command, to run the office.
Some candidates, including Dwimoh, have pushed for tougher action against prosecutors whose convictions are later vacated, such as forming a review unit that could hold prosecutors accountable.
“You can’t be afraid to review the work of prosecutors in the criminal justice system,” Dwimoh said.
Gonzalez defended the work of his office to hold prosecutors accountable, saying that what Dwimoh is proposing is “punishment” for prosecutors, which he called “a little naive,” as there is potential for politics to come into play.
On the subject of sanctions for prosecutors, Gatling did not mince words, saying that prosecutors who are found responsible for wrongdoing should be disbarred.
“We don’t need them to practice law anywhere,” Gatling said.
Another heated exchange between Gonzalez and Dwimoh broke out later in the debate when candidates were asked how they would handle low-level offenses. Dwimoh said that, during his time as head of one the office’s trial divisions, Gonzalez “did nothing” to curtail prosecutions of so-called broken windows offenses and that he has rode Thompson’s “coattails” as a progressive.
“The biggest concern I have is if you have the backbone not to go back to the Hynes ways,” Dwimoh said.
Gonzalez responded by bringing up an internal investigation into Dwimoh’s conduct while she was with the office regarding how she treated her staff.
“You left the office under a cloud,” he said. Swern backed up the assertion, saying she led the investigation in Dwimoh’s conduict.
For her part, Dwimoh said she resigned from the office because of Hynes’ leadership.
Sparks also flew during a “cross-examination” section of the debate in which candidates were given the opportunity to lob a question at the opponent of their choice—all chose Gonzalez.
Dwimoh asked if Gonzalez would seek to prosecute former New York City police detective Louis Scarcella, who worked on eight cases in which convictions were later tossed out.
Gonzalez said the office is looking into about 30 more cases in which Scarcella worked on their investigations, but said he believes that under state law that “a prosecution of Detective Scarcella is not possible.”
The candidates are generally in agreement that reliance on cash bail should be reduced, but Swern questioned Gonzalez about a $7,500 donation to his campaign from the bail bond industry; Gonzalez said he returned the money.
When it was his turn to ask a question, Gonzalez asked Swern why she didn’t push against the imposition of cash bail when she was in the Brooklyn DA’s executive offices.
Swern responded that, during her tenure, prosecutors were without alternatives like supervised release and that there was no Brooklyn Community Bail Fund to help poor defendants, which launched in 2015.
The New York City Bar Association’s Committee on the Judiciary, which is tasked with issuing rulings on a candidate’s fitness for office, gave “approved” ratings for all candidates in the race except Fliedner. The City Bar does not comment on its ratings after they’re issued. Fliedner said he declined to take part in the City Bar’s rating process.
Similarly, the Brooklyn Bar Association’s fitness committee issued approved rankings to all candidates except for Fliedner, noting in its report that he was not approved because he did not participate in the rating process.
Gonzalez leads the pack in terms of union endorsements and fundraising—he has raised more than $1.6 million in the race. He recently picked up an endorsement from the Policeman’s Benevolent Association and has collected endorsements from high-powered elected officials in New York City, including U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-New York, and Public Advocate Letitia James.
But one recent poll of 800 registered Democrats showed that, while Gonzalez leads the pack, his lead might not be a total lock, City Limits reports.
The poll found 42 percent of those surveyed were undecided about their favorite in the race, while 19 percent said they favored Gonzalez. Gentile came in second, with 14 percent of those surveyed saying they want him to take over the office.