Amid harsh criticism over his decision to drop investigations against members of the Trump family and Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has said that he and his office may “rethink” accepting campaign donations from criminal defense attorneys.
Within the span of a week, news reports revealed that Vance had dropped separate investigations into sexual assault claims against Weinstein and fraud accusations against Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., and that at some point attorneys for the targets of the investigations had donated funds to Vance’s campaign committee.
Meeting with a press scrum on Wednesday at John Jay College in Manhattan, where he was speaking at a conference, Vance said the practice of DAs taking donations from defense attorneys whose clients are being prosecuted be their offices is legal, but said that doesn’t mean the practice shouldn’t be questioned.
“It’s absolutely legal but it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be reexamined office by office,” Vance said, according to transcript of the interview provided by his office. He also denied allegations of a quid pro quo with attorneys representing the Trumps and Weinstein and that contributions have never had the “slightest impact” on the way he handles cases.
Vance was first elected in 2009 and is running with no opponents on the ballot for a third term.
In 2012, Marc Kasowitz of Kasowitz Benson Torres, a longtime attorney for the Trump family, gave $25,000 to Vance’s re-election campaign, but Vance later returned the donation.
The Trump siblings were being investigated on allegations that they used misleading statements to attract prospective buyers to the Trump SoHo hotel.
After the investigation was dropped, in 2012, Kasowitz made another $32,000 donation to Vance, but Vance returned the donation last week.
In the matter of Weinstein, in 2015, Vance’s office investigated allegations that he sexually assaulted Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. Recently revealed audio of a conversation between Weinstein and Gutierrez appeared to portray her questioning why he had groped her breasts and Weinstein attempting to coax Gutierrez into his hotel room.
Vance said Wednesday, though, that his office determined it was not going to be a “provable” case.
New York City Police Det. Sophia Mason said in an email that, while there are no pending complaints against Weinstein, the department is conducting a review to determine if there are any additional complaints.
In August 2015, after the investigation was dropped, David Boies of Boies Schiller Flexner made a $10,000 donation to Vance’s campaign. But a spokesman for Boies Schiller said that Boies has represented Weinstein and his company in civil matters and never represented Weinstein in a criminal investigation.
“Neither David, nor anyone in his office, ever spoke to anyone in Mr. Vance’s office about Harvey Weinstein,” the statement reads.
Regardless of their stated positions, taking campaign cash often raises questions of loyalty for any candidate or elected officials, depending on who the donors are.
In one recent example, earlier this year, acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, who won the Democratic nomination for Brooklyn DA in September and who is unopposed in the general election, returned $7,500 that his campaign received from the bail bond industry after critics questioned how he would approach the issue of bail reform once in office.
Marc Fliedner, a former Brooklyn prosecutor who lost to Gonzalez in the primary, said Wednesday that he is running against Vance as a write-in candidate.
Rebecca Roiphe, a New York Law School professor and a former Manhattan prosecutor, said that regardless of whether a prosecutor’s approach to a case is influenced by campaign cash, they should be concerned about giving any appearance of impropriety, which can be affected by their timing in meeting with donors.
With regard to Vance’s handling of the investigation of the Trumps, Roiphe said, the sequence of events surrounding the decision to drop the investigation “looks so bad,” and said that Vance likely knew that it looked bad or “otherwise he wouldn’t have returned the money.”
“The worst thing that could possibly happen to the criminal justice system is that it could be bought and sold and that’s what’s at stake here, in my mind,” Roiphe said.
Following the revelations about the investigation into the Trump siblings, Assemblyman Dan Quart, a Democrat who represents the Upper East Side and Midtown East portions of Manhattan, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman calling on him to investigate Vance’s conduct.
In an interview, Quart, who has practiced law in Manhattan for about 19 years and who serves on the borough’s 18B panel, which provides representation to indigent defendants, said he also sees a pattern of poor defendants having their “lives ruined” by Manhattan prosecutors while the well-heeled are allowed to walk.
“There is a different track of justice for the wealthy and well-connected in Manhattan,” Quart said.