District Attorney Cy Vance, in the tradition of his two predecessors Robert Morgenthau and Frank Hogan, is a man of consummate integrity. As is the lawyer Elkan Abramowitz, who Harvey Weinstein reportedly chose to represent him when Vance’s office was asked by the police to look at Weinstein’s reprehensible conduct.
No one who knows anything about Vance, or Abramowitz—essentially the dean of the white collar criminal bar in New York who happens to have been Vance’s former law partner—has ever said anything to the contrary about them.
Nor will anyone who knows what he or she is talking about believe for a second that Vance “took a dive” and decided to not prosecute Weinstein either because these two pillars of the New York bar had once been law partners or, more directly, because Weinstein’s attorney had made a contribution, at any time, to Vance’s campaign. To even posit that scenario, frankly, would be ridiculous. (Nor would Vance have acted inappropriately because Donald Trump’s lawyer had given Vance a campaign contribution close in time to representing the Trump children in a separate DA investigation.)
Turning, though, directly to Weinstein, would Weinstein have wanted a lawyer who was not only a leading member of the bar but who also had a prior and likely continuing relationship with Vance? Absolutely yes—as would anyone with half a brain. But does campaign money factor into the equation? Not at all.
And, what’s more, I can pretty much guarantee that if one were a fly on the wall in Abramowitz’s office while he was being “vetted” by his then-potential client, he would have heard the attorney say something like: “Sure, we will receive an audience with the District Attorney’s office to plead our case. But don’t think for a minute that he’s going to be doing us any favors. Will not happen. Period. End of story.”
So, accept for the moment that I’m right about this. Can that possibly be the end of it—that both Vance and the attorney are as pure as the driven snow, and that the hubbub over the contributions is just that—hubbub? Should we just say that there is no basis for the press to be all over Vance for having taken contributions from attorneys representing high profile clients in a sensitive, pending matter that is likely to get the attention and involvement of the District Attorney himself? Or that the firms shouldn’t have been allowed to make the contributions?
Obviously not. We live in an era of an appropriately challenging and, indeed, skeptical citizenry. Particularly when potential criminal conduct is so over-the-top disturbing, shouldn’t the public have the right to believe that justice is being dispensed employing the punctilio of integrity? And aren’t the optics just as important? Even more so when some commentators and practitioners in the criminal justice system rightly complain that lesser-light defendants than Weinstein get prosecuted daily on the kind of evidence felt insufficient by the DA in Weinstein’s case—a worthwhile discussion, but for another day.
And the problem that the ever-suspicious public has—it not having the firsthand knowledge of the two distinguished men involved as does this writer—is simple: “How do we know that dollar signs were not in the back of Vance’s head when he decided to not prosecute Weinstein (or, for that matter, any other defendant whose lawyer gave money to a Vance campaign)?” The truth is that when “appearances” are implicated, the public can’t possibly know.
It’s a “problem” that every elected official faces, whether the District Attorney of New York or upstate Otsego County, an Assemblyman from Buffalo or a state Senator from Long Island, or even the Attorney General of the State. Vance says he is considering procedures to not accept campaign contributions from criminal defense lawyers. Good. But, unless we have public financing of elections, there is no sure-proof barrier to a skeptical public from wondering. New York City has hugely diminished the problem by having the most robust public campaign finance program in the country. And the state legislature has been attempting to institute one for state-wide officials. In the face of the current mess, Vance says that he has asked the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School to promptly begin an independent review of how his campaign handles contributions, and that his campaign will accept no money presumably until recommendations have been made. That’s the kind of progress that should come out of these headlines. Is that enough? We shall see.
Finally, full disclosure. My law firm represents the District Attorney’s campaign on election matters, and has previously contributed (albeit an insignificant sum) to his campaign. I mention it last, lest any “partiality” inferred overwhelm the thoughts expressed here.
Joel Cohen, of counsel at a law firm in New York, is the author of “Broken Scales: Reflections on Injustice.”