In the wake of revelations that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. dropped two probes involving high profile-targets whose attorneys donated large sums to his campaign, the issue of having defense attorneys donate to district attorneys’ political campaigns has come under scrutiny.
In Philadelphia, the contributions defense attorneys have made to the two candidates seeking to become the city’s next top prosecutor pale in comparison to the numbers seen in Manhattan. But both candidates said that, if elected, they plan to avoid meetings with defense attorneys regarding individual cases, and would only do so with additional members of their staff present.
“Ordinarily, my presence won’t be required in relation to a specific case,” Democratic candidate Larry Krasner said in an emailed statement. “On the rare occasions when it is, any such meeting would be attended by multiple staff and handled consistent with the transparency and accountability we are committed to providing. The public is entitled to know that nothing inappropriate is occurring.”
Republican candidate Beth Grossman also said that, if there ever was a legitimate concern that warranted her direct attention, she would never agree to a closed-door meeting. Along with bringing in her deputies, she said she plans to have all attorneys who request a direct meeting to outline in a letter why they want the meeting and what the meeting would be about.
“I don’t think closed-door meetings are appropriate. You’re going to run into trouble no matter what you do,” she said. “Everybody has the right to contribute to whichever campaign they want to. Will it ever affect my view on a case? Absolutely not. That’s totally inappropriate.”
Grossman said the issue might not be as significant with her campaign, since only a handful of defense lawyers donated to her campaign. According to campaign finance records, Grossman received a total of $11,000 in donations from attorneys since the beginning of the year, with contributions topping out at $1,000 for seven donors.
Krasner has seen significantly more donations from attorneys, although none of those donors hail from the criminal defense bar. In the past year, Krasner has received more than $113,000 from lawyers, according to campaign finance records.
A total of 81 attorneys, with practices ranging from bicycle crashes to labor disputes, gave at least $250 to Krasner’s campaign since the beginning of the year. Of those attorneys about 40 had practices that dealt at least in part with criminal defense.
According to the records, civil litigation firm Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel had the biggest contribution by a law firm, with $10,000. Donations from the name partners of Cohen, Placitella & Roth, which focuses on personal injury, also equaled $10,000.
Of the top spending individual attorneys were Shannon Fisk of Earthjustice, who donated $6,000, and civil litigation attorney Vernon Anastasio, who gave $5,500 in the past year, according to campaign finance reports.
The criminal defense lawyer donating the most in the past year was Gary Silver, who donated $4,500, campaign finance records show. Other notable defense attorneys who contributed to Krasner’s campaign included Jack McMahon, who gave $2,000, and Guy Sciolla, who gave $3,500. Twenty-one attorneys with criminal defense practices gave less than $1,000.
Krasner’s campaign has raised a total of $520,725 through direct contributions, according to the campaign finance reports. That number does not take into account the spending of independent groups supporting Krasner, like the $1.45 million a George Soros-linked political action committee used for activities supporting Krasner’s primary campaign.
In an emailed response to questions posed by The Legal, Krasner noted that “attorneys wear many hats during their careers,” often going back and forth between the prosecution and defense sides, and that, although some defense attorneys may have contributed to his campaign, if elected his office would also handle cases involving attorneys who contributed to Grossman’s campaign, or who did not donate to any candidate.
“Defendants who are represented by attorneys who donated to this campaign will be treated the same as every other defendant in the tens of thousands of cases handled by the approximately 300 attorneys in the District Attorney’s Office. The same with victims or witnesses in those cases,” he said in an emailed statement. “My office will evaluate their cases and exercise discretion fairly and appropriately regardless of the attorney in all cases.”
Recent media reports revealed that Vance’s office dropped investigations into sex assault and harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and also dropped an investigation into fraud allegations against Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr.
In the weeks since the reports have come to light, Vance said he would “rethink” allowing his campaign to accept donations from defense attorneys, and announced he would have an outside audit of his campaign donations.
Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI.