For the past four months, the people of Manhattan have grappled with Accusations of their District Attorney cultivating a Pay-to-Play Culture in which the Rich and Powerful skate by serious Criminal Charges, if their Lawyers Contribute sizable Donations to District Attorney (DA) Cyrus Vance, Jr.’s Campaign.
In a Public display of Penance for allowing the Appearance of Corruption to permeate, Vance requested The Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) at Columbia Law School to investigate ways to better Insulate our Elected Prosecutors from the influence of Donors. The CAPI recommendations make for a good headline after months of bad Public Relations (PR) for the DA, but will not change the Status Quo.
Following the Report, Vance said he will adopt the ‘Blind’ practice used for Judicial Candidates who are raising Money for their Campaigns. Unfortunately the failings of this Model are widely known, and are surely no secret to Vance himself. It follows a Legal Fiction that removing the DA from the Fundraising eliminates the potential Conflict.
It is pure fantasy to suggest a Candidate will have no Knowledge of who is Donating to their Campaign. Full Transparency is an ideal all Elected Officials should be striving for in our Electoral System, especially when it comes to the Funding of Campaigns. That is why the Records of who has Donated to Candidates are fully Public, easily obtained by the click of a button. There’s no ‘Blind’ approach to raising Money when the Names, Addresses, and Amount of Money Donated are so easily accessed by the Public, Press, Campaign, and Candidates. Especially for a DA like Cy Vance who has been in Office for almost a Decade and has built a Donor List based on strong relationships with certain Criminal Defense Lawyers and Law Firms.
Then we come to the Donor Cap recommendations, riddled with far too many Loopholes. By Restricting the $320 Donation Cap to only Attorneys appearing before the DA Office, the Policy is extremely limited, allowing many other Non-Appearing Attorneys from the same Law Firm to Donate Individually up to $3,850. Undoubtedly, High-Profile wins for Firms are good for Business. Perhaps that’s why Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s Personal Lawyer, had his Coworkers raise over $18,000 for Vance just a few months after the DA chose not to Prosecute the Trump Children. Under the CAPI recommendations, this could continue to happen. In fact, under Vance’s New Self-Imposed Fundraising Rules, he would only have to wait Six Months after a Case is resolved to accept Donations from the exact Lawyers who appeared before his Office.
Even with the Cap from Partners and some Lawyers, there are a multitude of ways that Law Firms with an Attorney or Attorneys who appear before the DA Office can Donate significant amounts of Money to the DA. It will just take some creativity. This permits the existence of the Conflict that CAPI admits exists, Attorneys Donate to create "Positive Relationships" with the DA's Office, "which, could, in theory inspire some of them to become contributors to the DA's campaign." An understatement to say the least.
The CAPI recommendations represent an incomplete addition to the conversation of Reforming the way we fund our DA Races, something the Report acknowledges. This Report should not signal the tidy conclusion of how the Rich and Powerful were seemingly able to curry favorable treatment through Campaign Donations by their Lawyers.
We need true Comprehensive Reform to make our system one New Yorkers can confidently rely on.
New State Rep. Dan Quart (D-73rd District) has Legislation forbidding Large Donations to DAs from Criminal Defense Lawyers or their Law Firms.
The Bill will require the State to build a List of Criminal Defense Attorneys and Firms. Those on the List would be able to give only $320 to DA Candidates per Election Cycle, a Restriction which mirrors New York City’s Limits on Political Donations from Companies and Individuals doing Business with the City.
DA Campaigns are governed by State, not City, Campaign Finance Law. Under present State Law, there are No Rules preventing Defense Attorneys, or their Clients, from giving Directly to the DAs Prosecuting their Cases.
New York State currently uses a Formula based on District Population to set Campaign Donation Limits for DA Races. The Limit is calculated as $0.05 multiplied by the number of Registered Voters in the District, while Capping Donations at $50,000 for larger Districts like Manhattan.
While Vance, like many DAs, has instituted Internal Policies that Ban certain kinds of Donations in order to prevent Actual or Perceived Conflicts of Interests, those Policies don’t have the Force of Law behind them, and, as the recent Controversies involving Vance suggest, are not Strict enough to Prevent Accusations of Pay-to-Play against the Manhattan DA’s Office.
NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker