Lobbying Group Divides Queens DA Candidates

Eagle file photo by David Brand

Eagle file photo by David Brand

By David Brand

The seven candidates for Queens District Attorney are divided on whether they would join the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY), a group that lobbies the state legislature on behalf of county prosecutors and has been criticized for opposing justice reform measures.

Councilmember Rory Lancman and public defender Tiffany Cabán have both publicly stated they would not join DAASNY, which counts the state’s 62 county DAs as members.

“I'm not joining DAASNY. And I plan on having a *robust* legislative affairs office to lobby for real reform in Albany & NYC (and Washington where necessary). If you're an elected official fighting for reform, I'm going to have your back,” Lancman tweeted in October 2018.

DAASNY has opposed a discovery reform bill that was reintroduced in the state Senate and Assembly in January. Cabán attended a rally supporting the open discovery bill last month.

“Open discovery is critical — I fully support it,” Cabán tweeted Feb. 18. “The DA Association of the State of New York is wrong to oppose it, which is why I will exit DAASNY & work instead with DAs who share our values.”

But prosecutors say they oppose the bill that’s making its way through Albany because it will reveal the names of grand jury witnesses and prove expensive to counties. “The new regime will also require massive resources,” wrote former New York County Chief Assistant District Attorney Daniel Alonso in a Daily News op-ed last month. “Because the bill requires discovery before guilty pleas, every case will require discovery.”

Alonso’s op-ed was titled “Discovery reform is dangerous.”

Former state Attorney General’s office prosecutor Jose Nieves and attorney Betty Lugo both told the Eagle they would join DAASNY, but with caveats related to discovery reform.

“I believe the rules of discovery have to change because we have to push prosecutors to engage in more fair and cooperative discovery, allowing cases to move forward quickly,” Nieves told the Eagle on Feb. 19. “We have to ensure that prosecutors and defense counsel have the same information.”

In an interview the next day, Lugo said she also supports open discovery.

“There should be open discovery already,” she said. “Open discovery allows both sides, prosecution and defense, to arrive at a prompt resolution.”

Last week, reporter Emma Whitford contacted the campaigns of former state Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak, former Queens prosecutor Mina Malik and Borough President Melinda Katz. Each said they would join DAASNY.

Lasak and Malik expanded on their position in statements to the Eagle.

“When I’m DA, I’ll use my experience to bring reform to the criminal justice system in Queens — starting a Conviction Integrity Unit, expanding diversion programs, and ending cash bail on low-level, non-violent offenses — and I’ll advocate for those reforms at DAASNY,” Lasak said. “I’ve always believed that the best way to change an organization is from within. It’s easy to throw stones from the outside but it won’t effect real change.”

Malik also said joining DAASNY would enable her to affect progressive change and advocate for Queens residents from inside the organization.

"I believe in fighting in the trenches for progressive reform — it's what I did with Ken Thompson in Brooklyn and then at the CCRB — and anyone serious about achieving reform in the Queens District Attorney's Office will have to do the same,” Malik said. “The candidates who are vowing not to join DAASNY have never achieved reform in a large agency, and they're giving up their chance to advocate for the 2.4 million people in Queens before they're even elected.”

“While I disagree many of DAASNY's positions — in particular, its opposition to bail reform and open discovery — the path forward is to mobilize for progressive power from both the inside and the outside, and I would keep all options on the table, including withdrawal," she continued.

In August 2018, DAASNY issued a statement opposing a bill that to create a prosecutorial conduct commission shortly before Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the commission into law.

DAASNY said claims of prosecutorial misconduct and error are already addressed by existing methods, such as the Appellate Division Grievance Committee, which could disbar an attorney. DAASNY also said that prosecutorial misconduct is rare.

“New York’s elected District Attorneys are among the most ethically conscientious, the most regulated and the most scrutinized in the country,” DAASNY said in the statement. “The goals of the proposed legislation are laudable.  But they can be achieved by strengthening the disciplinary mechanisms already in place.”

Queens DA Richard A. Brown wrote an op-ed criticizing the bill in the New York Law Journal in June 2018.

“The legislature has elected to pass legislation that subjects prosecutors, alone among those who practice law, to a duplicative and intrusive process that is not only violative of the state constitution, but will surely cause delay to the progress of ongoing investigations and prosecutions, much to the detriment of all New Yorkers,” Brown said. “It is my hope that the governor, upon due consideration, exercises a veto of this ill-conceived proposal.”

Lugo and Nieves both criticized the opposition to the conduct commission in interviews with the Eagle.