Acting Queens DA John Ryan will step down when next DA takes office

Acting District Attorney John Ryan plans to resign when a newly elected DA takes over in January, he said.  Eagle  photo by Andy Katz

Acting District Attorney John Ryan plans to resign when a newly elected DA takes over in January, he said. Eagle photo by Andy Katz

By David Brand

After more than three decades in the Queens District Attorney’s Office, Acting DA John Ryan plans to resign when a newly elected DA takes over on Jan. 1, 2020, he told the Eagle.

Ryan served as chief executive assistant, the second-highest position in the office, for 22 years under late Queens DA Richard Brown. Brown designated Ryan to lead the office as acting DA before his death in May.

Ryan said his continued presence in the office could create confusion about hierarchy and undermine the next DA.

“I love the office enough to leave it and after serving for 20 years as chief assistant I don’t think it would be helpful for the next DA or for me to stay around,” said Ryan, who first worked in the Queens DA’s office from 1972 to 1979 before returning in 1991.

Democratic nominee Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president, faces Republican Joe Murray, a defense attorney and former NYPD officer, in the Nov. 5 general election. Katz is favored to win in the heavily Democratic county after grinding out a 55-vote recount victory over public defender Tiffany Cabán in the Democratic primary.

Ryan said he is not yet ready to issue a formal statement about his resignation, especially before the general election. He would like to serve as a resource for the next DA if they ask for his assistance, he added.

“I love this place so if I can help in some way, I will,” he said. “We’re not at that stage.”

Senior Executive ADAs James Quinn and Robert Masters, Queens’ other two top prosecutors, declined to discuss their futures under the next DA when asked by the Eagle on Oct. 3. Masters noted several times that there were still “89 days” left until the next DA takes office.

Queens, like the rest of New York City, has seen a drastic reduction in crime since Ryan returned to the Queens DA’s Office in 1991 after several years in the state attorney general’s office. As crime has decreased, prevailing attitudes regarding arrests, prosecution, sentencing and bail have shifted significantly.

Criminal justice reform advocates have criticized the Queens DA’s office for several of its policies and positions, including the continued prosecution of low-level marijuana offenses, opposition to state bail and discovery reforms, the lack of a conviction review unit and the decision not to institute an immigration hardship plea policy that considers the collateral consequences of specific convictions on a noncitizen’s immigration status. 

After the seven-candidate Democratic primary for Queens DA turned into a referendum on the office’s policies, Ryan responded through a series of reports defending the office. Ryan noted the historic decrease in crime during Brown’s tenure and described the office’s supportive services, especially for victims of domestic violence. He has also championed the office’s various alternatives-to-incarceration initiatives, which were considered innovative approaches when they were implemented.

Brown announced in January that he would not seek an eighth term in office, but Ryan himself declined to run for Queens DA. 

“I have never been a politician. And I’m not knocking politicians, but I’ve been a registered independent — small “i” independent — virtually my entire life,” he said. “I always felt that if I’m going to be an investigator I don’t want to be in a position where for some reason I’m accused of going this way or that way for political or other reasons.”

Ryan began his tenure in the Queens DA’s Office as a law school intern in 1972. That internship “became the defining point of his future career,” according to his biography on the Queens DA’s Office website.

After graduating from law school, Ryan was appointed as a criminal law investigator and then an assistant district attorney when he was admitted to the New York State Bar. He served in the Intake, Criminal Court, Appeals, Investigations and Homicide Bureaus and was promoted to deputy chief of the Homicide Investigations Bureau in 1979. 

That same year, Ryan left the Queens District Attorney’s Office to serve as an assistant attorney general in the New York State Department of Law under Attorney General Robert Abrams.

He returned to Queens in 1991 when Brown was appointed DA by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Brown honored Ryan with the office’s Gene Kelly Award in 2016, calling Ryan “a great colleague and, more importantly, a close and trusted friend.”

“Serving the people of Queens County and the cause of justice always has been the only reward he needs, Brown added. “As Chief Assistant, [Ryan’s] contributions to this office cannot be measured by individual criminal cases, although his input and influence can be found on many, if not all, of the major cases prosecuted in Queens County over the last 25 years.”