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Is Cy Vance the Next Invincible New York Democrat to Lose?

The Manhattan District Attorney has had a long run, but his role in recent high-profile cases may bring unexpected change to a very powerful place.

Andrew Burton/Getty

Longtime Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance will be forever attached to a handful of bold-faced names—Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Ivanka Trump, and Donald Trump, Jr.—not because he took them on in tough prosecutions, but because when he had the chance, he didn’t.

In the case of Epstein—the registered sex offender who died last week of an apparent suicide while in federal custody—a group of New York lawmakers have now asked State Attorney General Leticia James to investigate Vance’s role in what looked like preferential treatment in the years between Epstein’s 2008 guilty plea and his July arrest on sex trafficking charges. A.G. James had previously been asked to investigate Vance’s conduct in the Harvey Weinstein case. Weinstein has been accused by a number of women of harassment and sexual assault in recent years, but the Manhattan D.A.’s sex-crimes unit dropped its probe in 2015. Vance perhaps survived the Weinstein scandal because it broke during a reelection bid in 2017 when he was running unopposed. But in two years, he will run again, facing multiple progressive challengers.

Excitement over the possibility of getting a progressive reformer to replace Vance has ramped up after the 2019 Queens Democratic primary for district attorney. That race made national headlines when Tiffany Cabán, running as a decarceral prosecutor, appeared to have won. (A contested recount ultimately ruled Cabán lost to a more establishment-linked candidate by a razor-thin margin of 55 votes.) Cabán spent six months campaigning in Queens; Vance’s challengers in Manhattan have two years of runway. Vance could be feeling change is in the air—when local politics web site The City asked Vance in July if he planned to run again, he would not confirm it, saying “It’s too early for me to make any decision.”

Maybe. New York’s Democratic primary election in June 2021 is still a long way off, but given the political makeup of the electorate, it will likely choose the next Manhattan D.A. And with a contested mayor’s race on the same ballot, voter turnout is expected to be high. Two progressive challengers to Vance have already declared: former New York State Chief Deputy Attorney General and New York Law School Professor Alvin Bragg, and Janos Marton of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice. (Marton is also a veteran of the anti-mass-incarceration organization JustLeadership USA’s efforts to close the jail at Rikers Island, a major issue in New York City politics.) At least six others are said to be considering a run.

Vance is a well-known quantity in city politics, but he’s also a national figure—and not only because of the high-profile cases (and the attendant controversy) his office handles. Vance has positioned himself as a leader in fighting violence against women, from sending money to other states to spur the testing of rape kits detectives had let languish, to crusading against human trafficking by targeting men who allegedly buy sex and the web sites sex workers once relied on for advertising. This image fits well with his office’s long-established reputation: According to former Manhattan sex-crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein, the Manhattan D.A.’s sex crimes unit was the real-life inspiration for Law and Order: SVU.

But the shine has begun to wear off these Manhattan hero lawyers. Successive exposés have detailed the D.A. office’s lenient deals with men charged with sexual assault—like a Manhattan ob-gyn accused of sexual abuse by 19 women patients. And Fairstein is perhaps now more often recognized for her role in the wrongful sexual assault conviction of the teenage boys once known as the Central Park Five. And since the arrest of Epstein, Vance’s office and its purported commitment to protecting women has lost even more luster.

It was a sex crimes prosecutor in Vance’s office who argued in 2011, before an astonished judge, that Epstein be assigned the least restrictive sex offender status New York allows—a designation meant for those deemed to pose a “low risk of repeat offense.”

“I’m a little overwhelmed because I have never seen a prosecutor’s office do anything like this,” Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Ruth Pickholz told Assistant D.A. Jennifer Gaffney, then deputy chief of Vance’s sex-crimes unit. By this time, Epstein had pleaded guilty to soliciting sex from a minor in Florida, and thus was required to register as a sex offender in his state of residence, New York. Despite the prosecutor’s intervention on Epstein’s behalf, the judge denied the request for the less-severe designation. (A Vance spokesperson recently told the Daily News that Vance was not aware of what his office was doing.)

While there are significant issues with sex offender registration—namely, there is little evidence it prevents sexual violence, and may actually help contribute to it—what Vance’s office did for Epstein was offer relief to someone powerful. It’s a consideration not uniformly extended.

Before Epstein, Vance’s most high-profile controversy came as the #MeToo movement was picking up momentum. In 2017, it was revealed that Vance had passed on prosecuting movie mogul Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault two years earlier. This was despite the D.A. having ample evidence, including an undercover recording made by one of Weinstein’s alleged victims, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, under the supervision of the NYPD Special Victims Division.

Vance’s office instead turned their investigators on Gutierrez. In a jaw-dropping New York magazine story, a retired NYPD sergeant, one of the few in the department with knowledge of this investigation, recalled that Vance’s investigators interrogated Gutierrez’s roommates. According to the sergeant, the investigators demanded to know if Weinstein’s accuser was a “prostitute” or a “stripper,” or if she brought home a lot of men. (A senior adviser to Vance told New York that Vance’s investigators never interviewed the roommates.)

There was another unseemly turn in Vance’s handling of this case: David Boies, Weinstein’s lawyer since 2005, donated $10,000 to the Vance campaign soon after Vance dropped his investigation. Boies was a major donor to Vance, and co-chaired a fundraiser for him in 2008. All told, as of 2017, Vance’s campaign had received donations totaling $182,000 from Boies, his son, and his partners. (Vance’s communications director told the International Business Times that Boies was not representing Weinstein during the 2015 investigation.) Vance also received a $26,000 donation from a former Manhattan prosecutor who joined Weinstein’s defense team: the SVU inspiration, Linda Fairstein.

Vance led the eventual prosecution of Weinstein in 2018, but his earlier deference left a mark on the D.A.’s record. “The Weinstein case could be the last straw for Cy Vance,” the typically cop-friendly New York Post editorial board warned at the time. A loss in the Weinstein case, said a 2018 New York Times story, “could seal his political fate, especially among his liberal base in Manhattan.”

Just as significantly, the Weinstein arrest highlighted the two-tiered legal system in Cy Vance’s New York. Weinstein was permitted to turn himself in, with bail negotiated in advance. “While other New Yorkers sometimes go to jail merely because they do not have access to an ATM in the courthouse,” City and State noted, “Weinstein had a cashier’s check at the ready.”

That’s one reason why you won’t find any of the Trump clan seated in the worn wooden benches of Manhattan criminal court any time soon. Back in 2012, Manhattan prosecutors were preparing to charge two of the president’s children, Ivanka and Don, Jr., over allegedly misrepresenting the value of Trump properties to prospective buyers. But before that could happen—as a ProPublica and WNYC investigation later revealed—a longtime Trump lawyer met with Vance’s office. That lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, was also one of Vance’s largest campaign contributors.

Vance said he returned the Kasowitz donations when they agreed to the meet, but three months after the meeting, Vance “overruled his own prosecutors” and told them to drop the Trump case. Another few months passed, and Kasowitz raised money for and made new donations to the Vance campaign totaling more than $50,000. (Vance has said he returned that money, too.)

Kasowitz was Donald Trump, Sr.’s longtime personal lawyer. Trump brought him in after he became frustrated that the case was dragging on too long. Very few of the families in the city’s criminal courts, caring as they are, can pull that off when it’s their children who face charges. They don’t have an attorney like Kasowitz, who can bring in $9,000 with a “Republicans for Cy Vance” breakfast, and then top that off with $32,000 of their own.

Progressive prosecutor candidates now routinely tell voters about crimes for which they won’t pursue charges—like fare evasion, sex work, or drug possession—and this is an essential reform on the way to decarceration. Vance has a litany of non-prosecutions, too—it just happens to include some powerful people who could help Vance. But now that Vance’s own power is on the line, New Yorkers have a choice. Going harder at those with influence is essential, but there’s a potential for something more, too. Perhaps everyone who faces the considerable might of the Manhattan D.A. could be treated with the deference seemingly reserved for prominent figures with deep pockets. Or maybe fewer people should be subject to that might at all.