Fighting With Fire in the Race for Brooklyn DA

Ann Schneider Sep 9, 2013

Beware, Ken Thompson. Charles “Joe” Hynes wreaks vengeance on his opponents.

Hynes, the 24-year incumbent Brooklyn district attorney was not happy when Abe George dropped out of the race at the end of July. He was counting on George, a Manhattan Assistant District Attorney, to split the opposition vote. Since then, the race for Kings County District Attorney has become even tighter and more vicious.

Hynes has a history of persecuting his opponents, to the point of getting them disbarred from the practice of law. When civil rights attorney Sandra Roper ran for Brooklyn district attorney in 2001, Hynes issued 172 subpoenas and sent investigators to many of the 12,839 people who signed the petition to get her on the ballot. He later had her indicted on felony charges, although she was not convicted. 

A previous challenger, John Kennedy O’Hara, was prosecuted for “felony voting” based on a discrepancy in his voter registration form. O’Hara was tried three times and upon conviction, automatically disbarred as a lawyer. He was reinstated to the bar in 2008 when the state Character Commission unanimously found that he was the victim of a political prosecution.

When charismatic Judge John Phillips, owner of The Slave Theater and The Black Lady Theater in Bedford-Stuyvesant, ran against Hynes in 2001, he was declared mentally incompetent and committed. His extensive real estate holdings were put in the hands of legal guardians, the first of whom was Hynes’ former campaign treasurer and chief of staff. Due to perhaps purposeful mismanagement of the estate, its value was reduced from $10 million to a negative value of $2 million. These properties were then “liquidated” — in other words, sold at unpublished auctions for a fraction of their value to investors who happened to have ties to the appointed guardians. 

District Attorney Hynes is notoriously thin-skinned as well as vengeful. A former assistant district attorney who asserted that Hynes fired him because of comments he made in jest to the press, namely that “Brooklyn is the best place to be a homicide prosecutor because we’ve got more dead bodies per square inch than anyplace else,” was awarded $30,000 for violation of his First Amendment rights. 

This may be the moment to finally unseat Hynes, 78, who is running for a seventh term. Kenneth Thompson, his opponent, is a former federal prosecutor and private attorney who shamed Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. for dropping sexual assault charges against former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss Kahn. His campaign simultaneously blames Hynes for not putting enough people in jail and not putting the right people in jail. 

If elected, let’s hope that a new Brooklyn district attorney is able to root out the systematic misconduct that has tarred the office under Hynes, starting by cleaning the house of high-ranking investigators like Michael Vecchione. The true hero of this story is Jabbar Collins, who spent his 15 years in prison using Freedom of Information laws to prove that the Brooklyn district attorney's office withheld exculpatory evidence in his murder case. Collins' conviction was vacated by a federal judge in 2010 and he was released from prison following revelations that Vecchione used a series of promises and threats of imprisonment and violence to obtain perjured testimony from prosecution witnesses. Jabbar is now suing for $150 million in damages and has succeeded in making Vecchione sit for deposition, effectively turning the tables on the prosecutor. So far, Vecchione has answered 380 questions with a version of “I don’t recall.” 

Similar questions have been raised about former Brooklyn homicide detective Louis Scarcella, his penchant for cutting corners and the willingness of the Brooklyn district attorney's office to prosecute cases developed by Scarcella in spite of growing concerns about Scarcella's methods and credibility. 

In the face of proven prosecutorial misconduct, Hynes continues to back the integrity of his office.

On Tuesday, Brooklyn voters will have their say in whether Hynes's long reign should continue. 

Ann Schneider is a practicing attorney and a member of the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. She has written about the intersection of politics and the law for The Indypendent since 2003. 

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