The $808 million could have been used to provide restitution to the victims. Nope, not happening. Or this windfall could have been used for the perpetually underfunded public defenders, who beg for scraps. But instead, Cy Vance has grander plans for this slush fund.
District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. announced that he was giving grants to agencies across the country to test piles of rape kits that had been collecting dust in police storage. He pledged millions to start an international center to monitor cyberattacks and has provided seed money for a new institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice devoted to educating the nation’s 2,700 prosecutors.
At a time when most city and state agencies are struggling with budget constraints, Mr. Vance has secured a windfall of $808 million from criminal penalties against three international banks accused of violating United States sanctions — HSBC, Standard Chartered and BNP Paribas.
It’s good to be the district attorney in Manhattan. It always has been, with Wall Street just a few blocks south. Throw a scare at a bank and they throw money back to get you to leave them alone. Then poof, you’re a philanthropist. Not just any philanthropist, but the godfather of law enforcement.
It is a princely sum, nearly 10 times the office’s annual budget. Because by law it must be spent on criminal justice projects, it has transformed Mr. Vance into a kind of Santa Claus for the law-enforcement world, with a sack filled with new programs and equipment. His power to distribute such large sums with the stroke of a pen has, however, led some good-government advocates to say it prompts questions about transparency and oversight.
Sure, every politico in New York wants a piece of that huge pile of loot. But the law says it’s Cy’s to use as he pleases. They can take pot shots at his choices, but he couldn’t care less. Perhaps Cy’s greatest virtue is that he will never be a Giuliani, using the prosecutor’s title to bootstrap a career for which he’s eminently unqualified. Like Hogan and Morgy before him, Cy was born to be New York County District Attorney for life.
Even when he steps away from cameras and podiums, Mr. Vance projects a patrician, button-down persona. He chooses his words carefully and rarely makes jokes. Asked if he had found that he suddenly had lots of new friends now that he must give away close to a billion dollars, he did not crack a smile. “No, it has not translated into a lot of new friends,” he said evenly.
Pretty much any other elected official would wield this cash like a bludgeon within his own circle of friends, but not Cy. And yet, the money will most assuredly remain within his sphere of influence.
For his part, Mr. Vance says he sees the windfall as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to pay for new programs and technologies that could have a lasting impact on crime. “I call them transformative investments,” he said in an interview. “We have a window of opportunity here.”
It’s not that Cy hates the people who ultimately end up on the defendant’s side of the courtroom. Some of the funds will be used to prevent crime and to help transition prisoners back to society. It’s not that Cy is a prosecution animal, but that it’s all oriented toward the prosecution perspective. Then again, Cy is a prosecutor, and it’s his money to spread around. So why not?
In that spirit, Mr. Vance said he had set aside $250 million for programs aimed at preventing people from becoming criminals and helping convicts enter the work force when they are released from prison. He hired the Institute for State and Local Governance at the City University of New York — headed by a former city correction commissioner, Michael P. Jacobson — to come up with proposals for spending the money for the programs and to oversee contracts.
But there are two sides to the criminal justice system. One side sits with the angels, never fearing that they will lack the funds to have a sufficient staff to do its job. Never having prosecutors carrying a caseload of 500. Never being the perpetual step-child in the courtroom, being told to mind its manners while the other side is allowed all manner of accommodations.
There is no law enforcement without defense. Our Constitution doesn’t allow it, though you would never know that from the way it plays out in the trenches.
What of the innocent and over-charged defendants? Does law enforcement not have as much interest in not prosecuting the innocent as much as prosecuting the guilty? As it stands, the prosecution holds a full deck of cards while indigent defense has the occasional joker. So the prosecution needs more? And much more? How many “weapons” does one side need when it already towers over the other?
But there is no law that sends huge bags of money to the defense. And while Cy could lawfully, and with great justification, use a few mil to bolster the other team just because noblesse oblige would seem to demand it, there’s no indication it’s even on his radar.
This isn’t really your money, Cy. Yes, you get to dole it out to the fawning sycophants, but you’re supposed to be bigger than that. Giving cops official smartphones is very high tech, but giving defendants a lawyer they don’t have to share with hundreds of their closest friends would be nice too.
“The scale of it is massive,” said an official from one group competing for grants. “It’s a strange thing to have an elected district attorney who finds himself in the role of making grants and shaping the field.”
Be the big guy who gets to sit in Morgy’s chair, Cy. Don’t hoard it all for your team. Use the money to make the system work for everyone, not just to make sure your team wins even more than it wins already.