The former prosecutor points to the bail reform law that was passed in New York as one reason for the crime surge in the city. Police being hindered from performing their jobs is another reason. He said the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, and others have handicapped the police, who are good at their jobs, from doing their jobs. Read More
A combination picture shows the candidates of the District Attorney of New York posing for a portrait in New York City, New York, U.S. Top row (L-R): Tahanie Aboushi, Diana Florence, and Dan Quart. Middle row (L-R): Alvin Bragg, Lucy Lang, and Tali Farhadian Weinstein. Bottom row (L-R): Liz Crotty, Eliza Orlins, and Thomas Kenniff. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
- The next Manhattan DA will take over the criminal investigation into the Trump Organization.
- Insider asked the nine candidates how they’d handle the high-profile case.
- Some criticized opponents’ perceived conflicts of interest, while others noted the risks to investigators following the January 6 Capitol riot.
Manhattanites will vote in the primary for the next Manhattan district attorney on Tuesday, almost certainly vaulting the winner into a position where they’ll oversee one of the most high-stakes investigations in the office’s history: The criminal probe into the Trump Organization.Unlike other New York City elections this year, the primary race will be decided outright rather than through a ranked-choice vote. The field is wide. Eight candidates are running on June 22 – Alvin Bragg, Tali Farhadian Weinstein, Tahanie Aboushi, Lucy Lang, Eliza Orlins, Liz Crotty, Diana Florence, and Dan Quart – and the primary winner will likely beat Thomas Kenniff, the sole Republican competitor, in the November general election. The scarce polling shows that a plurality of voters remain undecided, meaning it’s anyone’s race to win.
Insider asked all nine candidates how they’d handle the DA’s investigation into the Trump Organization’s and ex-president Donald Trump’s finances. Many of them declined to comment directly on the investigation, saying it would be unethical to speculate about an ongoing case, while some criticized opponents for perceived conflicts of interest in Trump’s case.
But all of them vowed to protect New Yorkers, keeping in mind the violence at the US Capitol on January 6.
Investigating the former president
Cyrus Vance Jr., the current Manhattan District Attorney, casts a long shadow: He has served three terms over 12 years, replacing Robert Morgenthau, who held the position for 35 years. Manhattan has one of the largest DA offices in the country and has overseen numerous high-profile cases, including Harvey Weinstein’s.
The Democratic primary candidates – all running on more progressive platforms than Vance’s – have focused mostly on local criminal justice issues in their campaigns. But there is no escaping the Trump probe.
Since 2019, prosecutors have been examining whether the Trump Organization broke state tax, insurance, or bank loans by manipulating its property values. Vance’s office recently empaneled a special grand jury which is expected to weigh bringing charges against the company, Trump himself, or executives at the Trump Organization before Vance’s retirement at the end of the year.
Virtually every candidate told Insider they would take a straight-and-narrow approach to the Trump investigation: looking at the facts and making a decision based on the evidence before them. “If the facts demonstrate that a crime has been committed, it is up to the district attorney to make a determination as to whether that crime should be prosecuted,” said Eliza Orlins, a public defender seeking to reform the district attorney’s office. “Donald Trump is no different from any other person in that way.”
Several candidates Insider interviewed pointed to their past tangles with Trump – or people like him.
Alvin Bragg pointed to his experience as a top official in the New York State Attorney General’s office, which has sued the Trump administration and Trump personally.”My approach to this case will be the same as mine to every case: follow the facts and deliver justice for New Yorkers,” Bragg said. “That’s what we did in the Attorney General’s office where I led the team that sued Trump and his administration more than 100 times, including successfully suing the Trump Foundation, removing the citizenship question from the census, and challenging the travel bans and other unlawful policies.”
Lucy Lang, a former Vance official who now lectures at Columbia Law School, criticized Vance’s decision not to bring charges in a separate Trump Organization investigation in 2012. She said she would introduce measures to insulate the office from political and personal decision-making. (Vance said he didn’t believe the evidence showed beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime had been committed.)
“The senior-most adviser to my campaign was the former assistant district attorney who handled the first investigation into the Trump Organization,” Lang said. “I know what he went through when that case was shut down – when senior staff at the office met with well-heeled defense lawyers and decided to end the investigation. That case should not have been shut down.”Candidates also emphasized their experience in handling complex financial investigations. Diana Florence, a veteran of the Manhattan DA’s office now running for the top job, emphasized she was “the only candidate in this race who has successfully taken on big real estate and construction fraud – the very same industry that Trump works in.” Liz Crotty, a former prosecutor who’s worked as a criminal defense attorney for the past ten years, said her work on cases like the Justice Department’s probes into corruption in the United Nations’ Food-for-Oil program has made her “familiar with the demands and complications of complex financial investigations.”
Attacks over perceived conflicts of interest
Several candidates have attacked Bragg and Farhadian Weinstein – the two frontrunners in the race – for what they say are conflicts of interest.
Bragg frequently talks about his work for the New York State Attorney General’s office suing the Trump administration. Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the best-funded candidate in the race (her husband is hedge fund billionaire Boaz Weinstein), occasionally mentions her involvement in a lawsuit that successfully fought Trump-era practices at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Farhadian Weinstein was also floated as a potential federal judge during the Trump administration, although she ultimately was not nominated. She’d applied for the position during the Obama administration.
Lucy Lang said Bragg’s comments on his former office’s wrangles with the Trumps “calls his objectivity into question and would undermine his ability to oversee the ongoing investigation.”
Tahanie Aboushi, the Bernie Sanders-endorsed candidate in the race, has criticized Farhadian Weinstein for her ties to “New York’s wealthy elite” and said she couldn’t be trusted to prosecute wealthy people like Trump. Lang and Dan Quart, a New York state assemblyman and experienced pro-bono lawyer in the race, also criticized Farhadian Weinstein for her perceived closeness to the Trump administration.
In a statement to Insider, Farhadian Weinstein, who worked as a Justice Department lawyer for Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder, and has been endorsed by both Holder and Hillary Clinton, said her experience has insulated her from undue influence. “My life trajectory has left me unintimidated by people with power and money,” Farhadian Weinstein said. “As has been true throughout my long career in law enforcement, I will take on this job without fear or favor.”
Farhadian Weinstein said it would be improper to discuss how to handle the Trump investigation while the case is still open.
“That is the only ethical approach for matters the next DA will inherit,” she said. “But I have been clear that I intend to prosecute vigorously those who have cheated and stolen from New Yorkers regardless of power or status.”
Kenniff, the Republican candidate and a former Westchester County prosecutor, said he had no ties to the Trumps or the Republican Party outside the Manhattan GOP.
“I have no affiliation with Donald Trump, the Trump Organization, or any of their associates,” he said. “I have fundraised exclusively from small grassroots donors, and have received no money from any Republican groups at either the local, state, or national level. My candidacy is about ensuring the safety of New York City and the fairness and integrity of the criminal justice system here; nothing more, and nothing less.”
The specter of January 6
Throughout the DA’s investigation, Trump has followed the same playbook he has with every other legal challenge: attack his enemy as politically-motivated liars.Given the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, a court hearing involving Trump would be a risky affair. Officials in New York and Atlanta, where Trump is under investigation for potential election law crimes, have said that local law enforcement is prepared to handle whatever chaos might come from Trump supporters if the former president is forced to show up in court.
“The insurrection on January 6th was a direct attack on the very fabric of our democracy. As the next Manhattan District Attorney, my message is clear – we will not let fear triumph over the fair pursuit of justice,” Lang said. “Any threats against the office will be treated seriously, and dealt with immediately in partnership with local and federal authorities.”
Most candidates said they wouldn’t be intimidated by Trump’s verbal attacks on the DA’s office, and would take the threat of any physical attacks seriously.”
I always have concerns about the security of prosecutors, police officers, and everyday residents of Manhattan,” Crotty told Insider. “Threats to DA personnel would be taken extremely seriously and acted upon accordingly, no matter what the source of those threats are.”
Bragg said that partisan attacks from Trump were to be expected and that he would draw on his experience from the New York Attorney General’s office.”
That is what Trump does, and that’s what he did when our team in the Attorney General’s office sued him and his administration,” Bragg said. “Our job is to do the right thing, for the right reasons, in the right way. That’s what I did when I prosecuted politicians of both political parties, when I prosecuted an FBI agent for lying, and when we did the Trump cases.”
Earlier this year, a report on use of the “trial penalty” — the increased likelihood that a defendant, if proven guilty at trial, will face a harsher sentence than if they had opted into a plea deal — in New York showed that its practice by district attorneys threatens the constitutional rights of defendants, limits law enforcement transparency, and weakens the overall integrity of the justice system.
The report, from the New York State Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, in cooperation with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, then prompted the organizations to ask related questions of this year’s candidates in the wide open and highly-competitive and -consequential race to be the next Manhattan District Attorney. An eight-candidate Democratic primary for the seat being vacated by District Attorney Cyrus Vance, a Democrat, is being voted on this month by eligible Manhattanites.
The trial penalty is widely considered to be a driving force behind mass incarceration and wrongful conviction, serving as a loophole through which law enforcement can escape a vital check on its overreach. Its use can be driven by a number of factors including mandatory minimums and overcharging by lawyers who, faced with burdensome caseloads, want to save time by avoiding trials while also racking up as many convictions as possible.
Released in late March, the report indicated that 94% of surveyed criminal justice practitioners across New York State acknowledged the presence of the trial penalty as a component of criminal proceedings in their county. Those responses were supported by data showing that in 66% of cases sampled, defendants had experienced a trial penalty.
The two organizations reached out to candidates in the race for Manhattan District Attorney for specific answers on how they planned to approach the issue if elected to the office, the top prosecutor and law enforcement official in Manhattan, and a position of national prominence.
Responses were provided by Democratic candidates Tali Farhadian Weinstein, Alvin Bragg, Tahanie Aboushi, Eliza Orlins, Dan Quart, and Lucy Lang, as well as Repuplican candidate Thomas Kenniff, who is awaiting the results of the primary before going head to head in the November general election. Democrats Diana Florence and Liz Crotty did not respond.
In their responses, nearly all of the candidates signaled opposition to mandatory minimums, but only Aboushi, Orlins, Quart and Farhadian Weinstein explicitly indicated that they would advocate for their repeal once in office. A universal refrain throughout the questionnaire was a need to establish a “Conviction Integrity Unit” or a taskforce of that kind by another name to specifically review wrongful convictions and instances of excessive sentencing. Candidates also reached consensus on the need to eliminate the use of bail as a means to coerce defendants into taking pleas as well as support for limited judicial oversight of plea bargaining and “second looks,” or the right to petition for a lesser sentence after a period of time.
Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights attorney, outlined a plan to guarantee defendants their Sixth Amendment right by disclosing all discovery promptly, ensuring attorneys are fully compliant with the letter of Brady and open file, enacting a no-call list so witnesses, especially those in law enforcement, remain credible, and dismissing cases where law enforcement has violated constitutional rights.
Taboushi drew on personal experience in her response, revealing that her mother was charged to coerce her father into taking a plea deal. “She was nothing more than leverage,” Aboushi wrote, “the prosecutors did not care about what would happen to me or my siblings.”
When prompted about the underlying issues that perpetuate the trial penalty — specifically unrestricted prosecutorial charging discretion, mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, and discretionary use of enhancements for prior convictions, Aboushi promised her tenure as district attorney would be marked by an “aggressive declination policy.”
She aims to charge the least serious offense possible and when enhancement in sentencing is discretionary, promised to never advocate for its application. She also presented plans to end the Early Case Assessment Bureau where overcharging is said to often take place, instead supervising each case and requiring approval for prosecutors wanting to deviate from her policies.
Regarding previous cases in which the trial penalty was employed, Aboushi supports use of a Conviction Integrity Unit to review wrongful convictions, cases involving police or prosecutorial misconduct, extreme sentencing, or sentencing that “has long since ceased having any arguable public safety component.” The unit would then focus on remedies by requesting new trials, reducing sentences, and authoring reports that explore the major drivers of wrongful conviction — sentence length, gender, race, and criminal history.
With respect to the disproportionate likelihood of Black defendants under the age of 25 to receive the trial penalty, Aboushi indicated that her declination policy would extend to charges involving young adults, and that her office will focus on expanding access to family court and Youthful Offender status for any young person who does wind up exposed to the adult judicial system.
“A guiding principle of our office will be that we must do all we can to stop the patterns of racism and bias that have been ignored for far too long,” Aboushi wrote, promising to stop prosecution on certain types of offenses if bias is proven in the application of the law.
Alvin Bragg, a former federal prosecutor and top deputy to the New York State Attorney General, explicitly stated in his response that he would not allow sentence recommendations after a hearing or trial to be longer than those offered prior. The district attorney office under his control would not, he said, rely on traditional metrics and would instead shift focus to a more holistic equation involving a review of the cost and racially-disparate impacts of incarceration as well as the effects on recidivism, public safety, and reentry.
On the underlying factors contributing to use of the trial penalty Bragg proposes minimizing pretrial detention, which can lead to more coercive plea bargaining practices and using incarceratory sentences in only the most extreme cases. He stopped short of promising an abolition to mandatory minimums, outlining the restrictions of the office, which bar him from doing so, but advocated using misdemeanor charges to avoid them and voiced opposition to sentence enhancement.
Bragg also shared that his plan to avoid violation of Brady — a legal statute ensuring open disclosure of all exculpatory evidence — involves a culture shift in the office away from “winning” and towards true justice.
Bragg plans to deal with previously-tried cases by abolishing the current Conviction Integrity Unit and replacing it with his own Free The Wrongfully Convicted Unit which will start from scratch. In response to the racially-disparate use of the penalty he reiterated his status as the only Black candidate in the race, laying out plans to track disparities in real time and publish comprehensive data throughout the criminal process, and engaging “all the diverse communities within Manhattan.”
Lucy Lang, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan and more recently head of a criminal justice institute, stressed in her response the importance of dealing with the “extensive backlog” of cases as a means of securing the Sixth Amendment rights of New Yorkers. On the driving factors of the trial penalty Lang promised to take mandatory minimums into consideration before indictment and to have a default policy against using conviction enhancements. Her response to any potential violations of Brady involves establishment of a new position — the Prosecutorial Ombudsman. This would be an independent attorney acting as an oversight officer, reviewing allegations of misconduct and either submitting ethics complaints to the New York State Bar Association or identifying individual lawyers to the District Attorney for discipline or dismissal accordingly.
Regarding previous convictions, Lang plans to create a new unit — the Retroactive Review Unit — which would review cases with hopes to reduce “extreme” sentences, account for growth while incarcerated, and improve reintegration. In response to racism in sentencing and the trial penalty, Lang proposed a number of in-office changes, requiring staff to be trained in the history of harm between the district attorney and communities of color as well as implicit bias. She promised to regularly visit incarcerated New Yorkers and to require all employed attorneys to participate in the Inside Criminal Justice course that places district attorney staff members alongside incarcerated students to study criminal justice and write policy together.
Eliza Orlins, a former public defender until jumping into the Democratic primary for district attorney on a decarceral platform, also advocates for plea deals to be made on the record and promised that sentences offered in bargaining would match those recommended after trial. She leaned into the political powers of the office as well, vowing to use the “bully pulpit” to abolish court fees. On the underlying causes of the trial penalty, Orlins proposed eliminating “unrestricted prosecutorial charging discretion” and is in favor of working with legislators in Albany to abolish mandatory minimums. She says the issue of discretionary use of enhancements for prior convictions is more nuanced but needs to be reformed in the way it is applied to defendants of different races.
On violations of Brady, Orlins’ was straightforward: evidence will be offered immediately to defense, the right to prosecutorial review should be waived. She wants to establish a Conviction Review Unit with a broader approach, and promises to develop a notification system once in office that will identify when cases veer from policy. Those policies would warn against overly long sentences, sentences that deviate from the pretrial offer, and criminal charges not “preceded by an attempt at diversion.” Orlins indicated she would also use the CRU to address racial disparities and produce data analysis on how to identify them within the system. She also promised not to prosecute drug possession cases, which she says are often levied inequitably in communities of color.
Dan Quart, a New York State Assembly member, is proposing to fight the trial penalty by providing defense with a full, complete, and relevant discovery so all parties have the same information. He also promises greater flexibility and transparency during the plea bargaining process as well a commitment to decline prosecuting multiple misdemeanor charges and downgrade certain penal law offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. On the underlying causes of the trial penalty, Quart assured he would not as DA rely on unrestricted prosecutorial charging discretion or request cash bail. He also cited his experience in the legislature as uniquely qualifying for a working relationship aimed at eliminating mandatory minimums.
In reference to violations of Brady, Quart argued that by declining to prosecute low-level offenses, he could free up resources to support assistant district attorneys in complying with discovery rules and securing thorough and effective work. On retroactive review of convictions, Quart doubled down on criticism of current Manhattan DA Vance and promised to work with the Legislature to reform penal law Section 440, which he argues would give greater flexibility to defendants claiming to be innocent or that their convictions were secured improperly.
The racial disparities evident in use of the trial penalty need to be public knowledge, Quart argues, joining other candidates in the promise to share data on charging decisions and plea offers. He also set himself apart by vowing not to use the “enterprise statute” for drug sweeps or to use surveillance-based technology, citing both as tools that disproportionately target young men and boys of color.
Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor and general counsel to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, stressed the need for robust investigation to secure a fair trial and dependence on the discovery changes New York enacted in 2019 to ensure defendants have the vital information needed to exercise their Sixth Amendment rights. To address the underlying causes of the penalty, Farhadian Weinstein says she will staff the office’s Early Case Assessment Bureau with only senior prosecutors whose judgement is more easily trusted in the charging of offenses that have been disparately applied. She also promised to support legislation eliminating mandatory minimums and sentencing enhancements, favoring instead a system that “allows for more discretion for prosecutors and judges, and avoids the imposition of severe penalties in cases in which public safety does not require such sentences.”
Farhadian Weinstein’s responses were generally shorter than her peers, making succinct points about “early and open discovery” regarding Brady violations and advocating “vigorously” for the creation of a “second look mechanism” meant to review and correct excessive sentences. To combat racial disparities, she committed to partnering with outside organizations who could review data on the differences in charging and sentencing. On sentencing generally, Weinstein promised to require the assistant district attorney to seek the minimum sentences, with supervisory approval necessary in order to seek a higher sentence.
Thomas Kenniff, a former prosecutor and military veteran is the sole Republican candidate in the race. In response to the survey, Kenniff promised to address the trial penalty by “charging crimes proportionately as opposed to tactically.” His solution relies on an increased budget for the DA’s office and institutional defense providers, calling it “naive” to think a burdensome caseload doesn’t add pressure to keep cases out of trial, and arguing that appointing additional judges and creating additional trial parts will also aid the process.
On the issue of underlying factors, Kenniff states that both sentencing enhancements based on prior convictions and mandatory minimums have a place in crime deterrence but need to be sufficiently reviewed by supervisors and should not be used for upcharging. On Brady violations and transparency, Kenniff says his philosophy has always been “when in doubt, turn it over” and that the digital resources put out by the DA’s office could be made more user friendly for defense attorneys.
Kenniff is a proponent of the use of the Conviction Review Unit to look at previously tried cases but says he will “be respectful of a court’s autonomy in matters of sentencing,” while reviewing instances where defendants were sentenced disproportionately, seeking redress “where appropriate.” In response to the data proving racial disparities in application of the trial penalty, he promised to evaluate each individual case and take into account all factors in mitigation at sentencing, ensuring there is supervisory approval in place before a sentencing recommendation is made to a court.
The final section of the questionnaire prompted candidates to answer a series of yes or no questions. All seven — six Democrats and one Republican — answered in the affirmative when asked whether they would instruct their ADAs to provide full access to discovery and not just the potentially exculpatory evidence as well as whether they support proportionality between pre-and post-trial sentencing. Nearly the same consensus held true for a question on support for the repeal of NYCPL § 220.10(5), which limits the ability to resolve a case by pleading guilty to a lesser charge, with the exception of Farhadian Weinstein, who said she needed to study the proposal further.
All candidates also signaled support for an increase in public defense funding, and an express prohibition within The Code of Judicial Conduct of retaliatory or vindictive sentencing for a defendant who rejected a plea deal and went to trial. When prompted about whether prosecutors should be prohibited from conditioning plea offers on a waiver of statutory or constitutional rights necessary for a defendant to make an informed decision on whether to plead guilty all candidates replied in the affirmative except for Farhadian Weinstein, who again said she needed more information.
A slightly more split reaction came on a question about whether it should be deemed unethical for a prosecutor to seek a higher sentence compared to a pretrial offer based on if the defendant litigates their statutory or constitutional rights, including the right to trial. Aboushi, Bragg, Lang, Orlins, and Quart all responded yes. Keniff said not in all cases, and Farhadian Weinstein said it also might be appropriate in some cases.
by Anna Kaufman
NEW YORK, NY — Voters in Manhattan will see eight names on the Democratic ballot and one on the Republican when they vote in the June 22 primary election for Manhattan District Attorney.
One of those names will be Thomas Kenniff, the only Republican candidate running for the position, a criminal defense attorney, and an Iraq War veteran. He is running to succeed Cyrus Vance Jr., who said in mid-March that he will not seek reelection.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s race is not ranked-choice voting.
Patch reached out to all candidates in the election to create these profiles. Kenniff’s responses are below.
Age (as of Election Day)
Manhattan District Attorney
Neighborhood of residence
Wife Emily, Daughters Emma (20) Madison (5) Parker (3) Ainsley (1)
Does anyone in your family work in politics or government?
Hofstra Law School, Juris Doctor, 2000, University of Rochester, BA, 1997
Previous or Current Elected or Appointed Office
Why are you seeking elective office?
I am running for District Attorney because I am appalled at the increase in crime and decline in quality of life in New York City. I believe this is the product of misguided progressive criminal justice policies, such as the disastrous bail reform bill and abandonment of proactive policing.
The single most pressing issue facing our (board, district, etc.) is _______, and this is what I intend to do about it.
The increase is violent crime. I will push to repeal the disastrous bail reform so that judges once again have the power to remove dangerous criminals from our streets and subways. I will also support the return of the NYPD’s plainclothes anti-crime whose primary mission was disrupting subway crime and getting illegal guns off our streets. Finally, I will fairly prosecute, but not abandon, the enforcement of quality of life offenses. Big leaks sink big ships, and history has proven that ignoring quality of life offenses, creates a permissive environment that leads to an increase in overall crime.
What are the critical differences between you and the other candidates seeking this post?
Nearly all my opponents support decriminalizing, de-policing and de-prosecuting. This is utterly wrong-headed and will put all innocent New Yorkers at risk.
If you are a challenger, in what way has the current board or officeholder failed the community (or district or constituency)
How do you think local officials performed in responding to the coronavirus? What if anything would you have done differently?
I have been on the frontline of COVID 19 response as an officer in the New York Army National Guard. I have been working at the Javit’s Center since last year, when established it as a hospital, and this year when it became the flagship vaccine site in the State. I think the government has done a lot of things right, but we now must focus on attracting business, residents and tourists back to our great city. We cannot do that if we can’t ensure the safety of all New Yorkers.
Describe the other issues that define your campaign platform.
As District Attorney, I will also emphasize rehabilitation over incarceration where appropriate, and improve the ability of our criminal justice system to identify and treat those defendants with mental health issues. I will also make it easier for defendants who have demonstrated a commitment to rehabilitation and a law-abiding life to obtain early sealing of their criminal records.
What accomplishments in your past would you cite as evidence you can handle this job?
I have twenty years of experience of both side of the criminal justice system, as a prosecutor and defense attorney. I served as the Chief Legal Assistance Officer with the 42nd Infantry Division in Tikrit, Iraq, creating a law office in a combat zone that covered a land area nearly the size of West Virginia, responsible for tens of thousands of soldiers.
The best advice ever shared with me was:
Believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.
What else would you like voters to know about yourself and your positions?
I will always put public safety and fairness first!