Brown Memorial Church opened its doors recently to host a forum for candidates for NYS Attorney General. With the expected announcement of a run for governor from current NYS Attorney General Andrew Cuomo still pending, a diverse group of Democratic and Republican candidates are seeking his presumably open seat. Democratic candidates in attendance at the forum included Richard Brodsky, NYS Assembly member; Sean Coffey, Senior Law Partner and Retired Navy Captain; Eric Dinallo, former NYS Insurance Commissioner; Kathleen Rice, Nassau County District Attorney; and Eric Schneiderman, NYS Senator. Candidate Elizabeth Holtzman was a no-show.
As the only female candidate in the race, Nassau DA Rice tried to distinguish herself as the only candidate who is not an Albany or Wall Street insider. Coffey responded by saying, “The notion that anyone would group me with Wall Street insiders is nutty. I fought those guys for 11 years. Bloomberg Markets magazine designated me as the new Wall Street nemesis.”
Brodsky also took issue with Rice’s characterization of him being an insider. “It is a stereotype, and I don’t like it. I want to be judged for what I have done. If Miss Rice thinks that I have been ineffective, I welcome the opportunity to hear that. She and I have differences. She opposed the Rockefeller Drug Law reforms, I supported them for years.” Brodsky warned what would happen if the Democratic primary turns into a “throw the bums out”. “We do not need a Tea Party here,” he said. Rice responded by addressing what she characterized as a “complete falsehood” regarding her record on reform of Rockefeller Drug Laws. “Not only did I support them, but I was doing diversionary programs two years before the laws were reformed. We didn’t even saddle people with an arrest; it was a ‘second chance’ program. We all know how hard it is to go out and get a job once you have a conviction,” said Rice.
Brodsky responded by saying he has a letter with Miss Rice’s name on it in which she opposes the Rockefeller Drug Law reforms. He did acknowledge her good work with diversionary programs. “The part she opposed was the part giving judges rather than DA’s the ability to determine sentencing,” said Brodsky.
OTP asked Rice about the Aloysius Staton case where a young man was beat up in an Oceanside, Long Island McDonald’s by three white men, “and instead of prosecuting the white men, you prosecuted Mr. Staton. He ended up spending a month in jail because he could not afford bail, then the case was dropped. In the case of Antoine Butts, when you were in the Brooklyn DA’s Office, you were a defendant in a civil case where you were accused of ‘suborning perjury.’ Some of the witnesses in the case said you and a couple of ADA’s had instructed them as to who to point out as the person who did the crime. As a result, Antoine Butts ended up spending 2 years in jail on a murder charge he did not commit. How can the community trust you to be the top law enforcement officer in this state when this is your record on civil rights?”
Rice responded with this: “I appreciate you asking that question. Over my almost 20-year career, I have handled thousands and thousands of cases. Two cases are being brought in, that you are mentioning, and you are using those two cases to say that this shows that I don’t appreciate civil rights. I don’t know what you are saying. I take personal offense to this. And I take exception and it’s like a knife in my heart to use two cases out of a 20-year career to say that I engaged in some kind of race-based prosecution. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Council member Charles Barron asked about the return of Alton Maddox’s license. Coffey said, “I know about the case, and want to know more about the case. I don’t think, with rare exception, someone should be defined by their worst moment. So I would like to hear more about why you think this is a travesty. I have represented a disbarred attorney in my career and I know how painful that can be. There have been plenty of lawyers who have been restored. This may be such a case.”
Moderator Faye Moore asked a variety of prepared questions appropriate for candidates vying for the state’s top law enforcement office.
On stop-and-frisk, Brodsky said, “In its purest form, stop-and-frisk is what Arizona intends to do.”
Schneiderman said as attorney general he would take up the issue of mass incarceration. “The problem with our criminal justice system is the incentives for the police is to stop more people. The incentive is to arrest more people. Incentives for prosecutors is to put away more people,” Schneiderman said. “This is the fault of our predecessors and colleagues who spent 30 years being afraid of being accused of being soft on crime. That is what they chose to vote for – Rockefeller Drug Laws, three strikes you’re out laws, mandatory minimums. With everyone paying a prison tax so that we can keep almost 2« million people in prison and have 700,000 people a year dumped out into poor communities – mostly African-American and Latino – with no reentry and no programs and wonder why those communities have trouble.”
Coffey said there are some serious questions about the constitutionality and scope of stop-and-frisk policy. “The problem is when it is abused and used as a pretext for harassment. That is wrong. My office, when I am attorney general, will vigorously investigate,” Coffey said. He explained how his background is relevant: “You should know, I spent 11 years in a law firm that handles employment discrimination cases on behalf of aggrieved employees. I went to the firm for its role in the Texaco race discrimination case and won the largest settlement for African-American employees at the time. And I was proud to work on cases involving African-American bankers who were being discriminated against at the Bank of America. I come from that area, and will be very aggressive with the civil rights bureau pursuing, from a government perspective, that which my firm pursued in a private arena.”
Rice said she appointed the first bias crime prosecutor in the history of the DA’s Office in Nassau. “There is too much bias crime, too much racism in Nassau,” Rice said.
When asked about eminent domain, there was strong disapproval from the audience. Rice said there has to be a balance between development versus the interests of the community. “The attorney general comes out on the side of supporting the community advocating for themselves,” she said.
Schneiderman said he disagreed with the New London decision. He said, “I am the sponsor of legislation in the Senate that would change the eminent domain laws to stop this business of private interests being able to use public powers to enhance their own well-being. I don’t have objections to the concept of eminent domain, but that’s supposed to be for the public good. I would move program bills and I would enforce them rigorously. Also, the AG can conduct investigations into the way these projects are carried out. Even if they are technically complying with dome of the laws, I assure you there are other issues that can be raised by an AG. I will look aggressively at the way these folks are proceeding. The example here in Brooklyn is held up by advocates all around the state of what we do not want. If my bill isn’t passed this year, when I am AG that will be a program bill from my office.”
Brodsky said, “Five years ago, I passed the first bill to reform the eminent domain system before the Brooklyn issue came up because it had occurred in my county. I would urge this community and any advocate to avoid redefinition of those laws that allow blight to be a characteristic of what allows eminent domain laws to be exercised. Blight is Yiddish for ‘poor people’. If you focus any reform effort on poor communities, you are just going to get more of the same. Brodsky said the problem was state laws; the instrumentality is the state public authorities law “that essentially allowed a legislative body to transfer private property from one private person to another private person in the name of the public good. We passed the Authority Reform bill which would no longer make the Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards transactions possible.”
Dinallo said he would use the appeals and opinion section of the AG’s office to issue a revisitation of [eminent domain], then use that opinion to signal a potential lawsuit around getting the laws changed, turning it back to a public enterprise, and not a private taking.
Coffey said we need someone who can affect change in Albany. “I did that when I took on Wall Street, the most powerful interest in this country. In the WorldCom case, 17 investment banks – including Goldman Sachs – tried to crush my little team with the best law firms in the country,” Coffey said. “We took them to trial and got $6 billion dollars. We need an agent of change, someone who is willing to leave the comfort of the private sector to come into Albany and affect change.”
On the subject of Wall Street, Brodsky said he introduced a bill five years ago would take the law Eliot Spitzer used so successfully and expand the ability of plaintiffs to be protected. “Right now, if you are a private citizen and Bernie Madoff rips you off, you recover,” said Brodsky, “But a pension fund cannot be treated the same way.”
Dinallo said when he was in the AG’s office, he was the person who brought the cases against Wall Street, and helped transform that office into the Sheriff of Wall Street and a protector of investors returning billions of dollars. “I am the only person here who can talk about standing up to Wall Street and insurance companies as a public official,” said Dinallo.
Rice said “When you are talking about reforming Wall Street, and Albany, you can’t be a Wall Street insider, or an Albany insider. You need an outsider, someone who has been an advocate their entire career, like I have.”
Coffey told the audience, “To be effective reforming Wall Street, you have to understand Wall Street. You have to know where the bodies are buried; you have to know their tricks. I know those tricks. Wall Street is important; it pays the bills. The best way to keep Wall Street growing is to keep it honest. I have recovered over $10 billion for defrauded investors, large and small. I have made people pay personally for the first time in history. The CEO of WorldCom, I took everything he had except the furniture and the silverware. I got it for the investors, including his $5 million joint tax refund. As AG, I am going to make the bad people pay – those CEO’s, those directors. I am going after these third parties, the credit rating agencies, the audit firms, the lawyers, the bankers. This is not a job for a rookie.”
Schneiderman explained the history of financial regulations, then said “On the state level we have some of the oldest financial regulations in the country. Some are too old. We can do a much better job with legislation. I understand the markets, I was a securities lawyer.”
Among the notables in attendance were Mayor of Hempstead Wayne Hall, Assembly members Annette Robinson, Inez Barron and Jim Brennan, Council members Letitia James Al Vann, and Charles Barron, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, District Leaders Olanike Alabi and Jesse Hamilton and Chris Owens.
The forum was sponsored by Brown Memorial Baptist Church, Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats (CBID), Council members Al Vann and Letitia James, District leaders Olanike Alabi, Jesse Hamilton and Shirley Patterson, Rosa Parks Independent Democratic Club, The 57th Assembly District Democratic Organization, and New Kings Democrats (NKD).