New York public defender Tiffany Cabán offered hope for political reform. Had she been elected as Queens District Attorney, her win would have represented success for an electoral strategy toward Government reform. Her loss, however, deals a blow to long-needed prosecutorial and judicial reform. Cabán for Queens/Fair Use

In New York, movements for reform meet barriers of entrenched machine politics, and élites survive — for now

Élites are not accountable for corruption ; as a result, people with wealth, power, or privilege are not answerable to the governed.

By Progress New York Staff

With the making of a concession speech by Manhattan public defender Tiffany Cabán during the evening of Aug. 6  in the hotly-contested Queens District Attorney’s race, the movements for reform in New York suffered the latest in a series of political reversals. Ever since a former bartender named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated then U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY 14) in a Democratic Party primary election in 2018, citizens have been clamouring to vote out of office a class of Democrats described as establishment and corporate. In their stead, reformers have proposed to elect a new group of candidates, who are promising long-overdue political, social, and economic reforms. Whereas successors have included the freshman class of New York State Senators, who replaced the incumbent members of the Independence Democratic Conference, or IDC, formerly headed by then-State Sen. Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx), others have not succeeded, most notably, Ms. Cabán, proving that the electoral movement has been hamstrung.

Other recent reversals include the dismissal of key staff to U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, including Saikat Chakrabarti, who structured two political action committees and a limited liability company to big foot the Queens Congressional race. His removal as U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff was seen as a raw exercise of power by U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA 12), the U.S. House Speaker. Since U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s ascent into power, Speaker Pelosi has been wrangling to hold back calls for reform. During his short time in Washington, Mr. Chakrabarti had ruffled feathers with his impatience with the pace of reform set by establishment, corporate Democrats. Political machines do not tolerate any dissent, and Mr. Chakrabarti’s early attempts to break the lockstep by party leadership on determining the social agenda were enough to incite retaliation that culminated with his dismissal.

Despite the convergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the movement seeking an end to the era of mass incarceration, activists had to settle for the firing of New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo as the only form of justice for his fatal use of a banned chokehold on Eric Garner that was later ruled as a homicide by the medical examiner’s office. As a result, the movements to reform policing have again become stalled under Mayor de Blasio. Early in his administration, Mayor de Blasio self-anointed himself to be a progressive champion, but then, in a contradictory move, he appointed William Bratton as police commissioner. Mr. Bratton championed the use of policing tactics that have had a disparate impact on people based on race.

Concurrently, a series of revelations by the media showed that Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City), New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Chelsea), and Borough President Eric Adams (D-Brooklyn) appear to be engaged in fundraising from officials with business before the City of New York Government. Mayor de Blasio has twice been accusing of using multiple political committees to circumvent Federal campaign finance regulations governing campaign committees. Speaker Johnson has been accused of raising ten per cent. of his mayoral campaign committee finances from individuals with ties to groups receiving discretionary funding from the New York City Council, which is controlled by the Council Speaker. In the past, Councilmember Johnson was reported to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for having broken campaign finance laws to become the Council Speaker, according a report published by Progress Queens, the precursor to Progress New York. Taking after others, Borough President Adams has been accused of using a non-profit to raise money from individuals with business before the City.

The unchecked power of élites to break campaign finance laws has publicly revealed how the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, once a leader in political and campaign corruption investigations, now tolerates the construction of illegitimate enterprises to secure private gains by senior Government officials.

Law enforcement, the function of Government intended to root out corruption, is intentionally distracted with low-level crimes, and prosecutorial and judicial officials abuse discretion to protect those in power.

If it begins to occur to the public that the justice system has two tiers of justice, then it could be perhaps that there are, indeed, two systems of justice. One consequence of Mr. Bratton’s Broken Windows approach to policing is that focusing on low-level crimes permits law enforcement to lose sight of high-level corruption, like exploiting Government office for personal gain, which does more, some would argue, to undermine the democratic functions of Government than, say, people, who jump subway turnstiles. This misguided approach to law enforcement institutionalises corruption in Government, because there is seemingly no interest in rooting it out. Whereas, if law enforcement and prosecutors could countenance corruption, then the Court system could eventually come to share in this toleration, too.

In Queens, for example, a political machine operated by the Democratic Party has seemingly been in control of County Government for decades, and this political machine has survived scrutiny in large part because corporate-owned media and even some reform candidates have appeared to deliberately stop short of questioning the legitimacy of Government institutions under the corrupting influence of political lockstep and unjust enrichment. Media reports have revealed that officials with ties to the Democratic Party committee in Queens County have profited from that relationship in respect of their business dealings with the County Court system. During that time, there has been no accountability over these allegations of unjust enrichment. As reported by Progress Queens, for at least a brief period of time, Federal prosecutors in the jurisdictions of Brooklyn and Manhattan investigated, pressed charges, and convicted some officials and political operatives of corruption. If only a few, single bad actors have been the subject of corruption investigations, then the third branch of Government — the judiciary — has seemingly limited the scope of judicial oversight without any accountability, either — even in the face of questions having been raised about their impartiality. The compromised functions by the Courts, in Queens and elsewhere, are a chief way that New York élites withstand movements for reform.

Ms.Cabán’s self-described, reform-focused campaign ended with a public concession speech after she litigated in the County Court system election irregularities in her race. Like with Ms. Cabán’s campaign, other insurgent candidates in Queens have seen their political campaigns end in defeat whenever election irregularities were challenged in the County Courts. City Council candidate Paul Graziano saw his 2017 reform campaign for office suffer a setback when his campaign pulled he plug on litigation seeking to challenge the validity of the primary ballot petition signatures collected by the committee to reëlect his incumbent rival, New York City Councilmember Paul Vallone (D-Bayside). Besides being prohibitively expensive, litigating election irregularities proved seemingly futile, at least in part, because County Court justices were elected to office with support from the County political committee that supported Councilmember Vallone’s reëlection. Even though Mr. Graziano had alleged possible criminality, including fraud and forgery, amongst other allegations, in the primary ballot petition signatures collected by Councilmember Vallone’s committee to reëlect, prosecutors took no public action in the face of such allegations. The conflict of interest in the County Court system was not something directly invoked by many and was largely discussed in comments safely posted behind the veil of anonymity on the civic blog, Queens Crap, for example. But civic leaders were hesitant to invoke the spectre of a conflicted County judiciary out of fear of retribution. In New York political circles, there exist tales of many victims of the culture of retaliation awaiting gadflies and whistleblowers.

If allegations of corruption are not litigated in the press, then there’s little to no chance that they will be litigated by prosecutors, much less by voters.

As reported by Progress New York, when First Sister Maryanne Trump Barry faced an ethics investigation by a judicial panel over allegations that she had participated in fraudulent tax schemes with her siblings, that judicial panel, which included Chief U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon, permitted Ms. Trump Barry to resign from her judicial post rather than face the outcome of the ethics investigation. Another judge, U.S. District Court Judge John Koeltl, who administered civil litigation over a Freedom of Information Act request filed by a reporter of Progress New York, was openly dismissive of allegations cited in at least one complaint over judicial misconduct and disability. The complaint noted that Judge Koeltl took actions that undermined the case of the Plaintiff, who sought four categories of speech records of former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Because the work of the U.S. Attorney’s Office is underpinned by deference shown to it by the Federal judiciary, it could be argued that Judge Koeltl was demonstrating unfair deference to a Party to the litigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office formerly headed by Mr. Bharara represented the Government in the civil litigation.

Multiple examples exist of the deference that the justice system shows to people in power, and some involve District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. (D-Manhattan). He reportedly overruled the recommendations made by his office to investigate the financial dealings of two of the children of President Donald Trump (R) after a politically-connected Trump family defense attorney, Marc Kasowitz, raised and bundled money for District Attorney’s Vance’s campaign committee, according to a joint media report. Prosecutors in his office also reportedly dropped an investigation into Hollywood film director Harvey Weinstein after the prosecutor’s campaign committee received large donations from attorneys connected to Mr. Weinstein, an affair that raised the prospect of a Federal criminal investigation that, so far, has gone no where. A possible state probe of the Weinstein-related donations to District Attorney Vance’s campaign committee was halted after other attorneys with connections to Mr. Weinstein, in turn, made a large donation to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York). For his part, District Attorney Vance ordered a review of how he raises campaign donations, resulting in recommendations that included a reported ban on donations from lawyers with business before his Office, according to a report published by Pro Publica. After facing criticism over his Office’s handling of the Jeffrey Epstein case, District Attorney Vance reportedly indicated that he has made no decision to seek a fourth term.

The political culture that insulates prosecutors from charges of misconduct can be observed in the case of Charles Hynes, the former District Attorney for Brooklyn. After it was revealed that he misused asset forfeiture funds for campaign purposes, the by then ex-District Attorney Hynes never faced charges following a decision by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn to drop the case, according to a report published by the New York Times. The activist and author Suzannah B. Troy noted in a YouTube interview that, “In New York, nobody is investigating Cy Vance’s and the NYPD’s criminal roles in the Jeffrey Epstein case.” Several years ago, District Attorney Vance’s office inexplicably and unsuccessfully petitioned a Judge to lower the now-late Mr. Epstein’s sex offender status. For years, Ms. Troy has focused attention on how the justice system fails anybody challenging people in power ; alongst the way, Ms. Troy has pointed to a hand-written lawsuit filed by Mr. Garner, alleging violations of his civil rights, including as a result of a body cavity search performed in open public as evidence that average people are shown no mercy or compassion by the justice system. In her own case of violation, Ms. Troy cited how nobody has been held accountable after she was reportedly attacked by an employee in the office of Dr. Andrew Fagelman, a prominent physician in SoHo, according to a YouTube video of the alleged assault.

Whenever political reform movements appear to gain momentum, attention invariably shifts to the justice system for reform, too. Nearly 90 years ago, about the time when Fiorello La Guardia was getting ready to deal the Tammany Hall political machine a setback when he won the mayor’s race in New York City as a Republican reformer, the Seabury Investigations were attempting to purge the City’s judiciary of corruption. Nearly 50 years ago, after Edward Koch defeated Carmine De Sapio, the last vestige of Tammany Hall, in a race for District Leader, a renewed efforting was made to end the political machine’s practise of selling judicial nominations. Decisions not to investigate, charge, or prosecute people in power are deliberate, as are permissive attitudes. After an expression of outrage, the Editorial Board of the New York Post predicted that Mayor de Blasio might possibly “get away” with the appearance of self-dealing. When Ms. Cabán, the Queens District Attorney candidate was endorsed by the Editorial Board of the New York Times, the experienced editors limited their criticism of the Queens political machine as promoting a candidate “unencumbered by ties to the borough power structure.” The most notable issue to come to the fore in the final weeks of the Queens District Attorney’s primary election, the time when most of the public begin to tune into politics, was the noble issue of decriminalising sex work. But that issue just attempted to focus attention on one aspect of Broken Windows policing that needed reform, not on the corruptive influence of the Queens political machine on the entire justice system. As a result, the corruption at the core of the Queens politics was largely left unchallenged. After criticism and shaming, some by the new head of the Queens political machine himself, U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), the celebrity speaker and corporate event entertainer Shaun King naturally walked back his accusations that the political machine in Queens was undermining the integrity of the recount process of the disputed Queens District Attorney’s race.

To some political reform activists, any attempt to restore democratic functions to Government administration must include components that deal with the corruptive roles of political machines, as well as the alleged misconduct by prosecutors’ offices and the judiciary. To the lament of political reform activists, primary challengers appear unwilling to litigate in the press the true extent of the corruption of political machines in all three branches of Government. For, as important as Ms. Cabán’s race for Queens District Attorney was to an electoral pathway to Government reform and to end the disparate impact of Broken Windows policing, it could have also served as a passage to thus far elusive prosecutorial and judicial reform in New York City. Due to the reluctance to publicly prosecute the Queens political machine publicly in the District Attorney’s race, a career political operative and former real estate lobbyist, Melinda Katz, will join District Attorney Vance as a peer, in more ways than one.