Jennifer Rodgers, Executive Director of the Columbia University Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI), and Izaak Bruce, CAPI Research Fellow, contribute the following guest post:
Last fall, New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance received quite a bit of negative press for his handling of potential cases involving some high-profile potential defendants. In one case, Vance declined to bring sexual assault charges in 2015 against Harvey Weinstein despite a detailed victim account. In another case, back in 2012, Vance ultimately decided not to criminally charge members of the Trump family for making false and misleading statements to promote one of their real estate ventures, again despite what on the surface appeared to be credible evidence of wrongdoing. Of course, prosecutors have to make difficult judgment calls all the time about what cases to bring, often based on information that outsiders do not have access to and/or are not in a good position to judge. But what made these cases so troublesome to many was the suggestion or insinuation of improper influence. The New York County DA is an elected position, and in both the Weinstein case and the Trump case, the attorneys who successfully convinced Vance not to bring charges also made hefty donations to Vance’s reelection campaign.
Vance and his supporters insist that there was no impropriety, let alone a quid pro quo, and rightly point out that DAs raise substantial campaign contributions from many attorneys. But the reports were nonetheless deeply troubling, not least because these incidents evince a more general problem. In a couple of cases, DAs have been convicted for accepting campaign contributions as bribes in exchange for favorable defendant outcomes; much more common, however, is the appearance of impropriety caused by campaign donations from individuals involved in cases before the district attorney’s office; these are problematic even if no underlying crime is proved. And of course there is always the possibility of unconscious bias when a DA makes decisions about criminal cases that involve a campaign donor, even if the DA believes his or her decision making is unaffected. Yet despite these obvious problems, there are very few legal limits on donations by individuals to district attorneys, either in New York or elsewhere. In New York, for example, campaign contributors can give a DA candidate up to the maximum amount (almost $50,000 in New York County) with no regard for whether those contributions might lead to a conflict of interest or an unconscious bias on the part of the district attorney. And there is virtually no guidance for DAs on how to handle these potential or apparent conflict-of interest issues.
To help address this problem, my organization, the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) at Columbia Law School, recently released a report on DA fundraising practices. DA Vance, to his credit, specifically requested this review, which included an examination of his own campaign fundraising practices. In conducting its review, CAPI considered the donation acceptance policies of DA Vance’s campaign, and analyzed contributions to his campaigns over his three election cycles, paying particular attention to contributions from attorneys. CAPI conducted research into applicable laws, regulations, and guidance for DAs, and lawyers generally, in this area, and interviewed numerous stakeholders on the topic, including DAs, election regulators, good governance groups, and legal ethics experts, to learn from their experiences and solicit their views. After conducting this review, the report offered seven recommendations for DAs to follow to avoid actual and potential conflicts of interest and biases. While these recommendations are geared to DAs in New York, they are instructive for elected prosecutors all over the United States: Continue reading