After U.S. Attorney removals in NYC, replacements yet to affix own stamp on reform

  • Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde has not revealed whether she will probe Queens politics the way her predecessor probed Long Island politics

  • Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim has not demonstrated his commitment to transparency

Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde, left, and Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim. Source : LinkedIn/Fair Use ; U.S. Attorney's Office/Public Domain

Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde, left, and Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim. Source : LinkedIn/Fair Use ; U.S. Attorney's Office/Public Domain

By LOUIS FLORES

Six months ago, U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Sessions III requested that 46 U.S. Attorneys appointed under the Obama administration step down from their offices. The request, interpreted by some as an ideological purge from an executive department that typically puts up a façade that it is free of politics, led to an immediate shake-up in Federal prosecutors' offices in Brooklyn and Manhattan, from which U.S. Attorneys Robert Capers and Preet Bharara were forced to step down, respectively, with Mr. Bharara's removal being reported as a firing. Although Mr. Bharara had developed a strong media narrative about the corruption-fighting work of his office, as reported by Progress Queens, the work of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn headed then by Mr. Capers was approaching parity with its counterpart in Manhattan, headed then by Mr. Bharara. Indeed, by one calculation, a hypothetical rebalancing of case loads between the Brooklyn and Manhattan offices would have equalised the number of public corruption cases each office brought. After Mr. Capers and Mr. Bharara stepped down, in their places rose Acting U.S. Attorneys Bridget Rohde and Joon Kim, respectively. 

New York City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, left, campaigning with Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, who is obscured in the background, at P.S. 229 in Woodside, Queens on Sept. 11, 2017. Councilmember Van Bramer is reportedly engaged in a campaign to become the next City Council speaker. In years past, Councilmember Crowley's cousin, U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens), has generally been able to exert influence to select City Council speakers, with the notable exception during the 2013 Municipal election cycle, when lobbying firms broke the control that County Committee chairs had been able to exert over speakership selections. Council speakers are able to exercise considerable influence over the legislative and policy agenda of Municipal agencies, notably on issues of land use. An activism group has identified over $100,000 in donations made to Councilmember Van Bramer's 2017 campaign committee from individuals related to the real estate industry. Source : Kim Caruana/Used With Permission

New York City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, left, campaigning with Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, who is obscured in the background, at P.S. 229 in Woodside, Queens on Sept. 11, 2017. Councilmember Van Bramer is reportedly engaged in a campaign to become the next City Council speaker. In years past, Councilmember Crowley's cousin, U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens), has generally been able to exert influence to select City Council speakers, with the notable exception during the 2013 Municipal election cycle, when lobbying firms broke the control that County Committee chairs had been able to exert over speakership selections. Council speakers are able to exercise considerable influence over the legislative and policy agenda of Municipal agencies, notably on issues of land use. An activism group has identified over $100,000 in donations made to Councilmember Van Bramer's 2017 campaign committee from individuals related to the real estate industry. Source : Kim Caruana/Used With Permission

Almost immediately, Acting U.S. Attorney Kim made his first big mark as head of the Manhattan Federal prosecutors' office when, six days after U.S. Attorney General Sessions announced the ideological purge of the U.S. Attorneys' Offices, Acting U.S. Attorney Kim announced that he was closing the reported, wide-ranging Federal corruption investigation into the campaign finance activities of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City). Since that time, Acting U.S. Attorney Kim has continued the secretive investigation into corruption at the New York Police Department. For her part, Acting U.S. Attorney Rohde oversaw her office's successful conviction of former hedge fund manager and pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli on three counts of fraud. Last week, the office of Acting U.S. Attorney Rohde settled an investigation into the activities of MediSys Health Network, the operator of two hospitals in Queens, for having an improper financial relationship with referring physicians. These, and other, recent cases, were already or likely already in the pipeline prior to the purge of Mr. Capers and Mr. Bharara.

To Government reform activists in New York City, it is not known whether the change in White House administrations, the radical change in ideology at the top of the U.S. Department of Justice, or the changing of the guards at the Federal prosecutors' offices in Brooklyn and Manhattan would act to impede the growing public expectation for political and campaign reform. A considerable factor in the growing public expectation for accountability and reform developed in the face of a series of public speeches given by former U.S. Attorney Bharara in which he lambasted each of the lack of public ethics of elected officials charged with corruption and the lack of transparency across New York Government ; the large number of corruption prosecutions brought by the offices formerly headed by Mr. Capers and Mr. Bharara also added to the growing expectation that New York City was experiencing a movement for reform largely being led by its Federal prosecutors' offices ; finally, a small, but budding social movement for accountability and reform has added to the public expectation that Government institutions could perhaps earn back voter confidence once enough corruption had been exposed and rooted out of Government.

Whilst under the respective direction of Mr. Capers and Mr. Bharara, the Brooklyn and Manhattan Federal prosecutors' offices prosecuted 54 cases of public corruption since 2010. Against the heightened public expectation for accountability and reform, it is not known whether the two, new Acting U.S. Attorneys, who replaced Mr. Capers and Mr. Bharara, would be able to continue the unfinished business of fighting political and campaign corruption, and whether the two, new Acting U.S. Attorneys, even if they were so motivated, would be able to remain independent enough to carry out public corruption investigations necessary for the public to renew their confidence in Government agencies. Questions about whether the two, new Acting U.S. Attorneys in New York would be able to exert sufficient independence were heightened after it was reported by Democracy Now that the purge of U.S. Attorneys was carried out to, in part, disrupt investigations of President Donald Trump and his political allies that former U.S. Attorney Bharara's office may have been carrying out.

The political landscape in Queens

Compounding the unknowns in the face of rapidly-changing circumstances facing the two, new Acting U.S. Attorneys in New York City are lingering questions about why some political corruption scandals are investigated, but not all. As reported in recent years by Progress Queens, questions have largely remained unanswered about funding received by a nonprofit group affiliated with New York State Senator José Peralta ; about reportedly preferential treatment showed to a campaign consulting company by the New York Democratic Senate Campaign Committee ; and with new allegations that politically-connected lawyers were earning enormous profits from, or wielding considerable influence as a result of, their connections to the Queens Democratic County Committee. The 2017 Municipal election cycle has raised new questions about the role of money in local politics and about public ethics, but there has been no apparent response from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn, headed by Acting U.S. Attorney Rohde, who has jurisdiction over Queens.

The Queens County court system is not viewed as a Government agency with integrity

In Queens, faith in Government institutions was revealed to be severely lacking after New York City Council candidate Paul Graziano filed a civil petition in New York State Supreme Court for Queens County, alleging criminality, such as fraud and forgery, in the ballot petitioning process carried out by incumbent Councilmember Paul Vallone (D-Bayside). On the Queens Crap blog, which attracts some of Queens' most formidable civic-minded activists, some of the comments posted by readers to news of the court filing expressed concern that the justices of the Queens County court system would not be able to independently oversee the Court case. To some Government reform activists in Queens, the Graziano Court petition served as a symbolic Rorschach test, providing insight into the public's lack of faith in the Queens County court system. Many comments on the Queens Crap post raised questions about the "allegiance" that justices in the Queens County court system owed to leaders of the Queens Democratic County Committee, expressed concern that Mr. Graziano would not be able to receive a "fair hearing," and invoked the resignation that the "the [Queens] Machine will work to stop this at all costs."

A member of the Maspeth 11378 public group on Facebook posted a photograph showing a campaign worker or volunteer for Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley's committee to reëlect apparently doing what was described as voter outreach on the day of the primary election a mere few yards away from a sign that notified political operatives that all electioneering work had to be done 100 feet from the sign's posting. Source :  Kara Howe Barboza / Maspeth 11372 / Facebook (Fair Use)

A member of the Maspeth 11378 public group on Facebook posted a photograph showing a campaign worker or volunteer for Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley's committee to reëlect apparently doing what was described as voter outreach on the day of the primary election a mere few yards away from a sign that notified political operatives that all electioneering work had to be done 100 feet from the sign's posting. Source :  Kara Howe Barboza / Maspeth 11372 / Facebook (Fair Use)

Concerns about possible interference by the Queens Democratic County Committee were rooted in the fact that the County committee supports the reëlection of incumbents as a way to earn political allegiance and to create a lockstep on power and authority over local elected officials. The role of money in politics is also a factor, because the County committee can marshal resources to support the reëlection of incumbents, leaving primary challengers at a distinct financial disadvantage. Indeed, as reported by Progress Queens, Mr. Graziano ultimately discontinued his Court petition due to the high anticipated costs of having to litigate his case, reaffirming the belief to some Government reform activists that the role of money in politics even extends to being able to successfully petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The allegations made by the Graziano campaign against the Vallone campaign heightened new fears about the integrity of the voting process in Queens. In the 2016 election cycle, it was revealed that the New York City Board of Elections purged large numbers of voters without cause, triggering the filing of a Federal civil rights complaint in Brooklyn Federal Court that was later joined by both the U.S. Attorney's Office, headed at that time then by Mr. Capers, and by the office of the State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-New York). To some Government reform activists, it has appeared that Queens voters have been disenfranchised for two years in a row, first, in 2016, when some voters were purged from the rolls, and, second, this year, when Federal prosecutors did nothing to investigate the allegations of criminality in the Graziano petition against the Vallone campaign, thereby allowing voters to cast their ballots for an incumbent, who may later be investigated for wrong-doing, although there is no indication that Federal prosecutors are presently conducting any such investigation. The press office of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn did not answer advance questions submitted by Progress Queens for this report.

Other alleged irregularities in this year's election cycle in Queens involved the cousin of the chair of the Queens Democratic County Committee. Progress Queens has received credible information from various sources that representatives of the committee to reëlect Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley (D-Maspeth) acted to intimidate the campaign volunteers of Councilmember Crowley's primary challenger, Robert Holden, sometimes by invoking violent language. One Holden campaign volunteer said that she was yelled at and disparaged by representatives of Councilmember Crowley's campaign, including by Councilmember Crowley and her son, Owen O'Hara. In one instance, the source said that Mr. O'Hara told the Holden campaign volunteer to perform a sex act on him and made a corresponding rude sexual gesture by grabbing his loins, according to information received by Progress Queens. Similar accusations of intimidation were also made by a second Holden campaign volunteer, revealing a possible pattern. The second Holden campaign volunteer informed Progress Queens that she was similarly yelled at when she was trying to inform voters about Councilmember Crowley's record and policy positions, and, in response, one male Crowley campaign representative came up to the second Holden campaign volunteer and threatened to silence her by shoving his penis into her mouth. Both Holden campaign volunteers told Progress Queens that they were called "white trash" by Councilmember Crowley herself or by other Crowley campaign representatives. Other forms of possible misconduct by the Crowley campaign including the spreading or mailing of false information about Mr. Holden ; engaging in ageism ; and allegations that Councilmember Crowley used her official capacity as an elected official to gain entry into private apartment buildings to distribute campaign literature, opportunities that were denied to Mr. Holden's campaign. For this report, Councilmember Crowley did not answer an interview request.

The increasingly desperate actions of campaigns backed by the Queens Democratic County Committee

In a wide-ranging interview with Progress Queens, Mr. Holden questioned the personal character of Councilmember Crowley over the allegations of misconduct by her and her campaign representatives, saying, in part, that, "It's one thing to give out literature, but it's another thing to be harassing," he said, referring to the treatment his campaign volunteers received from the Crowley campaign. Of the sexually-violent use of language against his campaign volunteers, Mr. Holden said, "It's disgraceful."

A mailing sent by the Crowley campaign containing misleading information reportedly angered a neighbor of Mr. Holden's, triggering the making of a bomb threat against Mr. Holden, according to a WINS 1010 AM news report published online. Mr. Holden held a press conference, in response, to call attention to the sinister impact of Councilmember Crowley's electioneering misconduct.

To some Government reform activists in Queens, the actions by the reëlection campaigns supported by the Queens Democratic County Committee are, in some ways, indicative of political desperation. In the interview with Progress Queens, Mr. Holden noted that a primary challenger, Brian Barnwell, defeated incumbent New York State Assemblymember Margaret Markey (D-Woodside) in last year's election cycle. Many challengers stepping up against incumbents do not succeed in Queens, due to the overwhelming influence of the Queens Democratic County Committee in stifling a healthy public election process. Even in open races, candidates with close ties to the County committee win elections against reform candidates. In a race for an open City Council seat, political upstart Ali Najmi was defeated by Barry Grodenchik, who was backed by the Queens Democratic County Committee. "We see more challengers," Mr. Holden told Progress Queens, "but we are not seeing results, yet." Although Mr. Graziano and Mr. Holden, respectively, lost in the Democratic Party primary election fights against incumbent City Councilmembers, their campaigns will continue into the November general election, because both challengers will appear on the ballots of at least one other political party, notably the Reform Party.

The belief that the Queens Democratic County Committee may be feeling desperate is somewhat rooted in a new wave of press reports that indicate that, once again, individuals with political connections with the County committee are reportedly making handsome profits from the Queens County court system. The family of, and a law firm with close political ties to, U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens) have reportedly been profiting from U.S. Rep. Crowley's campaign committee and profiting from and exerting influence over the Queens County court system, respectively. U.S. Rep. Crowley, who is Councilmember Crowley's cousin, serves as the chair of the Queens Democratic County Committee. His office did not answer an interview request made by Progress Queens for this report. When citizen activists and reform candidates state that they want to challenge the political machine in Queens, they are referring to the County committee overseen by U.S. Rep. Crowley. Yet, to some Government reform activists in Queens, therein lies the greatest paradox of all : If Federal prosecutors won't probe the nearly endless controversies involving the County committee, what hope do reform candidates really have that Federal prosecutors will investigate allegations of criminality or wrong-doing by the campaign committees that are backed by the County committee ? All eyes tend to look to the U.S. Attorneys' Offices in New York City, because the district attorney for Queens and the state attorney general for New York must run for office with the support of the County committee.

The citizen efforts at waging rigorous political campaigns calling for accountability and reform in Queens are being tested by the very notion that citizens have the power to effect change to a Government that purports to act with the citizens' consent. In the time since former U.S. Attorney Bharara has returned to being a private citizen, he has scaled-up his social media interactions with the public. In a post that is pinned to the top of his profile page on the Twitter social media platform, former U.S. Attorney Bharara counseled the public to have faith in their ability effect civic change, writing, "Citizens working together are more powerful than US Attorneys," and, in a dig at President Donald Trump, former U.S. Attorney Bharara added, "And presidents." Yet, given the silence emanating from both Federal prosecutors' offices in New York City in the face of civic concern for the integrity of Government institutions in Queens, it is not known how average citizens can bring about accountability and reform in Queens. To some Government reform activists, it will only be a matter of time before citizens begin to view the U.S. Attorneys' Offices as compromised as the Queens County court system if no action is taken to investigate accusations of criminality or wrong-doing in Queens.

The scramble by incumbents against a growing public expectation for accountability and reform can also be seen in the constituency district represented by Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside). His Council District over-laps, in parts, with the Assembly district won last year by Mr. Barnwell. A chief concern in that district has been the issue of gentrification, housing affordability, and a desire to bring an end to the role of money in local politics, according to information received by Progress Queens. To that end, community residents have staged a march against gentrification last spring and a walking tour against gentification last month through Councilmember Van Bramer's district. Yet, despite the public expectation for accountability and reform and his constituency's demands to fight gentrification, Councilmember Van Bramer has not fully addressed these issues. Instead, in this election year, Councilmember Van Bramer has opted-out out the matching-dollar program of New York City's regulated campaign finance system in order to receive unlimited campaign contributions, thus increasing the role of money for his campaign committee. An activist group, the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, has identified over $100,000 in contributions to Councilmember Van Bramer's committee to reëlect that were made by individuals related to the real estate industry. And one of the real estate development projects, which Councilmember Van Bramer has not yet publicly opposed, the proposed construction of the street car service known as the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX, has been described by the Editorial Board of The New York Daily News as an example of pay-to-play corruption. The BQX has been proposed to run alongst the waterfront from Brooklyn to Queens, nearly passing the U.S. Attorney's Office in Downtown Brooklyn, but the Brooklyn Federal prosecutors' office has seemingly ignored the project. Furthermore, as much as civic leaders in Queens question the undue influence of the Queens Democratic County Committee, Councilmember Van Bramer appears to strengthening his alliance with the County committee by virtue of campaigning in support of Councilmember Crowley, the cousin of the County chair, U.S. Rep. Crowley. According to information received by Progress Queens, Councilmember Van Bramer may be trading his political support for Councilmember Crowley in exchange for receiving County committee support for his reported City Council speakership campaign.

As a budding movement for accountability and reform takes root in Queens, all eyes seemingly look toward the Federal prosecutors' offices in New York City for leadership. According to information obtained by Progress Queens, many Government reform activists had high expectations that former U.S. Attorney Bharara would have begun to tackle institutional corruption with the County committees of New York City rather than continuing to prosecute single bad actors, as was the pattern of his office, but the closest former U.S. Attorney Bharara came at conducting an institutional corruption investigation was to probe the reported meddling of the Moreland Commission by the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York), an investigation that closed without the filing of criminal charges. Other Government reform activists have expressed concern that, whilst former U.S. Attorney Capers launched a probe of political and campaign corruption leading to arrests in Nassau County, on Long Island, activists have questioned whether Acting U.S. Attorney Rohde would launch a similar institutional probe of Queens politics. "New York needs a big investigation," Mr. Holden told Progress Queens, adding that, "The worst [need] by far is in Queens County."

Across the East River, where many of New York City's most complex public corruption cases are managed, Acting U.S. Attorney Kim has not yet affixed his personal stamp on the cause for accountability and reform. He has continued the controversial practise of his predecessor of bringing charges of public corruption against high-ranking officials with the NYPD in small batches, undermining the calls made by Government reform activists for the formation of a public corruption panel patterned after the Knapp Commission to hold public hearings about the alleged practices of corruption at the NYPD. The office of Acting U.S. Attorney Kim has also rejected calls made by Progress Queens to settle a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act that would call for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan to make proactive disclosures under FOIA of transcripts or recordings of speeches given by the U.S. Attorney heading that office. The press office that supports the work of Acting U.S. Attorney Kim did not immediately return a request for comment for this report. If a response is received, this report will be updated with that information. Nevertheless, worryingly, for Government reform activists in Queens, the leadership vacuum appears to be beginning to extend into the Federal prosecutors' offices of New York City, as well.