County District Attorney David Soares has had to fight the
system—and so far, he’s winning
AVoice at the other end of a phone line is telling Albany
County District Attorney David Soares that a witness has been
threatened and is afraid for their life. Soares swallows hard,
trying to contain his indignation. On the second day of the
third year of Soares’ term, the clamant voice emanating from
his headset and his calm responses are the only sounds that
periodically break the uneasy silence that dominates his office.
Coming off a year of headline-dominating cases and career-defining
victories, Soares is ready to refocus for the second half
of his first term. Ask Soares about his successes this past
year, and he will modestly tell you he was the beneficiary
of the work of an amazingly dedicated staff. But right now
no one’s asking him anything. Soares is focused on one thing:
the voice at the other end of his headset.
A man stands silently at the door to Soares’ office, awaiting
instructions. The chirp at the other end of the line breaks
for a moment. Soares wipes his eyes and brow and slowly says,
“Witness intimidation is one of the greatest challenges this
office has to face.” Then he reassures the person on the other
end of the line, and says a few choice words about the perps.
Soares then motions to the man at the door, puts his headset
down, and steps away from his desk as the investigator takes
up the phone call.
It’s business as usual for Soares, but according to a number
of politicos, the office Soares now occupies is not the same
one that he walked into two years ago. They say that Soares’
commitments and successes have raised its profile and the
role it will play in state politics.
However, it was only two years ago that Soares and his right
hand, Chris D’Alessandro, were both pariahs, jobless crusaders
trying desperately to keep their faith in a system that they
say had wronged them. That is why, through all of his successes
of the past year, Soares has been haunted by the specter of
the Albany County Legislature, a body dominated by old-school
Albany politicians who control his budget.
As D’Alessandro tells it, he had been reporting corruption
within the Albany Police Department, to the chagrin of his
supervisors, around late 2001 and early 2002, and as a result,
he says, he was moved from head of the detective department
to a position as a commander at North Station in Arbor Hill.
was my low point in my police career,” he relates. “Luckily,
it wasn’t a week or two till I met David at a community meeting.”
Soares and D’Alessandro began working together on community-outreach
programs, using an office on Clinton Avenue. D’Alessandro
says he was just following Soares’ lead. “It wasn’t more than
a week or two after meeting him that I went from an absolute
low point in the police department to feeling I was absolutely
reborn as a police officer again.”
However, the pair’s work drew the ire of the Albany establishment,
and soon funding was an issue. And then when a large case
of overtime fraud in the police department was made public,
D’Alessandro went to Albany treasurer Betty Barnette and told
her that the case was only the tip of the iceberg. “I had
a conversation with Betty Barnette and told her, ‘This isn’t
the only guy. It has been going on in the detective office.
I reported it, and they didn’t want to hear it. She asked,
‘Did you have a conversation with the mayor?’ I said, ‘No,
I wouldn’t. I didn’t have the conversation. I wouldn’t want
to obligate him to do something he wouldn’t be inclined to
do.’ She asked, ‘Well, am I obligated?’ Now I’m like, ‘You’re
the treasurer. You decide whether you are obligated or not.’
According to D’Alessandro, the following Wednesday, Albany
Mayor Jerry Jennings showed up at a command staff meeting.
Over eight years, D’Alessandro says, he had seen the mayor
attend these meetings only once or twice. “He looked at me
while he was addressing presumably everyone and said, ‘I don’t
want anyone at this table talking to any elected officials
about any problems inside the Albany PD.’ A month and a half
later, I was transferred to a desk job and told I couldn’t
leave my office for seven weeks.”
During that time, a flyer circulated through the office mocking
another officer. D’Alessandro was blamed, put on suspension,
and fired two weeks later.
It was around this time that Soares found himself without
the resources to keep running his neighborhood-outreach efforts,
and now, also without the backing of his friend D’Alessandro.
On the verge of defeat, Soares told his boss, District Attorney
Paul Clyne, that he was going to run for Clyne’s job. Clyne
were a team of very naive, out-of-work people trying to get
him elected,” says D’Alessandro. “But I knew from the beginning
of his campaign, as soon as David told me the idea, I knew
he was the guy for the job.”
Calls to the offices of Jennings and Barnette were not returned
as of the publication deadline for this story.
D’Alessandro said it was Soares’ approach of inclusion and
sensitivity that would not only win him the race but also
reform the district attorney’s office. D’Alessandro points
to one of the first changes Soares made to the office as being
one of the most important. Instead of having different assistant
district attorneys assigned to different steps in the prosecutorial
process (one for indictments, one for grand juries, one for
trial), under Soares, one attorney follows the case all the
fewer assistant district attorneys that have to interview
a victim, the less negative impact there is on them,” says
D’Alessandro. Rachel McEneny, spokeswoman for Soares, notes
that Soares spends long nights at the office speaking to victims,
making sure he knows exactly whom he is representing.
D'Alessandro and David Soares
Photo: Chris Shields
his resounding election victory, Soares knew he would be under
constant attack from established political players in Albany,
who never expected him to be elected in the first place.
So, while Soares’ office began streamrolling through successes—the
Geisel case, the creation of the public-integrity unit, the
Porco case, and on to Alan Hevesi—Soares says the presence
of the Albany County Legislature was always lurking.
As Soares explains the situation: “I am an independent prosecutor,
and it has been a struggle to free this office from the grasp
of the establishment. It continues to be a struggle. If you
cannot control the district attorney himself, you control
his budget and you make an effort to minimize his effectiveness
by depriving the office of resources.”
to Soares, the Albany County Legislature has done exactly
that, beginning with an issue regarding a residency requirement
Albany County Legislator Frank Commisso (District 18), who
is con-sidered an ally of Mayor Jennings, insisted that D’Alessandro
had to live in Albany County in order to be an employee of
the county. D’Alessandro and Soares both cite a state public
officer’s law that says any public officer can live in a surrounding
county. Some legislators, however, insisted that D’Alessandro
was not a public officer. And to make sure, they changed his
title from chief investigator to director of operations, and
then insisted that if he did not move into the county, his
salary would be erased on the first operating day of 2007.
For months, D’Alessandro made attempts to move, but could
not successfully sell his house.
But then, according to D’Alessandro, in a bit of serendipity
during the first week of the year, he was finally able to
sell his house and find a suitable home to move into. As a
result, Commisso moved to temporarily restore his salary.
Some pundits, though, insisted that one way or another the
legislature would have had to move to restore D’Alessandro’s
salary, as he was in charge of both the Porco and the Hevesi
investigations. Regardless, the legal question still exists
as to whether the state’s public officer’s law supersedes
the county residency requirement.
Both Soares and D’Alessandro feel that the legislature’s dogged
pursuit of the salary issue has to do with political vendettas.
Commisso, however, claims that his actions have nothing to
do with politics.
think Chris D’Alessandro is an awesome investigator,” says
Commisso. “I think he is a class act. He is nothing but an
asset for this county, and I say the same thing for David
Soares. He prosecutes differently from Mr. Clyne, whom I was
a strong supporter of, but he does it very effectively with
a different approach. He reaches deeper into our communities.
It was not politics on my end, it was an issue. I’m a person
who deals with issues, who deals with underlying facts.”
Commisso further insists that both D’Alessandro and Soares
indicated to him that neither took his concerns seriously
was elected by the people. David has upheld his end to the
people,” says Commisso. “He is doing a fine job, as far as
I’m concerned, and I think he has grown into that job. He
continues to grow into it. Each day you see a brighter David.
He has really matured in that job. . . . But this comes with
maturity: I don’t think David fully understood the process,
and I think Chris would admit that. In fact, in my discussions
with Chris over the past few weeks, he admitted there had
been some bumps in the road and they got to understand the
process much better due to the discussion with legislative
members and myself. And I have gotten to find out more about
David and his intentions. He has definitely come around quite
a bit in the past several weeks. I’ve known David for a number
of years; he works very, very hard. I first met Dave when
he worked out at the airport when he worked for Paul Clyne.
He’s a fine young man, and we used to chat on a regular basis.”
Soares’ first two years in office have not been completely
smooth sailing. The office’s early relationship with the media
was awkward. And he was quickly propelled into the national
spotlight with the Beth Geisel statutory-rape case. The frenzy
of the Porco case soon followed, and the office had to learn
on the fly how to deal with a life in a media circus. Soares
refers to the change of venue from Albany to Goshen as a blessing
in disguise. “The change of venue in hindsight was the best
thing that could have happened for the organization because
it moved the circus and the tents to Goshen. It allowed for
us to maintain our prosecutions here without distraction.”
In May 2006, at the International Harm Reduction Association
meeting in Vancouver, B.C., Soares made remarks regarding
the war on drugs that sent local officials and the media into
overdrive. “The attempt to engage in cleaning the streets
of Albany one twenty-dollar sale on the street at a time is
a failed policy,” Soares said at the conference. He also referred
to law-enforcement jobs created by the war on drugs as “lucrative.”
Soares returned home to face down attacks from the Albany
County Legislature, Mayor Jennings and Police Chief James
Many saw Soares’ statements as a gaffe that distracted from
his agenda, but Soares says although it was disappointing
to be attacked by what he calls “a small minority,” “what
it did was it galvanized those people who worked so very hard
to bring change in Albany County politics. It let those people
let the establishment know that Albany County was ready for
change. That they liked the change and it reassured me and
it gave me more confidence to be myself.”
Over the past two years, the tension between Soares, Mayor
Jennings and the Albany County Legislature seemingly has grown.
Commisso insists that he would like to work hand-in-hand with
Soares to bring the residency issue before a judge to find
out how the county should approach such cases in the future.
Regardless of the resolution of the D’Alessandro residency
issue, Soares says that general issues of funding still remain
for his office. Despite the recent announcement that Attorney
General Andrew Cuomo will be offering resources from his office
on a case-by-case basis, Soares insists that in order for
his office to function on the level it should, he will need
better funding from the county.
Soares points to a list his office has compiled of police
organizations under his jurisdiction in Albany County and
their funding from 2005. The funding for the 15 agencies listed
totals $88 million. In comparison, his own office, which is
tasked with prosecuting all the cases presented by these agencies,
totals a little less than $6 million.
Soares says that the Porco case, which created a media furor
around his office, drained significant resources from his
way we managed to prosecute the Porco case and not throw the
county into a physical crisis is, I refrained from hiring
additional prosecutors,” he says. “So we were able to take
those dollars and create a Porco budget out of those dollars.
So we went without investigators and prosecutors and support
staff in the office. That’s how we were able to move our operation,
bring in the resources we needed, fly in hundreds of witnesses—even
getting one particular person off a nuclear sub,” he says,
referring to the fact that his office had to arrange to pick
up Porco’s brother, Jonathan, who is in the Navy and was stationed
at the time on a submarine.
go an entire career without ever having to arrange for a nuclear
sub to surface,” Soares nods in amazement.
Soares, however, anticipates an even greater need for funding,
stemming from the public-integrity unit he created.
office has a budget of $5 million,” he says. “Take away the
grants and we are at about $4 million. Couple that now with
state agencies that bring us our cases—Department of Labor,
Department of Health—and what we have are incredible case
workers, people who work here that kill themselves to keep
up. We need support, we need additional resources. I created
the public-integrity unit and we took on statewide issues.
We take pride in being the capital, but with that comes responsibility.”
Unlike cases delivered from law-enforcement agencies across
the county that have already been investigated, public-integrity
cases require investigation from the ground up by case workers
in the district attorney’s office.
However, both Commisso and Albany County Legislator Shawn
Morse (District 18) insist they have increased Soares’ budget
by 25 percent.
certainly a strong supporter of reform,” says Morse. “That’s
the platform I ran my campaign on: public integrity. The public-integrity
unit is an excellent, excellent office. It will play a key,
vital roll in instilling confidence in the voters that politicians
ain’t above the law. And, you know, on the other hand we have
a budget to try to balance. That budget is funded by taxpayers.
I believe we increased their funding by 25 percent. If that’s
not enough and the DA, who I am very fond of, feels the need
to increase his budget, I certainly believe he should come
before the legislature and explain to us why we need to provide
a bigger budget. Tell us what he needs. If it’s all the things
to protect the best interest of the people of Albany County,
we will look at them to see to it he has the tools he needs.”
Commisso asserts that the legislature has taken into account
the stresses on the district-attorney’s office. “Time and
time again, we have extended ourselves to make sure he has
the tools to work with,” he states.
And Soares’ victories might make it politically impossible
for the legislature not to extend themselves one more time
when budget season rolls around next year.
Soares’ handling of the Hevesi fraud case and his successful
plea bargaining, which resulted in Hevesi’s resignation as
New York state comptroller, resonated throughout the state.
Soares stepped in and cleaned up a political mess that the
incoming Democratic administration likely wanted nothing to
do with. In asserting his office’s responsibility for matters
of ethics in the state capital, Soares effectively reclaimed
a jurisdiction that previous officeholders had yielded, and
catapulted himself into the forefront of state politics. Since
then, his name has been uttered in the same sentence as Gov.
Eliot Spitzer and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
To some, the Cuomo-Soares alliance presents an interesting
dynamic that might cut across Albany machine lines. Mayor
Jennings was a strong supporter of Cuomo during his failed
gubernatorial bid. Some point out that political alliances,
as well as rivalries, die hard in the capital of New York,
and that Soares’ alliance with Cuomo demonstrated a large
amount of political maturity. Along with the assistance of
Cuomo, some see Soares’ public-integrity mission exactly along
the lines of Gov. Spitzer’s reform-minded platforms. D’Alessandro
notes that it felt a little bit like the cavalry arriving
with this past fall’s elections and the new beginning on Day
One. However, some in Soares’ office say Day One started two
years ago, with Soares’ own election.
While Soares is happy to increase his office’s ability to
operate with the help of state politicians, he insists the
greatest alliance formed from his prosecution of the Hevesi
case is the trust he gained from the citizens of Albany County.
“You can say you are going to have a public-integrity unit,
and some people may believe you, but I think the vast majority
don’t,” he says. “Over the last year, in our prosecution.
. . . What we’ve managed to do is establish credibility with
our constituents: with people, with whistleblowers. And although
some of them don’t write their names on the letters that they
send us, they are still sending them. What makes me most proud
is there are people with enough confidence to actually walk
in here to level their complaints. So, that is something to
be proud of.”
Morse says Soares’ integrity unit is doing not only the public
a favor, but the politicians, too. “What the public-integrity
unit does is, it lets people know that justice is for all.
Nobody stands above the law. The government is watching governmental
officials just as much as they are watching the next person.
It is a refreshing feeling for people not only in Albany,
but also in all of New York state.”
While Soares has begun to make his name on public-integrity
cases, he has not taken the route other people in his position
have. He has not made a spectacle of arresting politicians;
he hasn’t stormed an office building and laid the cuffs on
someone in a suit. And, according to Soares, that is simply
part of his approach of one standard of justice. “While you
can exonerate someone legally, you can’t give them their reputation
back,” says Soares. “So we proceed with extreme caution whenever
we are inquiring about elected officials. And that’s my promise:
to prosecute our cases with respect, with sensitivity, and
As he looks back on the past year, Soares knows the reality
of what he will face in the next two. Before the election
season officially takes hold again, Soares wants to establish
a test pilot for a prisoner-reintegration program, further
expand his public-integrity unit, grow his Bring It to the
Court youth-outreach program and generally increase his office’s
ability to process all kinds of cases. But come election time,
Soares expects a scrap.
think I’ve made my position very clear with respect to public
integrity, and in the environment with such jurisdiction,
where you have powerful lobbyists and powerful politicians,
it may not be a good idea to have an independent prosecutor,”
he says. “So what can I anticipate as we move forward in campaign
season? I anticipate another struggle. But I’m quite familiar
with struggle and I’m pretty good at struggle, and I’m determined
to accomplish the goals that I’ve set out for this office,
for this county.”
Soares pauses, and seems to agonize over exactly how much
emotion he will allow to escape his mouth, and exactly which
words will carry it. Then he smiles a wry smile of satisfaction:
“What used to be an office that people viewed as an office
in the pocket of the politicians is now an office that is
viewed as an independent organization applying one standard
of justice, and that just makes me very happy.”