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Photo: Chris Shields

Tough Justice

Albany County District Attorney David Soares has had to fight the system—and so far, he’s winning

 

By David King

 

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.

“That 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 fired him.

“We 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 way through.

“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.

Christian D'Alessandro and David Soares

Photo: Chris Shields

Despite 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.”

According to Soares, the Albany County Legislature has done exactly that, beginning with an issue regarding a residency requirement for D’Alessandro.

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.

“I 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 at first.

“David 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 Tuffey.

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 office.

“The 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.

“You’ll 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.

“Our 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.

“I’m 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 with dignity.”

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.

“I 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.”

dking@metroland.net


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