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Roger Cusick (far left) District Attorney David Soares (far fight) at debate at Albany Law.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Showdown at Albany Law

Candidates for Albany County district attorney debate in the wake of the release of another audit

Your comptroller,” said David Soares on Tuesday night at Albany Law School during a heated debate, crystallizing his regard for his opponent Roger Cusick and the recent audits completed by Albany County comptroller Mike Conners in two simple words. Speaking to Cusick, Soares repeated the phrase, “your comptroller,” throughout the night, implying that Conners and his audit were somehow a product of, or in allegiance to, Cusick.

Conners has stood firm that his audit was not politically motivated, citing difficulty working with Soares’ office as the reason the audit fell around election time. Cusick has fervently denied having any relationship with Conners and the audit.

Cusick told Metroland that he was struck by Soares’ reaction to the audit during the debate. “I thought he might say, ‘Well this was an oversight, and it won’t happen again.’ Instead what I saw was a certain amount of smugness and, ‘I have the perfect right to do this.’ I found that to be troublesome.”

At a press conference Monday, Conners said he had been warned not to “characterize” much to do with the audit. However, he insisted that thousands of dollars had been “stolen” from Soares’ evidence safe and that Soares misspent forfeiture funds on everything from office pizza parties to equipment for neighborhood-watch groups and anti- violence programs for local teens.

Soares’ office released a response to Conners’ audit on Monday that claimed that money from the safe had been counted three times—once by the state comptroller; and twice by the county comptroller—and that each time different counts had been reached.

Soares pledged to hire a forensic auditor to ascertain exactly how much money should be in the safe.

Soares’ response painted Conners’ take on his use of forfeiture funds as biased. The response pointed out that Anthony Pasciuto, a criminal forfeiture expert, found in an audit done by the city comptroller of the Albany City Police in 2004 that their use of forfeiture funds for activities such as crime-watch groups was appropriate.

Pasciuto represented the police at the time. Hired by Conners for his audit into the district attorney’s office, Pasciuto has taken a different stand, saying those programs are not to be paid for with forfeiture funds.

During the debate, Cusick hammered away at Soares, bringing up Conners’ audit as well as numbers of his own, numbers he said show that 322 felons were released from Albany County Jail while waiting to be indicted while Soares was district attorney.

Soares’ office responded early on Tuesday, pointing out there had been 548 releases under former district attorney Paul Clyne during the four years of his term, and questioning Cusick’s understanding of the process by which defendants attain release by writ.

“Let me explain to Mr. Cusick how the criminal justice system works,” read Soares’ statement. “Sometimes, to secure the best result for the people in their jurisdiction, district attorneys make a procedural choice that results in defendants securing release by writ.”

Soares went on to describe the useful circumstances when a district attorney might allow a defendant to be released in such a manner. Those circumstances, Soares said, happen when trying to protect confidential informants, when facilitating access to drug-rehab programs, and when transferring defendants to another jurisdiction.

Cusick described Soares as preoccupied with lobbying on legislative issues and constantly out of the office, traveling to different states to speak out about the Rockefeller drug laws.

Soares said he had been asked to speak in states around the country about his office’s success using alternatives to prosecution and community-based initiatives.

Cusick insisted that such issues were legislative and repeatedly said he would leave alternatives to prosecution and sentencing to “brighter minds than my own.”

When Cusick attacked Soares for his conviction rates being down, Soares replied that there is a “20-year low in crime in Albany County” and repeated the mantra that “crime is down.”

Cusick countered that residents of streets in neighborhoods in the city of Albany would tell you that crime isn’t down.

Soares replied calmly, “What streets would those be, sir? Do you know them?”

Both candidates were asked what they felt the district attorney’s office’s role should be in the lives of youths in the county.

Soares spoke of his Bring it to the Courts Program and the Enough anti-violence/gang initiative.

Cusick responded that as district attorney he would not fund such programs, citing the Conners audit.

Soares indicated he would fund the programs through asset forfeitures, despite what the comptroller’s audit said.

Cusick said that the Conners audit shows Soares wrote himself a $1,000 check from the forfeiture funds and repaid only a portion of the money. Cusick repeatedly referred to Soares’ office’s forfeiture funds as “a slush fund.”

Soares ignored that specific allegation and characterized the timing and findings of Conners’ audit as “suspect.”

Cusick spent most of his time on the attack, hurling accusations at Soares, and not offering his own plans for the office, besides saying he wanted to return to a straightforward prosecutorial office.

At one point, Cusick said that he would become involved in an anti-gun violence program called “Project Exile,” that requires minimum sentencing for those using firearms in pursuit of a crime. Soares told Cusick and the audience that his office is already involved in the program.

When the moderator asked a question from the audience about what the candidates could do about a rash of bike thefts in the community, both candidates smiled and chuckled.

Cusick said that basically it was a “police issue” that the district attorney would not be involved in, and joked that he might tell the person who asked the question that he would get involved “for a vote, maybe.”

Soares said that students should put their bikes in the most visible place on campus. He went on to say that perhaps “there is something we could do through asset forfeiture that could be used in a crime-prevention strategy.”

—David King

A Better Defense

Albany Common Council throws its support behind the fight for a state-funded public-defender system

The Albany Common Council voted unanimously on Monday night to encourage New York state to create a state-funded, statewide public-defender commission. In 2006, a study by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye’s commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services recommended a state takeover and overhaul of its system. Since then, activists and lawyers around the state have pushed to make the state act to fund the public-defense system that critics say has left defendants poorly represented—and in some cases, unfairly jailed because of it.

Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3), who introduced the measure, said he was struck by the importance of the proposal while speaking to former state assemblyman and current U.S. congressional candidate Paul Tonko during a meet-the-candidates event. Ellis said it was serendipity that at the same event he ran into a representative of the Campaign for an Independent Public Defense Commission.

“I reached out to my fellow council members and to the public defender’s office,” said Ellis, “and everyone was in agreement. A state commission would be a plus—it would provide much needed resources to public defenders who are overworked. It was simply a no-brainier.”

Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the Campaign for an Independent Public Defense Commission, said he feels the time is right to see the state create a public-defense commission. He noted that cities around the state have passed measures similar to Albany’s in support of the idea. “All politics is local, and the reality is, politicians believe in this idea,” Gradess said. “The major concern is about cost. County officials don’t want to get left in the dust, but if the state steps up to the plate, there is very strong county support.”

Gradess said that during a time of financial woe the statewide commission is something the state can’t afford not to do, especially because of the cost of incarceration.

“After 45 years of neglect, this dialogue about the public-defender system now takes place in the middle of the recession,” said Gradess. “We have a real way for the state to find a way to save money and have skilled, capable, resourced public defenders who will begin to put a valve on sending everyone to prison.”

—David King

Late Charges

Councilman proposes teen curfew that critics call dangerous, unfair and hastily assembled

Elizabeth Alexander, a resident of Second Street and Lexington Avenue in Albany, described to the Albany Common Council on Monday night how she has to beg and pester the group of teens who sit on her stoop during the day “gambling and cursing” to move to let her 11-year-old daughter into her house. “They vandalized my car because I asked them to move,” Alexander told the council. She now has to pay a deductible she can’t afford in order to fix her car.

“They took the parent out of parenthood, and all that is left is the hood,” said Alexander, who explained that while she supports a youth curfew proposed by Councilman Glen Casey (Ward 11) that would require youths younger than 17 to be inside after 11 PM, she wonders if it will do any good to help with the teens who harass her during the day.

Marlon Anderson told the council that he had proposed the idea of a curfew earlier in the year but stood against Casey’s proposal because he felt it was hastily assembled without the input of the communities it would most affect, and that it will “take a bad situation and make it worse.” Anderson went on to say that while he felt the youth of the city had “earned a curfew,” he worried a curfew would “fast-track the youth into the court system.”

Anderson’s concerns were echoed by councilmen Corey Ellis (Ward 3) and Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1). “I am not in favor of it because it gives the police department a legal way to further unpleasant contact with our teenage population,” said Ellis. “I am disappointed Councilman Casey didn’t reach out to council members whose district will most likely be targeted by the curfew. According to data on other curfews implemented in other cities, 67 percent of the youth brought in by the curfew were from minority districts.”

Under the terms of the proposed curfew, parents whose underage children are caught out past 11 PM on weekdays and midnight on weekends could be fined up to $500.

Casey did not return calls for comment.

Alex Forster of the New York Civil Liberties Union voiced his organization’s opposition to the proposed curfew on Monday night.

Ellis said he is also concerned that Casey did not consider the full ramifications and financial requirements a curfew would entail. “I want to know, where did he get the notion to introduce this? He obviously didn’t talk to any council members, and knowing that . . . it looks to me like political grandstanding. A curfew will get a lot of media coverage, but the real question is: How are you going to pay for it?”

Besides how to pay for it, Ellis and Calsolaro wonder if the already taxed police force has time to “babysit.”

Calsolaro said he has been told by officers that they think the curfew will interfere with their work.

“If Glen was really serious about this,” said Calsolaro, “he would have introduced this months ago in time to put it into the budget. I don’t know if Glen is really trying to do it—he has been throwing out a lot of things lately.”

Casey recently introduced anti-gang legislation that was panned by other council members as poorly and hastily conceived, as it failed to take into account the fact that the Common Council does not have purview over state criminal law.

Council members also openly wondered why Casey has proposed the curfew now, since the gun-violence task force—which has been considering the notion of curfews—is likely to present its recommendations in the coming weeks.

Calsolaro said he has heard talk about how well Rochester’s youth curfew has worked in curbing crime. But, he pointed out, “Rochester put a load of cops on the street last year, walking beats. They had 30 to 40 officers walking the beat in high-impact areas. And at the same time, they initiated the curfew.”

And, Calsolaro points out, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings’ current budget proposal phases out 10 currently unfilled police positions.

Jennings recently told the Times Union that while he would consider Casey’s proposal, “There are pros and cons to curfews. I don’t want to penalize good young people.” Casey’s proposal is now pending before the public-safety committee.

—David King

Loose Ends

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