How Low Can Joe Go?

By Leonard Levitt (NYPD Confidential)
June 9, 2014

Three words best explain the dissolution of ex-Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, which culminated last week in allegations that he used D.A. staffers and public money for his seventh re-election campaign last year.

Those three words are ego, ambition and cynicism.

Hynes felt he deserved more than merely being Brooklyn’s D.A. He aspired to be mayor, then attorney general and governor.

To accomplish this, he climbed into to bed with Brooklyn’s powerful and treacherous ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community and lost his moral compass.

Nothing is more harmful to society than a D.A. who runs amok. Hynes’s victims were the citizens of Brooklyn. The harm he has done to some of them is incalculable.

Hynes is also a prime example of the need for term limits for district attorneys in New York City.

Their term of office is four years. Once elected, it’s tantamount to a lifetime job.

In Queens, Richard Brown has been District Attorney since 1991. He’s now 82 years old. Next year he’s planning to run for another term.

In the Bronx Robert Johnson has been D.A even longer — since 1988.

And of course, there is the granddaddy of them all, Robert Morgenthau. He served as Manhattan District Attorney for 35 years. He retired as he approached 90.

Only if a district attorney manages to do something truly outrageous can he be pressured to quit.

Brown was appointed D.A. in Queens after his predecessor, John Santucci, quit in the middle of his term because he could never quite explain away his private 14-hour lunch with Sal Reale, a Gambino crime family “associate.”

Then there is Hynes. Closing in on 80, he was first elected Brooklyn District Attorney in 1989.

He had previously served as Special State Corruption prosecutor, forcing the NYPD’s Chief of Intelligence Pete Prezioso to retire because Prezioso had attended Santucci’s lunch with Reale.

Before that, he had served as the city’s Fire Commissioner and Special State Nursing Home Prosecutor. The media — including this reporter — considered him a reformer and straight shooter, one of the “good guys.”

His reputation was enhanced when he took over the Howard Beach case from Santucci and successfully prosecuted a group of white punks who had chased a black kid to his death on the Belt Parkway.

He wrote a book and received national attention. In 1989 he considered running for mayor but backed out, he said, because he did not want to run against David Dinkins, New York’s first black mayor.

Instead, he ran for Brooklyn District Attorney. He said at the time that the campaign was the most difficult thing he’d done in his life.

Because he lived in Breezy Point, which barred Jews, his opponent accused him of anti-Semitism. Hynes may be many things, but an anti-Semite isn’t one of them.

It soon became apparent [at least to this reporter] that he felt Brooklyn was too small a venue for him.

In 1994, a year after his first re-election, he ran unsuccessfully for attorney general. In 1998, a year after his second re-election, he ran unsuccessfully for governor.

It was around this time that he fell into bed with the Hasidic community and seemed to lose his bearings.

As was his modus operandi, he had a top aide do the dirty work. First it was Dennis Hawkins, who deep-sixed a forgery case against one Simon Jacobson of Crown Heights and Miami, who had allegedly bilked an 80-year woman out of her $200,000 life savings.

Then it was Michael Vecchione. After Rabbi Abraham Rubin of Borough Park was kidnapped and beaten while refusing his wife a Jewish divorce, known as a “get,” Vecchione promised swift justice. No one was ever prosecuted.

In 1995 Vecchione convicted a black man, Jabbar Collins, for the murder of Rabbi Abraham Pollack. Collins spent 16 years in prison before revelations of prosecutorial misconduct led to his release in 2011.

In her decision overturning the verdict, federal judge Dora Irizarry ruled that Hynes’s office “had wrongfully withheld a key witness’s recantation, had knowingly coerced and relied on false testimony and argument at trial, had knowingly suppressed exculpatory evidence and impeachment evidence and had acted affirmatively to cover up such misconduct for 15 years.”

Collins’s $150-million lawsuit in 2013 named nine A.D.A.s, detective investigators and Vecchione as defendants.

Federal Judge Frederick Block, who presided over Collins’s civil trial, said he was “disturbed” and “puzzled” that Hynes continued to praise Vecchione. “This was horrific behavior on the part of Vecchione,” Block said. “We are going to have a civil proceeding and all of this is going to be uncovered.”

Over the years, Hella Winston of the Jewish Week has documented Hynes’ coziness with the Hasidic community, particularly his willingness to allow prominent figures to cover up allegations of sexual abuse of children.

Last year, David Ranta, another man apparently falsely convicted, was released from prison where he had served 23 years for the 1990 murder of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger.

The New York Times has reported that Hynes’s office had sent Ranta and scores of others to prison on false evidence turned up by Detective Louis Scarcella.

With negative publicity accumulating, Hynes was defeated last year in his seventh re-election bid by Kenneth Thompson. His defeat, in the Democratic primary, was unprecedented. Can anyone remember the last time an incumbent district attorney lost an election in this burg?

So desperate was Hynes to remain district attorney that he decided to run as a Republican in the general election. Again he lost — badly.

Now Hynes is accused in a city Department of Investigation report of using top staffers and money seized from drug dealers and other criminal defendants to pay for his 2013 re-election campaign. This includes, says the report, over $200,000 paid to Hynes’s longtime spokesman and media advisor, Morty Matz, who the report describes as a campaign political consultant.

DOI says it obtained 6,000 emails sent by or to Hynes at his office email address for the 18-month period before the 2013 general election. One cynical exchange between Hynes and Brooklyn Administrative Judge Barry Kamins — who was relieved of his duties for offering political advice to Hynes — concerns the Collins case.

Hynes to Kamins in an email dated Jan. 28, 2013: “If I don’t find a succinct way of responding to the criticism there’ll be no opportunity to talk about my record… Any ideas?”

Kamins: “I would not get into the details of the Collins case. I would say that your office looked into the allegation and found no misconduct. Period. I would also point out that this [decision to free Collins] does not come from ‘federal judges.’ — it comes from one Judge Irizarry and that Block adopted her misguided opinion and never looked at the case himself.”

A last point: In its report, DOI says it subpoenaed the emails after receiving a “referral” from two city agencies because it was “mandated” to conduct the inquiry. The report has been forwarded to State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for possible criminal charges.

The inquiry did not include interviews with Hynes’s staffers named in the report, whose reputations have been besmirched. Nor does it appear that DOI attempted to interview them.

Instead, before the report was forwarded to Schneiderman, it was provided to the New York Times.

The head of DOI, Mark G. Peters, ran for District Attorney against Hynes in 2005. Peters also donated $500 to Thompson’s campaign.

Why Peters did not recuse himself from the inquiry because of an apparent conflict of interest remains unclear.

Whether Peters or one of his aides provided the report to the Times also remains unclear.