Bail reform, as City Limits discussed last month, is an essential step in the path towards closing Rikers. But various players in the bail bond industry won’t go down without a fight.
Given that Acting-DA Eric Gonzalez has received more than $7500 from bail bond interests in campaign donations to date, critics are wondering how strongly he is committed to reforming bail practices in Brooklyn.
First, some background on the money trail. In early February 2013, then-NYS Chief Justice Jonathan Lippman issued a strong call for bail reform, specifically denouncing the “profit motive” driving the bail bond industry and proposing an expanded role for nonprofit bail funds and a wider use of supervised release programs. That made the bail bond “community” nervous.
One month later, Barry Kamins, chief administrative judge in criminal matters for Kings County, contacted his close ally DA Joe Hynes in advance of the latter’s upcoming meeting with Empire Bail Bonds. In an email excerpted in a 2014 report by the city Department of Investigation about the Brooklyn DA’s office, Kamins told Hynes that Empire “is upset with Judge Lippman’s proposal to try to get judges to use alternative forms of bail.”
Throughout the 2013 campaign, Hynes took in at least $8,000 from key bail bond players, including $2500 from Empire during his ill-fated run against Ken Thompson as a Republican in the general election.
Empire, however, then shifted its allegiance to Thompson, giving him $500 in January of 2016. And since December of last year, the company has kicked $7500 into the coffers of Eric Gonzalez.
Gonzalez assured a recent Vocal-NY candidates’ forum that his office had changed its bail policy in April. His campaign spokesperson, Lupe Todd-Medina, tells City Limits that the new directive contains “a presumption of release on recognizance in the overwhelming number of misdemeanor cases at arraignment. In some cases, ADA’s use their discretion to request bill if there is a specific concern, like public safety.”
Yet the policy leaves the door open for the use of cash bail, both for misdemeanors and all felonies. Anne Swern, who’s currently seen as the second-place contender in the race, tells City Limits, “It’s worth examining the relationship of donations from the bail bond industry to Gonzalez’s position on bail reform.”
Long-shot candidates Marc Fliedner and Vincent Gentile are offering more direct criticisms. Fliedner says Empire represents a “broken cash-bail system,” and its “investment in Gonzalez’s campaign makes his protestations that he wants to change the system ring entirely false.” Gentile concurs, arguing that such a contradiction “typical of Eric Gonzalez and his campaign.” Ama Dwimoh declined to comment.
Todd-Medina, meanwhile, says that Empire’s contributions “amount to less than .5 percent” of the money Gonzalez has raised. But even so, it’s quite obvious why Empire is making such donations. And so the question the D.A. needs to answer is: Why take such money at all?