Official NYC Council Photo by William Alatriste

Former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles 'Joe' Hynes

“Not everyone in Albany is corrupt,” Public Advocate Letitia James declared at last week’s attorney general debate at John Jay College. The statement sent a signal from James to the many fellow Democratic Party machine candidates who have endorsed her that if elected, she won’t keep close tabs on them.

James’ willingness to put the interests of the party loyalties over reform surfaced quite clearly in the pivotal New York City campaigns of 2013, when she defeated fellow Brooklynite Daniel Squadron for the citywide office of public advocate and Ken Thompson toppled six-term incumbent Joe Hynes for Brooklyn district attorney.

In her campaign, James relied on the support of Frank Seddio’s Brooklyn Democratic machine. Along with Seddio and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, James backed Hynes as he tried to stave off the insurgent campaign of Ken Thompson. When Hynes launched his ill-fated run as a Republican against Thompson in the general election, James then denounced Hynes.

Such maneuvering may seem like par for the course in party politics. But the problem is that in backing Hynes, the now-aspiring attorney general was willing to overlook ongoing serious scandals in her own backyard.

By February 2013, when James announced her endorsement of Hynes, higher courts had overturned 16 convictions from the Hynes era overturned in Brooklyn. The case of future exoneree Derrick Hamilton, which involved the notorious Louie Scarcella, had also been in the news, suggesting that many more faulty convictions stood to be uncovered. In March 2013, David Ranta’s case then broke open the dam of Scarcella cases, yet James continued to support Hynes.

Meanwhile, anyone paying attention to the Brooklyn DA’s office during Hynes’ sixth term (2010-2013) was familiar with the case of Jabbar Collins. In exonerating Collins for the 1994 murder of a Williamsburg rabbi, federal judge Dora Irizarry had called the strong-arm tactics of Hynes’ right-hand man Mike Vecchione “shameful.” A second federal judge, Frederic Block, then said he was “disturbed” by Hynes’ subsequent praise of Vecchione.

In late November of 2012, the Daily News editorial board called for an investigation of Hynes and Vecchione over their handling of the case. Collins reached a $10 million settlement with the city in 2014.

Throughout the 2013 campaign, Ken Thompson made wrongful convictions a central issue, and since 2014 the Conviction Review Unit he and his successor Eric Gonzalez established has chalked up 24 exonerations, half of which were Hynes-era cases. Judges have overturned several more convictions from the era, and many more cases are still under review.

Nearly all of the more than three dozen Hynes-era wrongful convictions involved victims and defendants from the black and brown communities of Brooklyn—and the shoddy work by Hynes and company meant that many innocent people were locked up while dangerous culprits went free.

At the John Jay debate, James nonetheless claimed that “in Brooklyn, we’ve done a wonderful job” of reviewing convictions. James may have been speaking broadly about the progress since Hynes left office or (as she has with Atlantic Yards) giving herself credit where it’s not due. Either way, the comment glosses over the fact that, had James’ pick in 2013 prevailed, the DA who presided over many of those tainted cases would still be in power.

James’s track record of party politicking has clearly helped advance her career. But the position of attorney general should not be held by someone willing to let corrupt allies like Joe Hynes off the hook.

Theodore Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. He is the editor of Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn (Akashic Books, 2017).

6 thoughts on “CityViews: Letitia James’ Past Support for Tainted Ex-DA is a Concern

  1. I do not want an Attorney General that doesn’t take wrongful convictions seriously. Unfortunately, Barbara Underwood also is a Hynes loyalist. Wish James should really look in the mirror and build character. I was wrongfully convicted and definitely don’t want someone who supports such action.

  2. Mr. Hamm, As someone who has very deep ties to the Brooklyn DA’s office during those dark days of Joe Hynes and Mike Vecchione ( both thugs) and as the citizen advocate for Brooklyn Bridge Park, I can unequivocally say that Tish James is not, as you paint her, a zealot for the (yes, corrupt) Cuomo team. She is a politician who did, and does, a very good job for communities. She listens. She surrounds herself with top notch attorneys. Teachout seems smart but what has she done for her communities? She was a carpet bagger in upstate while she really lived in Ft. Greene (ran for Gillibrand’s congressional seat). But she has never gotten her hands wet working with communities or for them. Never. Unlike Tish James who has. Tish supported our efforts to protect Brooklyn Bridge Park from unnecessary housing inside that park. She was the lone politician to decry the abuse of real estate power in Atlantic Yards. She has chosen very good attorneys for her Public Advocate office. She doesn’t always win, but she is not part of a machine either. She beat Squadron, fair and square, because of his betrayal on Brooklyn Bridge Park (not because of party politics but because she was the better candidate with real experience and not the grifter that Squadron turned out to be). Teachout, rather than jumping over community engagement for her quest for power should really try to work with us for a change. She doesn’t and hasn’t. Tish James, you might also remind everyone, has no deep party ties. She won her first city council job on a third party ticket for goodness sake! That doesn’t say “corrupt allies” to me. It says “independent” and doing what she thinks will help her win statewide office, with very little in the way of money, and no big law firms or big funders to help her (unlike Teachout). It is an office she has worked for – literally and figuratively. Teachout has not and can not say she ever has.

  3. As someone who is still wrongfully convicted I dislike anyone who is willing to look the other way as Ms. James did.I really liked her because she seems involved in our issues but I would say he’ll no to her getting the democratic nomination because of what she did (endorsing Hines) in like of his horrible track record of oppressing black, Brown and white people…..

  4. I was also wrongfully convicted by disgraced district attorney Joe Hynes. Tish James was Hynes chief apologist. All the scandals and all the wrongful convictions were well publicized and in the end Tish did what was good for Tish. She backed Hynes because he gave her money from his asset forfeiture accounts. We need an attorney general who is not beholden to political bosses. We need Teachout.

  5. We are living in a new world. A bipartisan legislature led by the Black/Latino Coalition passed a law which the Gov signed creating a first in the nation independent prosecutorial conduct commission. Ms. James endorsed the Commission bill but as has been pointed out she also was an unapologetic Hynes supporter. You may vote for parks in communities but what will you do about prosecutorial corruption which places innocent people in jail for crimes they did not commit. Of course Teachout was nowhere to be found during the fight to get the Commission bill passed so that belies her anti-corruption stance. Till either of them can explain their pro-Hynes stance or explain their lack of support for the Commission bill I fear neither candidate should get the vote…

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