“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).