Email trail also damages longtime friends
Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A report by the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) is being used to levy probable criminal charges against a politician, expose ethical violations by a respected jurist and raise serious questions on judicial ethics and political campaigns. The 27-page report accuses former Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes of misusing public funds and improperly using the office as a pseudo-campaign headquarters with staff members acting as campaign staffers.
In 2012, as Hynes prepared himself for a tough re-election fight, two opponents, Ken Thompson and Abe George, entered the race to unseat Hynes as DA. According to the DOI report released just yesterday, it was in the process of this long and hard-fought campaign, that Hynes recklessly—and at worst knowingly—violated ethical protocols and established laws. If Hynes's bid was, ultimately, unsuccessful (he lost to Thompson in the November 2013 general election) it was not for any lack of trying.
The DOI report asserts that Hynes used senior staff members of the Kings County district attorney’s office (KCDA) to engage with the press, provide political advice and further his re-election campaign. One email exchange, using KCDA email accounts, took place between between Hynes and then Deputy DA Dino Amoroso. Hynes requested that his deputy attend a meeting with Hynes’ campaign manager Dennis Quirk. It is apparent from the email that Hynes requested Amoroso’s presence because “I want [Dennis] to begin to see the managerial, administrative and organization skills you developed.”
According to Conflict of Interest Board Rules, New York public servants are prohibited from using city resources for any non-city purpose. Yet Hynes' staff members clearly engaged in political campaign activity while working on city time. In an email exchange date and time-stamped at 10:04 a.m. on a Wednesday, Henna White, the KCDA liaison to the Jewish community, again using KCDA email accounts, asks Hynes if “we can put off the fund-raiser for Thursday night.”
According to the DOI report, Hynes also used his KCDA email accounts to communicate with his official campaign staff as well as with political consultants.
Jay Schwitzman, president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association. Eagle photo by Mario Belluomo
Seized Drug Money Used for Campaign?
Still, the most significant of the allegations in the DOI report are those claiming that Hynes misappropriated monies from the state asset forfeiture fund to pay for his personal political consultant.
This fund, financed from assets and property seized during police arrests and raids, serves as a pool of discretionary money that, under State law, can be used by the DA to further the law enforcement purpose of the office. The DOI report, however, makes the alarming contention that Hynes, a veteran DA of twenty years, violated the public trust and used this funds to spend $1.1 million on political consultant Mortimer Matz.
According to the report, Matz and his firm were hired as consultants by KCDA in 2003 and, beginning in 2011, Matz received a per diem rate of $536.40. During 2013, when the campaign was well underway, checks to Matz were drawn from a subaccount titled “ASSET FORFEITURE” with each check being explained as payment to “OFFICE CONSULTANTS (NOT CASE RELATED).
While it can be inferred from the subaccount information that the checks were drawn from the state asset forfeiture fund, the DOI report does not cite any sources for this conclusion outside the present DA's administration. To date, the state fund has been silent insofar as providing substantiating evidence as regards the DOI's most serious claim.
Life Imitates Art
In the midst of the 2013 campaign season, it was announced that a limited-run television reality show would air on CBS and feature the Brooklyn DA’s office with Hynes at the helm. Hynes’ opponents immediately challenged the show, calling it an illegal campaign contribution. At the time, now DA Thompson commented that the show was a form of “self-promotion” and “reckless.” Likewise, Abe George spearheaded a lawsuit calling for an injunction on the show as an excessive campaign contribution.
The suit failed and the show aired as planned. And, throughout the back and forth, Hynes’ team steadfastly maintained that the realty show was not for political purposes and merely showed “the hard work and dedication of the people in the office.”
The DOI’s release of emails, however, suggests a somewhat different picture. In an April 3, 2013 email to Hynes, Matz asked, “can we or should we capitalize on the first CBS Brooklyn DA around May 21.” Hynes replied that he would leave the plans in Matz’s hands.
Above and Beyond the Scope
If the email exchanges released by the DOI's report raise the possibility of potential criminal charges against Hynes, they have cast doubt on the impartiality of respected jurist Barry Kamins.
Kamins, a longtime friend of Hynes, is a Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice. In addition, Kamins holds the prestigious role of chief of planning and policy for the state courts and chief administrator for the New York City Criminal Court. The DOI report alleges that Kamins improperly engaged in “political activity as a sitting judge,” and, most damaging, “engaged in ex parte communications with Hynes regarding matters actively being prosecuted by the KCDA.” While investigations continue, it has been confirmed that, as of Monday, the Office of Court Administration has relieved Kamins of his official duties, and Kamins has gone on annual leave.
“Anyone who knows Barry knows that he would not abuse his judicial position,” Kamins’ attorney, Paul Shectman, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
According to the DOI, Kamins went beyond the scope of his role as a friend and member of the bench and served as a de facto political advisor to Hynes and his campaign. In an email exchange between Hynes and Kamins, Hynes noted that “with a high degree of secrecy," he would “turn to [Kamins] frequently for judgment calls” related to the campaign. It appears from the limited record that Kamins may have had a significant role in Hynes’ campaign. In one email, Kamins advises Hynes’ executive assistant district attorney Anne Swern “it is time to have the press conference [Matz] suggested—with victim advocates at your side—…"
Kamins also used the clout of his office, it is alleged, to vet Hynes’ opponents. Kamins wrote
to Hynes in June of 2012 that “it would be a good at some point to get [George’s] record of trials” and that persons in Special Narcotics Prosecutions, where George previously worked, might provide George’s record and “fill us in” more specifically, it is presumed, on George’s work.
The emails, approximately 300 out of 6,000 reviewed by DOI, show Kamins giving Hynes “just a couple of points” on endorsement pitch letters to the New York Times editorial board and speaking to journalists on Hynes’ behalf. “Spent some time on the phone with Andy Keshner of the [New York] Law Journal,” Kamins wrote Hynes in August 2013. “I suggested he look at the negative literature being sent by Thompson. [sic] and his mediocre record as an [assistant United States attorney],” Kamins’ email continued.
The Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits a sitting judge from “directly or indirectly engag[ing] in any political activity,” and specifically from “engaging in any partisan political activity…participating in any political campaign and attending political gatherings.” Exceptions are provided where the judge is engaged in his own campaign or lobbying to improve the law. It is unclear if Kamins’ activities meet the exception.
Kamins’ alleged political engagements aside, the DOI report further alleges that Kamins transcended the judicial bench by communicating with and advising Hynes on “pending criminal matters and investigations—many of them controversial—being handled by the KCDA.”
Evidence shows Kamins commenting on suggested panel members for the wrongful conviction review board as well as on controversial sex abuse cases within the Orthodox Jewish community.
“Judge Barry Kamins has given advice to many people over his 40+ years as a prosecutor, attorney, author, professor, lecturer and judge,” Jay Schwitzman, president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “Giving free advice has been his trademark and many have benefited from his advice. An allegation that he violated judicial ethics is contrary to his trademark of dispensing advice and assistance to his colleagues,” Schwitzman continued.
The DOI report has been shared with the state attorney general’s office and other agencies. Others have expressed their willingness to cooperate with the DOI during its probe. “Shortly after becoming District Attorney, DA Thompson’s office received a subpoena from the New York City Department of Investigation,” a DA spokeswoman advised the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “This office has cooperated fully by providing all documents pertinent to their investigation.”
While the full consequences are yet to be seen, many are hoping for a swift resolution. David Bookstaver, spokesman for the OCA, noted, “We are hoping that this matter is resolved as expeditiously as possible.”