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Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance's role in the Harvey Weinstein and Trump scandals, explained

New York County’s district attorney doesn’t seem to like prosecuting rich and powerful people.

Manhattan District Attorney Releases Report On Smartphone Encryption During Cybersecurity Symposium
Vance in 2015.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. tends to give rich and powerful people a break from prosecution — particularly if they or people close to them have donated to his election campaign.

That’s the takeaway from multiple press scoops in October, revealing that Vance turned down chances to prosecute Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault, and Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. for fraud and larceny. In each case, reports suggest Vance and his assistant district attorneys had compelling evidence, including a recording of Weinstein admitting to the assault in question.

Vance, and his representatives, insists that his reasons for abandoning the cases are valid and have nothing at all to do with lawyers for Weinstein and the Trumps giving him significant campaign contributions.

“After analyzing the available evidence, including multiple interviews with both parties, a criminal charge is not supported,” the DA’s office told the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow about the Weinstein case. As for the Ivanka and Donald Jr. case, Vance told a joint New Yorker/ProPublica/WNYC investigative team, “I did not at the time believe beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime had been committed.” Vance has since returned the contribution from the Trumps’ lawyer.

Vance has been firmly entrenched as DA since the retirement of the venerable Robert Morgenthau, who declined to run for reelection in 2009 at age 90 after serving as Manhattan’s top prosecutor since 1975. That year, Morgenthau, major media outlets like the New York Times, Daily News, and Post, and prominent political figures like Rep. Nydia Velázquez and former Mayor David Dinkins all endorsed Vance, a former assistant district attorney, in the Democratic primary — which in an area as liberal as Manhattan just about ensures victory in the general.

This year, Vance is cruising toward reelection to a third term. He won his primary bid on September 12 and is running unopposed on the general election ballot on November 7. Unless defeated by a last-minute write-in candidate, Vance will gain another four-year term, giving him plenty of time to wait out the scandal. By the time he’s running for a fourth term in 2021, his behavior in the Weinstein and Trump cases might well be forgotten.

What Vance did in the Weinstein and Trump cases

"We had the evidence," a police source told Farrow, regarding Weinstein. The source insisted they had "more than enough evidence to prosecute Weinstein" for assaulting 22-year-old model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez in March 2015. Gutierrez reported the assault to the NYPD the night it happened, and wore a wire the next day, when she recorded Weinstein saying, "I won't do it again."

A few months after Vance decided not to pursue charges, his lawyer, David Boies, donated $10,000 to Vance’s reelection campaign, the International Business Times reports.

Vance’s and Boies’s representatives denied any connection between the gift and the decision not to charge Weinstein, noting that Boies has given $55,000 to Vance over the years and that Boies did not represent Weinstein in the Gutierrez case.

But the report on the Weinstein case comes shortly after a joint New Yorker/ProPublica/WNYC investigation last week that found Vance had shut down another investigation into other powerful people — in this case, Donald Trump’s children — while receiving a large contribution from a lawyer close to the case.

In 2012, Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. were under investigation for misstatements they made about the Trump SoHo hotel and condo development. They told potential buyers, and the media, that condo units were selling briskly. In June 2008, Ivanka told reporters that 60 percent had been sold. The hope was that the feeling of strong demand would spur quicker and higher offers for the remaining units.

But Ivanka’s claims were false. By March 2010, only 15.8 percent of units had sold. That led to a lawsuit against the Trumps by people who bought units, and when that case was settled, the Manhattan DA’s office got involved. The Trumps potentially violated the Martin Act, a New York law banning false statements made in the course of selling a security or real estate. And potential charges didn’t end there, reporters Andrea Bernstein, Jesse Eisinger, Justin Elliott, and Ilya Marritz wrote: "Prosecutors also saw potential fraud and larceny charges, applying a legal theory that, by overstating the number of units sold, the Trumps were falsely inflating their value and, in effect, cheating unsuspecting condo buyers.”

The prosecutors appeared to have emails from the Trumps discussing "how to coordinate false information they had given to prospective buyers." The Manhattan DA's office spent two years building a case against Ivanka and Donald Jr.

Then in 2012, after Ivanka and Don Jr.'s lawyers pleaded their case to prosecutors repeatedly, Donald Trump Sr.'s longtime personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz went directly to Vance himself, for a meeting on May 16, 2012. Shortly beforehand, Kasowitz had donated $25,000 to Vance’s reelection campaign.

"He simply repeated the arguments that the other defense lawyers had been making for months," the reporters write. "Ultimately, Vance overruled his own prosecutors. Three months after the meeting, he told them to drop the case." Particularly incredible is the fact that Kasowitz offered Vance a settlement — but Vance instead dropped the case entirely. Afterward, Kasowitz reportedly bragged to friends about his coup, saying it was "amazing I got them off."

Vance returned the $25,000 to Kasowitz shortly before meeting with him (standard practice in the DA’s office). But some months later, Kasowitz gave Vance another $32,000. Vance only returned that money when this story broke, in October 2017.

How Vance has reacted to the reports

Vance has openly and vehemently denied any wrongdoing, in either case.

In the Trumps’ case, he told the New York Times’s James McKinley Jr. that he viewed the Trumps' behavior as largely a civil matter. The victims (those who put down deposits for Trump SoHo properties) hadn't lost money on their investment, nor did the condos they buy have no value. "The victims didn’t strike me as victims, and I have better things to do with the resources of the office," Vance told McKinley. Further, he claimed the victims declined to cooperate with prosecutors after they reached a settlement with the Trumps that refunded 90 percent of their initial deposits.

As for the Weinstein investigation, the Manhattan chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Friedman Agnifilo said in a statement that the NYPD conducted its sting operation with Gutierrez without the DA office’s knowledge. "While the recording is horrifying to listen to, what emerged from the audio was insufficient to prove a crime under New York law, which requires prosecutors to establish criminal intent," she said. "Subsequent investigative steps undertaken in order to establish intent were not successful."

“This, coupled with other proof issues, meant that there was no choice but to conclude the investigation without criminal charges."

What happens to Vance now

Manhattan voters might agree with Vance that his decisions were justified — or they could agree with the police sources Farrow quotes, or the prosecutors on his team in the Trump case, that Vance screwed up badly and should have charged Harvey Weinstein, Ivanka Trump, and Donald Trump Jr.

But either way, they don’t have a lot of choice as to whether Vance stays in office. He’s facing a reelection vote in less than a month, and he’s running unopposed.

With no other listed candidates on the ballot, opponents of Vance have basically one option: waging a write-in campaign. Those are uncommon and generally unsuccessful, but in rare cases, they can work out. For example, US Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) successfully won reelection through a write-in campaign in 2010 after losing the Republican primary.

Perhaps the most natural write-in challenger would be Preet Bharara, who served as the US attorney for Manhattan, the Bronx, and New York state's suburban counties under the Obama administration. Bharara has a huge public profile from his prosecutions of New York state politicians and Wall Street bankers. His unceremonious firing by Trump earlier this year also gives him a natural point of contrast to Vance, who let the Trump family off relatively easy.

But as the Washington Post's Philip Bump notes, Bharara is ineligible: He lives in Westchester County, New York, not Manhattan. Same goes for Westchester resident Hillary Clinton (who’d have the star power for a bid, though it’s doubtful she’d want the job).

Bump suggests that former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who lives on the Upper East Side, could mount a bid. Spitzer tried to mount a comeback four years ago by running for New York City comptroller, losing a tight primary campaign to then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. Spitzer worked in the Manhattan DA's office for six years on organized crime cases, from 1986 to 1992, and became known for his criminal prosecutions and civil suits against Wall Street figures during his eight years as New York state attorney general from 1999 to 2007.

It’s hard to dispute he has the experience for the job — but then again, Spitzer resigned the governorship when he was caught in a prostitution scandal. He benefited from the Justice Department’s decision not to prosecute him for violating the Mann Act (which bans transporting people across state lines for purposes of prostitution). It might be awkward to attack Vance for showing leniency to rich and powerful New Yorkers by declining to prosecute them, when Spitzer himself benefited from a similar kind of prosecutorial leniency in the past (for, to be clear, an infinitely less heinous offense than what Weinstein was accused of).

But whether it’s Spitzer or someone else, a viable alternative to Vance has to step forward and mount a write-in bid if Vance is to be denied a third term. And with less than a month until the election, they’d have to do it soon.

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