In Brooklyn, Prosecutor's Race is a Grudge Match
New York Times
January 6, 2005
By William Glaberson
Whitewater was certainly interesting. Iran-Contra was a good read.
But when they write the history of supposed political skulduggery, historians might want to study the confusing intrigue simmering beneath the surface of this year's race for Brooklyn district attorney.
With its claims of lies, libel, treachery, abuse of power and worse, it is as convoluted as any Washington scandal. And its characters are at least as colorful.
There is a district attorney with a reputation for prickliness. There is an anxious former candidate for district attorney, now facing felony charges.
There is a blustery former ally, turned bitter enemy, who says his goal is to get the district attorney tossed out. Playing a bit part is a woman who once testified that her own lawyer wanted to have her killed.
And there are accusations that link those stories: go up against District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, some of his enemies say, and he will find a reason to prosecute you.
Mr. Hynes, 69, a Democrat who is running for a fifth term, says he is the victim of a disinformation campaign. "It's outrageous and not a bit of it is true," he said in a recent interview.
But, in the grudge-fueled world of Brooklyn politics, where conspiracy theories have long lives, there is just enough raw material to keep the theme alive and infuse a budding campaign with some early mud.
At least three self-described political adversaries of Mr. Hynes in recent years have ended up with paralyzing legal problems.
The facts of each case are complicated, and Mr. Hynes and his aides insist that they prove he did nothing wrong. Still, some of his opponents who have no involvement in the three cases say there is an atmosphere of fear about taking on Mr. Hynes.
"When I started to think about running for D.A., more than one person said to me, 'you better be clean as a whistle and, even if you are, you might still get indicted,' " said David Yassky, a Democratic Brooklyn councilman who says he may challenge Mr. Hynes.
In the welter of claims, there is agreement on one central fact. Behind many of the accusations is one John Kennedy O'Hara, a tough-talking 43-year-old Brooklyn native who revels in mischievous political campaigns and long-running battles that seem extremely personal.
For years beginning in 1996, Mr. O'Hara waged a determined fight against criminal charges that were filed against him by Mr. Hynes's office. Prosecutors said he voted in five separate elections in a district in which he did not live.
Mr. O'Hara, a former lawyer who says he was once "close enough to go drinking" with Mr. Hynes, was eventually convicted. He failed in his appeals, was sentenced to community service and disbarred.
Mr. Hynes said the bitter history explained why Mr. O'Hara was working to discredit him now. "He was convicted and disbarred," Mr. Hynes said, "and, I guess understandably, he has nothing but unadulterated hatred for me and he will do anything he can to get me thrown out of office."
In a separate interview, Mr. O'Hara said he had to agree: "My purpose in life is to turn him out of office in 2005."
Fighting the charges through three separate trials, Mr. O'Hara portrayed himself as a latter-day Susan B. Anthony, fighting for voting rights. Though he never ran against Mr. Hynes, he has long claimed that the case against him was a favor from Mr. Hynes to his Democratic friends who were annoyed to the point of apoplexy at Mr. O'Hara.
Prosecutors have said Mr. O'Hara wanted to run for City Council and other offices in a Brooklyn district from which his real address had been excluded after redistricting.
Whatever the merits of Mr. O'Hara's case, the accusations about Mr. Hynes have taken on a life of their own. The Daily News said he had waged "a prosecutorial jihad" against Mr. O'Hara, while in the pages of The Amsterdam News, a critic wrote that Mr. Hynes had used "terroristic tactics" against another adversary, Sandra E. Roper, who ran against Mr. Hynes for district attorney in 2001. She is now facing felony charges involving the theft of some $9,000 from a former law client.
Harper's Magazine last month accused Mr. Hynes of committing "almost the very same crime" for which he had prosecuted Mr. O'Hara. Mr. Hynes, with some fairly substantial evidence, said the magazine's claim that he violated election laws by registering to vote using his office address was flatly false, and he threatened a libel suit.
Harper's publisher said he doubted a suit would be filed; the magazine and Mr. Hynes's lawyers have discussed publishing a rebuttal by Mr. Hynes in its next issue.
Critics of Mr. Hynes usually mention Mr. O'Hara's case in connection with two other cases. All three include details that help Mr. Hynes argue that there is no pattern, while giving his detractors grist for claiming that there is.
Four years ago, Ms. Roper, a 47-year-old lawyer and political newcomer, stunned Mr. Hynes by challenging him in the Democratic primary and winning 37 percent of the vote.
She said in an interview that the theft charges were filed "to keep me out of any other races for D.A., namely this one in 2005," and to frighten other candidates.
Mr. Hynes said his office did nothing unethical in the handling of a complaint filed by one of Ms. Roper's clients just as her campaign was getting under way. "Obviously, I could not investigate someone who is running against me," Mr. Hynes said.
He asked a judge to appoint a special prosecutor, who took over the case several months after the complaint was filed. The special prosecutor, Maranda E. Fritz, a Manhattan lawyer, has said she reviewed the case independently.
She argued that Ms. Roper faked a retainer agreement to make it appear she had permission to take $9,000 she was holding in escrow. Ms. Roper, she noted, had once before been disciplined because of a dispute over payments with a client.
But Ms. Roper's lawyer, Raymond C. Baierlein, argued that Mr. Hynes pushed the investigation in its early stages toward a criminal case, after there were questions about the credibility of the client who complained in 2001, a 75-year-old named Mary Lee Ward.
Mr. Baierlein portrayed Ms. Ward as someone who repeatedly filed complaints and sometimes exaggerated. During the trial, he confronted her with grand jury testimony in which she had claimed Ms. Roper wanted her killed.
No such charges were ever leveled, and Ms. Ward seemed embarrassed on the witness stand. "I would have called the cops on her" if that had been true, she said. But Ms. Ward, in a recent interview, insisted Ms. Roper was "like Judas Iscariot."
The Roper case went to trial for the first time in November. A jury could not reach a verdict. A date may be set at a hearing today in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn for Ms. Fritz, the special prosecutor, to retry the case.
The third case involving Mr. Hynes that has drawn attention centered on John L. Phillips Jr., now 80, who was twice elected a Civil Court judge in Brooklyn and retired in 1994. A martial-arts enthusiast, he called himself "the kung fu judge."
In 2001, he said he was considering running against Mr. Hynes. About that time, prosecutors in Mr. Hynes office said they began an investigation into allegations that Mr. Phillips had been swindled out of real estate holdings.
Because that investigation raised questions about his mental competence, Mr. Hynes's aides say, the prosecutors began a proceeding aimed, they say, at protecting him. Though many of the records are sealed, the proceeding eventually led to a finding that Mr. Phillips was not competent to manage his affairs.
The records that are available raise some questions. A court-appointed guardian for Mr. Phillips at the competency proceeding, for example, was a lawyer named Harvey L. Greenberg, a close friend of Mr. Hynes and his former chief assistant.
Mr. Greenberg said in an interview that Mr. Hynes had nothing to do with his involvement. He said a judge appointed him after the case was under way.
At that time, in 2001, Mr. Greenberg said, Mr. Phillips was living in poverty and seemed befuddled. Though he conceded that Mr. Phillips had mentioned running for district attorney, Mr. Greenberg said, "I never considered him a real candidate for anything."
In February 2001, Mr. Phillips agreed to a guardianship, acknowledging that he was not fully competent, and Mr. Greenberg was excused from the case without a fee. If there was a race for district attorney, it was over.
The facts of his case are elusive. In an interview at a hospital this fall, Mr. Phillips insisted, "There's nothing wrong with me." But he also insisted that he had no quarrel with Mr. Hynes.
His current guardian, Emani P. Taylor, said Mr. Phillips was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. When she met him in 2002, she said, he was living in squalor.
Mr. O'Hara will brook no argument about whether the cases involving Mr. Phillips and Ms. Roper were legitimate. He would know, he says. He knows both Mr. Phillips and Ms. Roper very well.
Even in the conspiratorial world of Brooklyn politics, the connections between the three cases are enough to keep people talking well into the fall campaign.
Before the district attorney's office made its first move against Mr. Phillips, Mr. O'Hara said, he was the former judge's campaign manager in his planned race against Mr. Hynes. Then, Mr. O'Hara said, it was he who encouraged Ms. Roper to run for district attorney.
This year, once again, Mr. O'Hara said, he has plans, though it is not clear exactly what they are or how he intends to carry them out. "My goal," he said, "is to take down the whole operation, the district attorney's office."