In the four years since he was easily re-elected to his fourth term, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes has seen his political fortunes, and the landscape around him, dramatically change.
He’s garnered harsh criticism both from inside and outside the Jewish community on a range of issues, including his office’s prosecution of child sexual abuse cases in the fervently Orthodox community. In addition, the case of Jabbar Collins, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering a rabbi and is now seeking $150 million for the 15 years he spent in prison, has dogged Hynes.
And he now faces two well-financed challengers, former Manhattan prosecutor Abe George and former Brooklyn federal prosecutor Kenneth Thompson, seeking to wrest the Democratic nomination (tantamount to victory) from him in September. Together they have raised more than $500,000 in the past six months, far outpacing the incumbent, suggesting that donors see Hynes as vulnerable.
So this race may turn out to be even tougher for Hynes than the 2005 battle in which more than half of primary voters didn’t support him. He won 41 percent of the vote while State Sen. John Sampson won 37 percent; Mark Peters got 15 percent, and Arnold Kriss, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn and a former deputy police commissioner, received 7 percent.
The Jewish vote, particularly the cohesive Orthodox vote, play a significant role in Brooklyn elections, and so how Hynes has managed his complicated relationship with various chasidic and haredi communities in the borough may well be a key factor.
The race is likely to be heavily influenced by the endorsements of Orthodox leaders and newspapers.
“The fact is that [Orthodox Jews] make up 10 to 15 percent of the electorate,” said Leon Goldenberg, a politically active Orthodox real estate broker.
“Hynes will probably lose a lot of the chasidishe vote because of Weberman, whether that is justified or not,” he said, referring to the high-profile case of Nechemya Weberman, the unlicensed therapist convicted of sexual abuse late last year. “The fact that he got 103 years suggests to them that a chasidic Jew can’t get a fair trial in New York, though I personally believe he is guilty.”
(Weberman’s sentence was automatically reduced by half because of state sentencing guidelines.)
Goldenberg, who has supported Hynes in the past and believes he probably will this time, said that while the DA stands to lose some votes among chasidim and haredim, his opponents have yet to make a serious outreach effort to the Orthodox.
Hynes has been blasted by elected officials, as well as by former Mayor Ed Koch last year, because of allegations that he passively allowed Brooklyn’s fervently Orthodox community to vet accusations of sexual abuse through rabbis rather than go directly to his office or the police. Hynes insists he never supported that practice.
But in an article last year, The New York Times quoted Agudath Israel of America official Rabbi David Zwiebel as saying that Hynes “expressed no opposition or objection” when the rabbi notified him that his fervently Orthodox umbrella group was urging the practice.
Last summer, responding to pressure, Hynes formed a task force that would probe allegations of intimidation against those who come forward to complain about abuse. The widespread problem of communal intimidation in the haredi community — which The Jewish Week has been covering for years — was highlighted in the Weberman trial.
Four men have been separately charged with trying to interfere with the prosecution of that case and others were arrested for taking photographs of the alleged victim at the trial.
Some of the hundreds of people who attended a May fundraiser for Weberman and who profess his innocence may hold the case against Hynes, as might those who feel he became more zealous in prosecuting Orthodox sex crimes only because of recent extensive coverage in The Jewish Week, The Forward and The New York Times.
Others, such as abuse victims and their advocates and supporters, may vote against him because they believe his Kol Tzedek hotline for abuse victims, launched in 2009, does too little, too late, and that he fudges the number of leads it has garnered. The DA has also been roundly criticized by the city’s editorial pages for refusing to disclose the names of Orthodox defendants in sexual abuse cases, citing victim privacy concerns.
Hynes dismisses the idea of any significant political fallout.
“I see no evidence of any lingering anger against me or my office from any chasidic sect,” he told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “I think we had some positive changes, especially when the Crown Heights Beis Din last year issued an edict telling members of the community they have an obligation to go to secular authorities [to report sexual abuse allegations].”
“I remain optimistic that I can convince the leadership of Satmar and others to do exactly that.”
Hynes said a measure he supports that would mandate clergy members to report cases of suspected abuse is going through “a slow crawl through the system before both houses of the [New York State] Legislature.” It was approved by the state’s DA Association.
But the serious allegation— strenuously rebutted by the DA and his supporters — that Hynes has curried favor with the influential fervently Orthodox and chasidic voting blocs by dragging his feet in investigating abuse cases to the fullest extent is likely to dog him in the primary.
“I don’t think he has zealously prosecuted these cases for decades,” said Abe George, the former Manhattan prosecutor who is challenging Hynes in September’s Democratic primary.
“When the light was turned on him in The New York Times, that’s when he started to show more interest.”
Hynes told The Jewish Week that the criticism is “not supported by the facts. At the time the criticism started, we had 96 members of the Orthodox community under arrest in various stages with a 70 percent conviction rate. In 1997 we created the first Crimes Against Children Bureau in this country.” (The Jewish Week and other media outlets have challenged these numbers.)
“People will say all kinds of things in a political campaign that have nothing to do with the facts,” Hynes added.
George said that the successful Weberman prosecution raises skepticism about Hynes’ insistence that victims and witnesses in the chasidic community will not come forward, and shows that “when there’s a will there’s a way.”
“[Hynes] says, ‘For 20 years no one did anything until I formed Kol Tzedek,’ ” George told The Jewish Week in a recent interview. “Well, you’ve been DA for 20 years. It wasn’t someone else’s watch. It took you that long to form that unit.”
George says he does not believe Hynes’ rationale for withholding names of accused Orthodox abusers.
“If you do this on every other case, why aren’t you doing it here? If it’s abuse within a family, a father and a daughter or any sort of familial relationship [I agree with non-disclosure]. But when you don’t have that type of relationship, there is no excuse not to give out names. There should be no different level of justice if you live in Williamsburg or Borough Park than if you live in Bed-Stuy or Park Slope.”
Thompson also accuses Hynes of a double standard. “Clearly, the DA imposed two separate and wholly unequal standards of justice in those cases, and that’s never a good thing—particularly when it puts our children’s safety at risk,” he said in an email message Tuesday. “In order for the criminal justice system to work and to have legitimacy, everyone must receive the same level of protection under the law.”
Thompson was in the headlines recently as lawyer for the hotel worker who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then direcor of the International Monetary Fund, of sexual assault (the charges were dropped.) Thompson said Hynes “seems to be totally indifferent to serious allegations of misconduct being made against the Brooklyn DA’s Office. I will take all such allegations seriously and do something about them.”
The former Clinton administration Treasury official leads the pack in fundraising with $341,508 in receipts compared with $210,777 for George, according to January’s filing covering the prior six months.
Hynes raised just $27,275 in that time, but he needed less because of his existing war chest. He now has $373,165 on hand, far more than both opponents, according to the state’s Campaign Finance database.
Observers see a tough fight ahead, but won’t count out the power of incumbency.
“Despite his deficiencies and opposition, Hynes appears likely to win,” says Baruch College political science professor Doug Muzzio.
Isaac Abraham, a Satmar activist and former City Council candidate said Williamsburg residents have taken note of the fact that task forces against drugs and sexual assault and the work of his prosecutors have taken criminals off the streets. “There are a lot of people who finally feel that something is happening and it’s not just a free-for-all,” he said.
Abraham notes that early in the DA’s tenure, the Orthodox community blamed a first-term Hynes for the botched prosecution of Lemrick Nelson for stabbing Yankel Rosenbaum during the Crown Heights riots in 1991.
(Nelson later admitted the crime in a federal civil rights trial. Hynes blamed the first verdict on jury nullification of the evidence, but a report by the state’s Division of Criminal Justice found flaws in both the prosecution and the conduct of the presiding judge.)
That hasn’t prevented Hynes from getting a large share of the Orthodox Jewish vote in his re-election bids since 1994. Hynes insists he never indicated support for that practice.
Abraham said that Hynes is strong in community outreach and meets regularly with Orthodox leaders. “He has his work cut out for him, but there is still half a year before the [general] election and no one should draw any conclusions,” said Abraham.
That point of view was shared by Ezra Friedlander, a Democrat political consultant who specializes in the Orthodox vote.
He said that even those who believe that allegations of abuse should be handled within the Orthodox community would concede that the problem has not abated.
“There has not been a proven track record [of the community itself stopping abuse],” he said. “But I certainly don’t believe that Joe Hynes deserves the brunt of blame for this very, very complicated issue.”