Cyrus Vance Jr. during the inaugural National Prosecutorial Summit, October 21, 2014.
By Branden Camp/AP Images.
For most of his eight years as Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr. has kept a low enough profile that politicos pause a second at the mention of his name, remembering that he isn’t his father, the Washington wise man who served as Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state. Junior’s biggest initiative has been effective but characteristically wonkish: applying data analysis to crime-fighting.
Cy Jr.’s name recognition certainly has skyrocketed in the past two weeks. He’s under fire as never before, accused of bad judgment and dubious ethics. First came news that he’d dropped a 2012 criminal investigation of Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. over their misleading statements to prospective condo buyers—after a conversation with Trump family lawyer Marc Kasowitz, one of the largest donors to Vance’s political campaigns (Vance has said that Kasowitz and the contributions “had no influence whatsoever on my decision-making in the case”). Then The New Yorker, as part of a devastating story by Ronan Farrow, released two minutes of audio, recorded in 2015 by the New York Police Department, in which Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, now accused by more than two dozen women of sexual harassment and assault, essentially admits to groping a 22-year-old Filipina-Italian model and actress, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez.
One day earlier, she had gone to the New York Police Department’s First Precinct to file a complaint claiming that Weinstein had pawed her in his office at Miramax. The detectives wired Gutierrez for another meeting with Weinstein, this time at the Tribeca Grand Hotel. On the resulting recording, Weinstein bullies her to come to his room while he takes a shower and Gutierrez pleads to leave. The crucial moment, legally, comes when Gutierrez asks, “Why yesterday you touch my breast?” and Weinstein responds, “Oh, please. I’m sorry . . . I won’t do it again.”
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Leslie Crocker Snyder founded the pioneering Manhattan D.A.’s Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the 1970s. She later became a state supreme court judge, and in 2009 she lost a run for district attorney to Vance. “There’s clearly enough on the tape to prosecute,” Snyder said. “The N.Y.P.D. did an excellent job.” Yet Vance, after what he said was a two-week investigation, declined to charge Weinstein. “You have to step back and be fair,” Snyder continued. “Every indication, from the stories and the audio, is that she is credible. But maybe the investigation by the D.A.’s office revealed things we don’t know. I wasn’t there assessing her credibility, nor were you. I happen to believe Vance is basically a person of integrity. Maybe he showed poor judgment, but that’s too easy to say in retrospect. I don’t think he would deliberately do anything wrong. He has an excellent sex-crimes bureau which does very good work, including in difficult cases.”
Alice Vachss is the former chief of the Special Victims Bureau in Queens and the author of Sex Crimes: Then and Now. “Yes, Weinstein’s admission to that particular act is weak—he tosses it off, and he’s not specific,” Vachss said. “But there’s something more fundamental going on here. If you’re a sex-crimes unit, in the D.A.’s office or in the police department, you’re looking for the people who are chronically offending and abusing power. On the tape, Weinstein uses unrelenting pressure and manipulation. There’s no one who could listen to this tape and think it’s an isolated incident. He says, ‘I’m used to that!’ And you can’t say, ‘This is a guy passing through, we’ll never see him again, he’ll never commit another crime in our jurisdiction.’ You’re looking for the pattern guys, and this is clearly a pattern guy. This is enough information to start a big investigation—not two weeks.”
Vance has said that his office did a thorough job and that he made his decision solely on the merits of the case; his office has also tried to shift some of the blame to the N.Y.P.D., claiming that the wiring of Gutierrez could have yielded better evidence but was done “without our knowledge or input.” A former law enforcement official who has worked with Vance’s office scoffed. “I’d bet a lot of money that’s not true,” he said, listing the paperwork involved in any such operation. Yet the procedural details, he said, are secondary to the caution he believes has seeped in since 2011, when Vance’s high-profile sexual-assault case against French politician and financier Dominique Strauss-Kahn collapsed. The accuser in that case, a New York hotel maid, had apparently invented parts of her account, and the dismissal of the charges was a major embarrassment. “You have to keep in mind that history,” the former official said. “The D.A.’s office is a little gun shy of defendants who have a lot of notoriety. I like Vance as a person, but he lives and breathes by the optics of every single thing that happens in that office.”
A spokeswoman for Vance said the Strauss-Kahn episode did not affect the office’s subsequent pursuit of sexual-assault cases “in the slightest,” and pointed to other high-profile defendants who have been successfully prosecuted, for similar offenses, by the district attorney. Yet with Weinstein’s piggishness finally exposed, Vance is enduring the harshest glare of his low-key tenure, with his competence and ethics questioned. Not that he’s in danger of losing his job anytime soon: he ran unopposed in New York’s Democratic primary in September, and next month, in the general election, Cyrus Vance Jr. will face only a long-shot write-in opponent.