Who is Cy Vance? The complicated, media-savvy public career of the prosecutor who let Weinstein walk

First elected in 2010, Cyrus Vance Jr. was long among the most important faces of the criminal justice reform movement, at least in the press.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, center, flanked by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and Bronx DA Robert Johnson and Nassau County DA Kathleen Rice, right in 2013. CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, center, flanked by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and Bronx DA Robert Johnson and Nassau County DA Kathleen Rice, right in 2013. CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

To be the District Attorney for Manhattan is to live in the spotlight. But for working Americans outside New York City media circles, Cy Vance (D) is not the same kind of household name — and now he’s getting the kind of introduction to the rest of the country that gives politicians nightmares.

Vance has popped up in two alarming national media stories in recent weeks. This week it was Harvey Weinstein, the now-disgraced sexual predator who all but ran Hollywood for the past few decades, and who Vance declined to pursue on criminal charges despite holding the sex crime equivalent of smoking-gun evidence. Last week it was President Donald Trump’s children who got a pass from the second-term Manhattan DA, after a deep investigation suggested they had broken the law in their real estate dealings. In each case, Vance turned out to have gotten campaign cash from someone connected to the powerful people whose scalps Vance opted not to chase.

These are not the kinds of stories you want to put you on the map outside your own city.

Vance has for years cultivated his reputation with media and political elites, appearing repeatedly as an avatar for the centrist, bipartisan criminal justice reform movement of the Obama years. After local activists managed to get reporters to pay attention to New York’s disproportionately harsh treatment of people who ride the subway without paying a fare, Vance ended the 20-year-long practice of immediately dragging fare-beaters through the courts every time they are caught and replaced it with a more flexible policy on the offense. Changes to how subway turnstiles are policed are a surefire way to get press in New York, given their connection to the abusive legacy of “broken windows” policing.

Vance has shown a deft touch for reformer press clippings outside the racial dynamics of stop-and-frisk and broken windows policing as well. After settling cases against major banks for several hundred million dollars — a wrist-slap for Wall Street but a large cash infusion for the city — Vance put the bankers’ money to work for various reform ideas. (The most recent beneficiary is jailhouse education programs, a proven anti-recidivism tool long neglected and outright undermined by conservatives opposed to rehabilitative spending. Vance announced a $7 million donation from the banker money pool to New York state’s carceral education offerings in August.)

These are only the most recent examples of Vance working the cameras on behalf of widely-liked ideas for reducing mass incarceration and combating the racial prejudices baked into the U.S. justice system. He’s been at it for years. Back in 2012, just two years after winning the job, Vance handed hundreds of thousands of case files over to researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice so that his office’s work could be scoured for traces of systematic bias. The report found black and Latinx defendants significantly more likely to be held in a cell before trial than white and Asian ones — thus making them more likely to spend longer in prison at the conclusion of their case as well — and Vance rolled out internal policy changes to address the findings.

The Vera findings helped to establish the idea, now common in justice system reform circles, that prosecutors’ offices are an essential venue for redressing unjust structures that prop up the broader racism and classism of the system. Vance’s data dump and Vera’s research are far from the sole drivers of that policymaking trend, of course.

“In recent years, in the wake of controversial charging decisions in Ferguson, Missouri, Chicago, Illinois, and Sanford, Florida, prosecutors have come under greater scrutiny, particularly for failing to prosecute violence against African-Americans by law enforcement and other armed individuals,” Cato Institute criminal justice expert Jonathan Blanks told ThinkProgress in an email. Greater transparency and openness to criticism could help to unpack a key component of the system that currently goes un-audited in almost every corner of the country.

“Prosecutors wield a tremendous amount of discretion when deciding whom to charge and with which crimes to charge them,” Blanks wrote. “There is no requirement for prosecutors to divulge rationales for each decision they make, nor is there significant oversight by any executive, judicial, or administrative agency regarding those decisions.”

Although it’s taken a broad set of stories around the country to turn attention to prosecutor decision-making, which Blanks calls “the impenetrable black box of criminal justice,” Vance’s atypical collaboration with outside researchers and critics has gotten a large share of the press associated with this new focus — most of it overwhelmingly positive.

Shortly after the Vera report published, the New York Times Magazine ran a long, glowing feature headlined “Cyrus Vance Jr.’s ‘Moneyball’ Approach to Crime.” It detailed Vance’s approach to balancing a prosecutor’s traditional tough-on-crime stance with a modern reformer’s acknowledgment of faults in the system. Vance called it “intelligence-driven prosecution.” Today, many in the reform movement at large identify their platform as “Smart On Crime.”

Vance had become the media face of a movement within just a few years of being elected. When The New Yorker wanted to run a glossy feature on mass incarceration and reform efforts six months after the Times piece, it didn’t choose to profile Vance — but it did rely on a quote from him as benediction of the the credibility and importance of the piece’s primary subject, Milwaukee County DA John Chisholm.

These are subtle things, noticed keenly in political, legal, and media circles but largely ignored by the hundreds of millions of people around the country who work in some other industry. They set the groundwork for Vance to pop into those people’s minds already positioned as fair but stern, tough but smart, should he decide to pursue higher office.

And then someone finally said what all of Hollywood appears to have quietly known about Harvey Weinstein, in print and fact-checked. In short order, news broke that Vance’s office had Weinstein on tape admitting to sexually assaulting Ambra Battilana two years ago, but dropped the case. It’s tough to say you’re smart on crime when you overlooked a rich donor’s predatory behavior caught on tape.

Tougher still when there seems to be a pattern of alarming decisionmaking toward powerful, wealthy people. Weinstein is only the most recent example. Vance’s office caught hell for the failed rape prosecution of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011. Strauss-Kahn used to manage the International Monetary Fund and married a woman worth around $200 million. He allegedly raped a woman whose life was put under an international press microscope all too familiar to those who report assaults. Vance’s office brought charges but asked the judge to dismiss them months later after his team decided the woman, Nafissatou Diallo, was not credible.

That was a year and a half into Vance’s first term. Vance defended his choice to drop the case in the 2014 Times piece by calling it “a paragon, because we absolutely believed this poor woman should be believed over this powerful man, and when additional facts came out, we were willing to show them to the defense.”

His other failures to effectively prosecute powerful men despite damning evidence do not come with the same potential narrative about inexperience or naivete.

Vance’s office had Donald Trump, Jr. and Ivanka Trump acknowledging apparent fraud in their real estate dealings back in 2012. Trump attorney Marc Kasowitz went to Vance personally, bypassing the members of his team who had run the investigation for two years, and persuaded the DA to drop the case. Vance had at the time returned a Kasowitz contribution of $25,000 to his re-elect effort. But Kasowitz gave him $50,000 the next time — just six months after the Trump decision, the New Yorker and Pro Publica reported last week — and Vance hadn’t given the money back by the time reporters called him about the whole shifty business.

When Vance’s failure to get Weinstein back in 2015 popped in national media this week, the DA sent top deputy Karen Friedman Agnifilo out to explain. The cops screwed it up, she said in a statement Tuesday, and left Vance’s team with no case because of legal technicalities and evidentiary standards. (The story doesn’t exactly persuade. Even if it is true, it would evidence an ugly double-standard for wealthy people and sex workers, marijuana users, and other figures of the city’s nightlife who can’t afford well-connected lawyers.)

But it turns out Weinstein had also taken care to hire a lawyer from Vance’s old defense firm to handle the case from his end. That lawyer, Elkan Abramowitz, was into Vance’s campaign coffer for $24,550 by the time he took Weinstein’s case — and gave Vance another $2,100 after the Hollywood mogul was off the hook, the New York Post reported Wednesday. The NYPD has reopened its investigation of Weinstein since the Vance news broke, the force confirmed to ThinkProgress on Thursday.

Even if the apparent corruption implicit in what reporters have uncovered about Vance’s handling of powerful men proves innocent in future, this new wave of press breaks sharply with Vance’s prior media reputation. There’s nothing “smart on crime” about abandoning cases your investigators like and then taking money from the people who benefited from your decision on the back end. Especially when you’re running unopposed, as Vance is this year, for a job that has historically tended to be held by one person for decades at a time.

Vance is by no means the most important character in the saga of Weinstein’s alleged serial groping, assault, and rape of the women around him. But he cuts a fascinating figure — and as his reputation threatens to tarnish the reform movement he’s championed in the press for most of a decade now is looking at serious backlash from Washington.

It will be interesting to see whether Vance soon comes to need the reform movement more than the movement needs him. While it faces new setbacks in the Trump administration, advocates and analysts remain convinced that state and local energy runs high behind the smart-on-crime consensus. And some within that coalition are eager to call Vance’s media reputation for reform acumen into question.

Meanwhile, the powerful of New York are aligning to defend Vance. Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) “won’t second-guess the prosecutors” in the Weinstein case, a spokesman told the New York Observer.

The spokesman made no mention of the fact that it was Vance who decided not to pursue criminal charges against de Blasio earlier this year, as evidence piled up in the press that the mayor had a habit of doing favors for his own campaign donors.