Andrew Cuomo

Cy Vance's blind spot

It’s hard to prosecute sexual assault allegations – and critics aren’t sure if the Manhattan DA really wants to.


Cy-Vance Dan Pollard/Office of the Governor; AP/Shutterstock

As the #MeToo movement seeks justice after a year of revelations, some of that burden has fallen to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who upholds public safety in a place that is home to some of the most powerful men in the world.

But Vance’s office has been struggling to meet the expectations that publicly shamed sex abusers will be brought to justice, despite what would seem like no shortage of opportunities.

Many incidents and accusations that have surfaced as an outgrowth of the #MeToo movement occurred in Manhattan apartments, offices, bars or comedy clubs. Comedian Louis C.K. was accused of masturbating in front of female comedians and verbally abusing them, former “CBS This Morning” host Charlie Rose was accused by 27 women of sexual harassment, and NBC’s “Today” host Matt Lauer was fired after his employer determined he had perpetrated years of workplace harassment and allegedly pressured female employees to have sex with him. The NYPD opened a criminal investigation into restaurateur Mario Batali this spring after Eater reported four employees accused the celebrity chef of groping them, including an incident that was said to have occurred a year ago. Mark Halperin was accused in October 2017 of having propositioned employees for sex, forcibly kissing one woman, and pressing his body against other staffers years earlier when he worked for ABC News, according to five women who worked with him. And CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves stepped down in September after 12 women accused the media mogul of unwanted sexual advances or forcing them to perform oral sex on him.

Over at Fox News’ office, former Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes and primetime host Bill O’Reilly were ousted in sexual harassment scandals. Of course, Fox’s favorite president has been accused of assault by 20 women, and many of those incidents allegedly occurred in Manhattan.

Vance indicted movie producer Harvey Weinstein in May, but he has failed to bring cases against a number of additional alleged celebrity perverts.

Those hoping to see a parade of predators marching through Manhattan courthouses next year may be disappointed. Many of the alleged predations are not necessarily criminal, or would be very difficult – even impossible – to prosecute. The state removed the statute of limitations for rape, criminal sex acts and aggravated sexual abuse cases in 2006, but the limitation for other felony sex crimes remains five years, and rapes that occurred before 2006 cannot be prosecuted retroactively. That’s why Lauer may not see a courtroom, since the incident in which he allegedly trapped and sexually abused a female employee in his office reportedly occurred in 2001.

Other harassing behaviors – such as verbal taunting, sending explicit photos or videos, and making unwanted sexual advances in the workplace – aren’t necessarily crimes but can get a perpetrator fired or sued in civil court.

Prosecutors depend on accusers coming forward and filing complaints with police before they’re able to press charges. An NYPD spokeswoman wouldn’t divulge whether detectives were on the trail of any #MeToo offenders, although other abuse cases could roll through the courts soon, Vance’s office said, and the public should be patient. “Just as important are the dozens of sex crimes we prosecute each year with defendants that are not famous, and survivors that are not famous,” said Manhattan District Attorney spokesman Danny Frost, pointing to a work-related sexual violence team the office launched in January.

But some advocates who expected prosecutors to hold the city’s powerful defendants accountable question Vance’s commitment to getting justice for the victims of powerful men, noting that they have been alarmed by favorable plea deals and cases that weren’t pursued in the past. Prosecutors charged International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn with sexually assaulting a hotel maid in 2011 but Vance dropped the case because he wasn’t sure what happened. In 2015, police were close to arresting Weinstein after a model accused him of groping her and recorded a conversation with him apologizing for his behavior. Instead, prosecutors reportedly berated the witness and didn’t pursue criminal charges.

In 2016, prosecutors reached a plea agreement with Dr. Robert Hadden, a gynecologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, after 19 women accused him of groping and licking them while examining them in his office. The agreement involved no jail time or probation – or any penalty at all besides relinquishing his medical license. One of those women, Marissa Hoechstetter, said Vance and his prosecutors sought to protect the medical institution over the victims. She said the office has a pattern of protecting powerful interests. “It’s frankly traumatic to me,” she told City & State. “There’s (a) pattern of evidence of them under or not prosecuting people connected to institutions or powerful people. Whether it’s real or it appears that way, they have to address that.”

Even the Weinstein case may be in danger. A detective did not give prosecutors a key piece of evidence and an interview with a complainant’s friend that contradicted her story led a judge to take away part of Weinstein’s indictment. Weinstein’s attorney Benjamin Brafman is now arguing for the judge to throw out all charges.

Prosecutors are “moving full steam ahead” in their case against Weinstein and will “protect those who are preyed upon as well as the integrity of the process,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi said in court last month.

“We are the only prosecutor's office in the world that is prosecuting Mr. Weinstein, despite reported investigations in several cities around the globe,” Frost, the Vance spokesman, told City & State. “Also, the judge sets the motion schedule and trial schedule, not the prosecutor.”

But the evidence bungling is exacerbating an already strained relationship between Manhattan prosecutors and the NYPD’s sex crimes unit, which began to fray when prosecutors failed to follow a credible sexual assault accusation against Weinstein in 2015.

Some argue that even if Vance nails Weinstein or other prominent alleged sexual abusers now, it’s still too late. “The primary mistake was not prosecuting Harvey Weinstein in 2015, when they had sufficient evidence and audiotape of sexual assault,” said Manhattan Democratic Assemblyman Dan Quart, who is a rumored potential candidate against Vance in 2021. “He’s failed to hold the wealthy and well-connected accountable. As a Manhattanite, I know what I’ve seen for nine years – men of wealth who have certain criminal defense attorneys who are donors of his get one kind of treatment and poor people get another form of justice.”

The matter already attracted the attention of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who ordered state Attorney General Barbara Underwood to examine Vance’s handling of the Weinstein case once the criminal charges are resolved. Cuomo also took the assault investigation against then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who was accused of domestic violence by multiple ex-girlfriends, out of Vance’s jurisdiction and transferred it to Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, adding to the perception that Vance couldn’t be trusted with a well-publicized sex crimes case. (Singas announced in early November that she would not bring charges.)

Of course, these cases are extraordinarily difficult to investigate and prosecute. There are often no eyewitnesses, there may not be enough physical evidence and a victim’s recollection can change.

“Officers have to be trained to think about these cases differently,” said New York City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal of Manhattan, whose bill requiring sex crimes officers to receive victim-centered training recently passed the City Council. “They are so much more complex than any other crime because you have a different type of trauma that the victim is suffering from and that results in people’s behavior changing over time.”

Victims should not expect prosecutors to look out for their interests first, advocates say. “They’re not going to advocate for you,” Hoechstetter said. “They look at you as a threat to their winning record, how big of a deal is this going to be and how much work will there be.”