When a Nassau County emergency management official was arrested last week on perjury and misconduct charges, local reaction broke along the usual partisan lines.
Acting District Attorney Madeline Singas, a Democrat, said Deputy Commissioner Edward Korona Jr. of Hicksville falsely answered "no" on civil-service applications when asked if he'd been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor.
Korona, who is fighting the charges, had a prior conviction -- for a 1981 burglary. A former Hicksville fire chief who's paid $120,000 a year, he has Republican ties and unsurprisingly contributed to GOP campaigns including those of his boss, County Executive Edward Mangano, and Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray -- who's running against Singas in two weeks for the district attorney's post.
So of course Murray's campaign manager called the timing suspicious.
And of course Singas denied politics were in play.
Now the case itself becomes a partisan sub-issue, raising questions about how New York picks district attorneys.
During last month's Democratic primary, Singas crushed first-time candidate Michael Scotto, a seasoned former Manhattan prosecutor who lives in Port Washington. He has since declined to endorse Singas or Murray.
During his campaign, Scotto suggested that the state might ultimately wish to turn to a nonpartisan system for picking county district attorneys.
The job "is too important to let political leaders decide on the basis of party affiliation," Scotto said in an interview Tuesday.
"It's different than other elected offices," Scotto said. "In judicial races, too, there are good judges who don't win because the party had a bad year, and a bad judge might get in because his party had a good year. But there is no partisan way to dispense justice."
Scotto said he's looking to change the state Constitution, a process ultimately controlled by elected officials who belong to the major parties.
Campaigning in election races for prosecutor generally fails to elicit what the public should know to properly evaluate candidates, according to at least one legal scholar.
Ronald F. Wright, a professor at Wake Forest University Law School, studied candidate statements made during prosecutor elections around the United States. "Sadly, these campaign statements dwell on outcomes in a few high visibility cases, such as botched murder trials and public corruption investigations," he wrote six years ago in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law.
"Incumbents and challengers have little to say about the overall pattern of outcomes that attorneys in the office produce, or the priorities of the office," Wright said.
Prosecutors across the nation have broad powers. For instance, the American Bar Association's Standards for Criminal Justice says a prosecutor can choose to forgo a case that might result in a conviction if the reason is "consistent with the public interest."
Wright says: "When a single governmental official holds this much power, the methods available for checking [the official's] work deserve our close attention."