Janet DiFiore's toughest case: political survival
Like most high-profile prosecutors, Janet DiFiore has gathered up plenty of enemies toiling in a justice system in which tough calls are made every day and one side usually goes home unhappy.
The families of several victims of police shootings accuse DiFiore, 56, of cultivating an unholy alliance with cops she once worked with as a young prosecutor trying drug cases.
They've shown little sympathy for the Westchester County district attorney's latest troubles -- an accusation that she used her influence to help former housekeeper Maria Buchanan, 58, score food stamps and Medicaid benefits despite repeated denials.
"Hopefully, this case is being handled right, and if not, the community should speak out on it and she steps down," said Stanley Ridley, the father of Chris Ridley, a Mount Vernon police officer shot by cops in a 2008 friendly-fire incident. "I will be the first to rally against her being out of office."
No one was indicted in Ridley's death.
But the scandal that threatens to taint DiFiore's career and reputation, sources say, has less to do with angry family members than it does a lingering blood feud with political enemies hell-bent on revenge.
Those sources contend that DiFiore is the victim of a stealth attack orchestrated by Giulio Cavallo, the boss of the Westchester County Independence Party.
DiFiore's chief accuser is Dhyalma Vazquez, an investigator with the county's Bureau of Case Review and a longtime Cavallo ally. Vazquez is the chairwoman of the Yonkers Independence Party and vice chairwoman of the county party.
In a series of emails reviewed by Newsday, Vazquez outlines the allegations against DiFiore and -- in sometimes raw language -- calls for swift action.
"This was a political favor for Janet DiFiore's maid," Vazquez wrote in a June 30, 2011, email to county Department of Social Services Commissioner Kevin McGuire and others. "It is COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE."
Days later, McGuire urged his employees to erase the email trail, which detailed the allegations.
"Recall this email," McGuire wrote to Vazquez and others the same day. "This contains confidential client information. I would ask that everyone else delete this email."
Vazquez vehemently objected in her response.
"IT IS MY DUTY TO PROTECT THE INTEGRITY OF OUR PROGRAMS," she wrote on July 1, 2011. "I COULD GIVE A RAT'S ASS IF IT INVOLVES THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY. If you guys fear her, I DO NOT!"
Vazquez suggests that state and federal authorities should investigate, but it isn't clear whether the probe has expanded beyond the county level. Republican County Executive Rob Astorino's administration has declined to comment on the investigation. McGuire didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
DiFiore's allies see a party operative run amok.
"It doesn't look good with the vice chairwoman of the Independence Party conducting the investigation," said Reginald LaFayette, the head of the Westchester Democratic Party, from which DiFiore has solid support. "But it's not surprising. She's (DiFiore) up for re-election next year, and I don't hear anyone's name mentioned to run against her.
"I don't believe the allegations. She's a former judge and a district attorney, and she's always been respectful of the law," he added.
DiFiore echoed those comments Thursday in her first public response.
"I have done nothing wrong on anyone's behalf, let alone someone who was an employee for me," she said. "This is generated as a politically motivated attack by a political operative in Westchester County."
DiFiore first ran for district attorney in 2005 as a Republican with Independence Party backing -- a key to winning in Westchester, where Republicans are outnumbered. She became a Democrat in 2007 and won re-election in 2009.
That year, Cavallo sued DiFiore's husband, Dennis Glazer, and others in federal court, claiming they conspired to prevent Cavallo from making renovations on a home in Sharon, Conn., as payback for Cavallo's initial resistance to granting DiFiore the Independence Party line in 2005. Cavallo claimed, in court documents, that he thought DiFiore was "intellectually incompetent."
In the suit, most of which Cavallo dropped, he also claimed that DiFiore cornered him at a Bronxville diner and vowed to exact revenge on Sam Zherka, a Cavallo pal and newspaper publisher. Zherka's Westhchester Guardian had just published an article written by Cavallo critical of DiFiore.
Cavallo claimed DiFiore told him that Zherka "is an Albanian organized crime figure and that she was going to fix Zherka when the time comes."
Cavallo has been nursing a DiFiore-inflicted bruise that dates back to 2006, when she promoted one of his adversaries, former White Plains Police Capt. Peter Viviano, to a top job in the prosecutor's office shortly after she won election, sources said.
Cavallo also worked against DiFiore in her 2009 re-election.
"She's (DiFiore) trying to put a spin on this as politically motivated," Cavallo told Newsday last week in a phone interview. "We didn't have nothing to do with that."
Viviano could not be reached for comment.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has defended DiFiore, his handpicked chairman of the state's Joint Commission on Ethics.
"Choosing a sitting (district attorney), Westchester County DA Janet DiFiore?" Cuomo said last week. "I have total confidence in that decision."
He, too, hinted that politics is at play here. "It's clear there is some political contortions to all this," Cuomo said.
Defense lawyer Bruce Bendish, one of DiFiore's former bosses in the DA's office, defended her integrity.
"I've been on both sides," Bendish said. "I've worked with her and I've had cases where I've gone up against her office. And she is consistent. She doesn't let personal, political or social factors enter into her decision making."