The Suffolk County district attorney's office is the next stop for the man who was involved in both the federal prosecution of former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the ongoing state investigation of President Donald Trump's business dealings.
Howard Master, 44, said coming to work for District Attorney Timothy Sini, his former colleague at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, was like coming home. He grew up in Setauket and his mother and sister still live in Suffolk, although he now lives in Brooklyn.
But more than that, Master said the multifaceted job made the opportunity irresistible. Master will report directly to Sini in three separate roles — special counsel, chief of the Special Investigations Division and chief of the Conviction Integrity Bureau.
Master said the combination of working where he grew up and working with former colleagues such as Sini and the office's chief investigator, John Barry, was impossible to pass up.
"It was like, let's get the team back together. I know about the problems with the prior administration," he said, referring to ethical issues that resulted in murder cases falling apart or being reversed. "It was too good to pass up."
In addition to investigating money laundering and corruption, Master is getting the office's Conviction Integrity Bureau started. It will examine old cases to see if people were convicted wrongly or unjustly.
Master and Sini said it will function similarly to the integrity bureau in the Brooklyn district attorney's office. Just as that office has had to deal with the fallout from false confessions concocted by then Det. Louis Scarcella, Master said Suffolk is still sorting through cases handled by former Assistant District Attorney Glenn Kurtzrock, who hid evidence favorable to the defense in several murder prosecutions.
Sini said the office will issue a report on what it finds when Master's review is finished.
The Brooklyn office has reviewed dozens of Scarcella's cases. So far, 14 men convicted based his testimony have had their convictions reversed.
Master said the Conviction Integrity Bureau must be kept apart from the district attorney's trial and appellate bureaus because those bureaus are dedicated to winning and preserving convictions. This bureau, however, can't have that goal if it is going to maintain credibility both within the criminal justice system and with the public, Master said. If the bureau is seen as working to minimize the office's mistakes, he said it will fail.
"It's important that it be kept independent from the trial and even appellate bureaus, which defend convictions," he said.
To that end, Master said the bureau's work must be transparent. Although Sini will have the final say on how certain convictions are handled, Master said it's important for the public to know how decisions are reached to restore confidence in the district attorney's office.
"We will communicate to the public what we find," Master said. "It's a matter of public concern, and it's a matter of concern to our office."
Master's arrival is part of what Sini has called the ethical overhaul of the district attorney's office. Kurtzrock's practices came to light a few months before Sini's predecessor as district attorney, Thomas Spota, and his top aide, Christopher McPartland, were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Spota resigned before the end of his term last year.
Sini said the Conviction Integrity Bureau already is handling a dozen cases, some of which date back to the 1970s. The office's website will soon have a form where people can seek review of convictions, he said.
The bureau will focus on cases in which convicted defendants have exhausted their appeals and other legal options, and can show the defendant is actually innocent or should not have been convicted, Sini said. That may be because evidence has been found showing the defendant didn't commit the crime, or because it can be shown that the evidence didn't support a conviction.
Cases involving misconduct by prosecutors won't be ignored, Master said.
"It's a real quest for truth," Sini said. "We are adopting a collaborative approach for defense counsel."
The bureau will share its evidence and information with defendants, and will expect defendants to be open with the bureau in the process as well, Sini said.
The office will soon hire two assistant district attorneys to work with Master in the bureau, Sini said. After reviewing cases, those attorneys will write a report and make a recommendation on what to do.
That recommendation will then be reviewed by an independent panel of attorneys, who will be free to differ with the Conviction Integrity Bureau, Sini said. The three members of that panel will be announced shortly, he said.
Sini will then make a final decision on whether to vacate a conviction.
Master's former and current supervisors praise him.
"Howard Master was one of the absolute superstar investigators and casemakers" in the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara tweeted last year when Master left that office.
Master had been the deputy chief of that office's criminal division. In addition to the corruption case against Silver, who was sentenced to 7 years in prison, Master was involved in the investigation of former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre, who also was convicted. Master also worked on the CityTime case, which Bharara described at the time as the largest municipal fraud and kickback scheme in history.
In that case, the prosecution showed that New York City's payroll modernization project ballooned to more than 100 times its original cost estimate because of kickbacks and money laundering.
Three men were sentenced to 20 years each in the case for conspiracy to commit bribery, money laundering and other charges, and the federal government won $550 million in forfeitures.
In addition to investigating Trump at the state attorney general's office, Master began a civil rights lawsuit against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein for sexual misconduct and harassment.
Master said he hopes to use his experience to target corruption in Suffolk County.
"There are so many ways public officials can commit fraud," Master said.
It took a while before Master realized he wanted to be a lawyer, and even longer until he figured out he wanted to be a prosecutor, he said.
At Ward Melville High School in Setauket, Master was a self-described drama nerd, acting in the musicals "Carousel" and "Pippin" while taking part in the math club.
"There is a performative element to working on trial," he said.
He went to Yale University and emerged as a governmental management consultant, traveling around the country trying to help municipalities operate more efficiently.
He soon enrolled at New York University's law school, but didn't become enamored with being a prosecutor until he worked as a clerk for two federal judges near the end of his time there.
"It spoke to me," he said, adding that seeing lawyers work to hold others accountable for their actions was inspiring to him.
Barry Scheck, co-founder and director of the Innocence Project, said he met with Sini, Master and others from the district attorney's office recently about the Conviction Integrity Bureau and came away impressed.
"He's a smart, thoughtful guy." Scheck said. "So far, he seems inclined to pursue the best practices of conviction integrity. . . . We're extremely encouraged."
- Age: 44.
- Grew up in Setauket, now of Brooklyn.
- Undergraduate degree from Yale University, law degree from New York University.
- At the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, took part in the CityTime, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos prosecutions.
- At the state attorney general’s office, took part in investigations of President Donald Trump’s businesses and allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment by Harvey Weinstein.
- Teaches about public corruption at University of Pennsylvania’s law school.