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'Brooklyn DA' series rankles Hynes critics

On the CBS documentary series "Brooklyn DA," the story line is simple: Can prosecutors put the bad guys away?

Behind the scenes, the drama unfolding at one of the nation's largest district attorney's offices is more complex, with an upcoming election and opponents threatening to unseat the longtime leader, a review of dozens of cases and a federal lawsuit by a man who was wrongfully convicted.

"I think there is definitely some damage control going on," said Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College political sociology and criminology professor. "But it's important to keep in mind it's a huge staff. I don't think it's fair to say there is some kind of crisis in the day-to-day at the DA's office."

In Brooklyn, Charles "Joe" Hynes is a ubiquitous figure with a tough-on-crime persona that has won him diverse fans -- and critics -- throughout the borough. His office sees more than 1,500 new cases a week and handles more than 80,000 a year.

Hynes has gone further than most prosecutors with community outreach. He's created alternative-to-incarceration programs, a gun buyback program replicated citywide and a family justice center where victims of abuse can seek refuge and get help -- in several languages.

"The guy is known nationally for being innovative. He is someone who will work and mentor and help others," said Scott Burns, the president of the National District Attorney's Association. "He is somebody who we think gets the big picture -- it's not about convicting someone, it's about serving your community."

Hynes, 78, has been the Brooklyn district attorney for 23 years. He ran unopposed in 2009, but is being challenged in this year's Democratic primary on Sept. 10.

The six-part documentary about his office airs nationally on CBS and online, with the next episode on Saturday. It tracks prosecutors and cases that deal with sex trafficking, an art heist sting and the shooting death of NYPD police Officer Peter Figoski in a botched robbery in 2010. Hynes rarely appears on air, and his prosecutors don't win every case.

In one episode, a prosecutor frets over whether a trap set for an accused art thief will fall through because the hidden cameras might be visible. In another, a homicide prosecutor frankly discusses a disappointing jury verdict.

Some cases on the documentary are mid-investigation, prompting some criticism by other prosecutors and defense attorneys who say they could be compromised by the undue publicity.

But Michael Vecchione, head of the rackets division and a Hynes confidant, insists the office took great pains not to jeopardize any cases.

"I think it's wonderful because it actually shows what an assistant district attorney goes through and how the job affects our lives," said Vecchione, who figures heavily into the show.

Susan Zirinsky, a senior executive producer at CBS overseeing "Brooklyn DA," said every effort was made not to disrupt the legal process in the cases they featured -- and she emphasized that the network had no intention of influencing the local race.

"It wasn't about the election," she said. "We're a national program. I don't think in Des Moines, Iowa, they know that Joe Hynes is running for DA."

The network says it came up with the idea of the show and approached Hynes about it last fall.

Not surprisingly, Hynes' opponents hate the show. An attorney for DA candidate Abe George called it "nothing more than unabashed campaign puff-piece for Hynes, his office, and Michael Vecchione."


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