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Nassau DA faces challenges in probing Schneiderman case

Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas last month

Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas last month in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas will face many legal, political and logistical obstacles as she investigates allegations that former Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman physically abused four women dating back to 2013, experts said Wednesday.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday appointed Singas as a special prosecutor to investigate reports, published in The New Yorker magazine, that Schneiderman assaulted four past romantic partners.

The appointment means Singas, a Democrat, will have wide powers to subpoena witnesses and potentially pursue criminal charges against Schneiderman, also a Democrat. Schneiderman resigned his post and denied doing anything criminal, saying, “I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.”

He quit shortly after Cuomo called on him to resign and ordered an investigation.

But legal experts said a criminal case will not be easy to prosecute. Here are some the major questions about the probe:Question: What are some of the issues Singas faces in her investigation and potential prosecution?Answer: The top concern, experts say, is whether some charges are too old to prosecute. The statute of limitations for misdemeanors in New York is two years, and five years for many felonies. The incidents outlined in The New Yorker occurred between 2013 and 2017. It still must be determined how and if they translate into criminal charges.

Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Singas will also have to gain the cooperation of the NYPD and Manhattan prosecutors because some of the assaults allegedly took place in Manhattan.

Just a day before Singas’ appointment, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. had announced he was investigating the allegations against Schneiderman. But Cuomo has waved him off, saying it would be a conflict.

In March, Cuomo directed Schneiderman to examine why Vance had failed to bring harassment and assault charges against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein regarding to a 2015 incident with an Italian model.

“These types of cases have a lot of emotion and feelings are very raw,” O’Donnell said. “And the expectations to bring charges, some of which may not be prosecutable, are very high. Singas was handed a high-profile, hot potato case in which she is going to have to reinvent the wheel to some extent.”Q: Will the four women — only two of whom have been publicly identified — testify either at trial or before a grand jury about their interactions with Schneiderman?A: Too early to tell. The women did not file police reports or offer physical evidence of the alleged crimes, experts said, meaning that evidence may be confined to photos, notes and others who may have been told about the incidents.

“The credibility of the witnesses is critical in ‘he said/she said’ cases,” said Ellen Yaroshefsky, who teaches legal ethics at Hofstra University. “This will be a very interesting case.”

Garden City defense attorney Brian Griffin said Singas would be wise to avoid external pressure to bring charges and focus strictly on the facts of the case. “This is where a slow, measured and thoughtful approach can’t be overstated,” Griffin said.

Messages left with Michelle Manning Barish and Tanya Selvaratnam, Schneiderman’s two known accusers, were not returned.Q: Will Singas be able to continue running the Nassau district attorney’s office, which has a staff of 300, including more than 160 lawyers, while operating as a special prosecutor?A: Legal experts say Singas has a large, experienced staff that can operate on dual fronts. But O’Donnell said Singas must balance staff resources to ensure that existing Nassau prosecutions do not suffer.

“This is going to be a resource drain for her office,” he said. “This is going to be a major investigation and she’s going to want to put her best staff on it.”Q: How long will the investigation last, and how much will it cost? A: Details about how the investigation will operate and its cost remain unknown. Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said the state will provide resources to Singas “as needed.”

Singas, who previously ran the special victims bureau in the Nassau district attorney’s office, declined requests for an interview Wednesday.

In a statement, she said: “The governor asked me to investigate these allegations as a special prosecutor, which is a responsibility I take very seriously. We will thoroughly review the facts and the law and take whatever action is appropriate. But because this is a sensitive and ongoing investigation, I cannot comment on the substance of our review.”Q: Will Schneiderman sit down for an interview with Singas and her staff?A: Unclear. Schneiderman has hired defense attorney Isabelle Kirshner to represent him in the case. In an interview Wednesday, Kirshner declined to say if Schneiderman would meet with Singas and her team.

“We are at the very beginning of what will likely be a long and detailed investigation,” Kirshner said. “It’s difficult to predict at this point what will happen.”Q: What about the ongoing investigations into Schneiderman’s conduct by Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini?A: The existing probes will be consolidated and funneled through Singas, officials said. Singas will work with Sini to investigate an incident in which a woman accused Schneiderman of slapping her at a house in the Hamptons in 2016.Q: Is the use of a special prosecutor unprecedented?A: No, but it is rare.

In 1975, Gov. Hugh Carey appointed Charles Hynes, then a deputy in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, as special state prosecutor to investigate a scandal in the state’s nursing home industry. In 1985, Gov. Mario Cuomo called on Hynes to investigate the death of an African-American teenager who was chased by a mob of white teens in Howard Beach.

And in 1996, Gov. George Pataki appointed Attorney General Dennis Vacco as a special prosecutor to pursue charges against an ex-convict charged with killing a city police officer after Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson refused to seek the death penalty. Johnson sued Pataki but lost, while the suspect, Angel Diaz, hanged himself in prison.

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