The role of a district attorney in New York is evolving far beyond that of a county’s chief prosecutor and representative of the people in the courts.
District attorneys implement criminal justice policy and lend their voices to the public debate surrounding it. In the next year, the Nassau County district attorney must have a strong and authoritative voice as a rushed overhaul of the state’s criminal code is implemented in January. Some worrisome provisions that could lead to the release of possibly dangerous defendants and the too-quick disclosure of investigative information will require an experienced prosecutor, and a deft manager to make sure defendants, victims and the public all get justice.
Madeline Singas, a Democrat from Manhasset, is best positioned to handle the challenge. In her first four years, Singas, 53, accomplished one of her goals, to reduce crime by implementing diversion programs to help those whose addictions or mental illnesses are at the root of their lawbreaking. And Singas has implemented a signature campaign promise to use some of the office’s resources in a low-crime county to respond to a big societal problem. Using asset-forefeiture money, Singas funded a much-needed program so those who overdose on narcotics can be taken directly from an emergency room to a residential recovery program.
She also forcefully met an unanticipated challenge: the violent rise of the MS-13 gang, which was responsible for five homicides in Nassau in 2017. She worked with federal law enforcement to send 17 top gang members to prison, and the killings abated. There was one MS-13-related killing in 2018 and have been none so far this year.
Her challenger is Francis X. McQuade, a libertarian by philosophy who was asked to run by the Republican Party. A former Roman Catholic priest, McQuade, 66, is an unusual candidate who easily cites Thomas Aquinas to bring a theological grounding to thorny questions about law and justice.
McQuade cites as a credential that he is not part of the Republican Party’s “apparatus,” and therefore not the product of a patronage and nepotism system. “I’m not Kate Murray,” he said. Murray, the former Town of Hempstead supervisor, failed to gain traction in the 2015 district attorney race because of her lack of experience with the criminal justice system.
Unfortunately, McQuade doesn’t have much experience, either. He cites his four years as a police officer for the Village of Ocean Beach on Fire Island, but acknowledges that in that summer job he only handled “dozens” of misdemeanor arrests. Asked why he was running, McQuade said he was concerned about the expansion of abortion rights, the restriction of Second Amendment rights and his desire to restore respect for the police. McQuade strongly opposes asset-forfeiture laws, which permit state and federal prosecutors to seize the possessions of defendants believed to have been purchased with the profits of illegal activity. Asked whether his objection to the law would apply to a drug kingpin who bought a mansion with dirty money, McQuade stood by his position that such property should not be seized by the government. It is money from forfeiture programs that Singas is using to fund the opioid program at the Maryhaven Center of Hope in Freeport.
McQuade, who is fluent in Spanish, is an established immigration attorney with offices in Long Beach, where he lives, and in Brentwood. He said he has handled more than 1,000 immigration cases for clients primarily from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, dealing with asylum, Dreamer and temporary protected status issues.
In an awkward attempt to emphasize that his immigration court experience was transferable to New York’s criminal justice system, McQuade described how he helped clients who got in trouble in Central America. “I go down there and bribe a few judges,” he told the editorial board. When asked whether he realized that it might violate federal law to offer money in an attempt to influence foreign officials, McQuade answered that it was customary. “Judges take money there . . . It's a gift in deference to their time and talent in taking care of my clients,” he said. That admission alone disqualifies him to be the county’s top law enforcement officer.
While there is no doubting Singas’ strong credentials for the job, in a second term she needs to be more aggressive in ferreting out public corruption. Nassau County, as they say in law enforcement, is a “target-rich environment.”
These are difficult cases to make and usually involve whistleblowers and access to hard-to-find information. Often, the pay-to-play culture that outrages taxpayers and enriches public officials and workers is legal. Singas said she prioritizes controlling gangs, street crime and the opioid epidemic. Asked whether she would impanel a special grand jury that issues a report instead of an indictment to expose how legal patronage and pay-to-play schemes cost taxpayers and recommend changes in the law, Singas said, “It’s all a matter of resources.”
Singas faced criticism this summer for agreeing to let former Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto plead guilty to one felony count and one misdemeanor count in return for a sentence of no jail time for his role in a scheme by former town Planning Commissioner Fred Ippolito and Carlo Lizza & Sons Paving. That was a challenging case because Ippolito, who could have been a key witness, died in jail. In September, the district attorney’s office arrested a Town of Hempstead Building Department official and charged him with stealing from his local Republican club. Singas must investigate Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen’s charge that improper dealings also have infected the workings of the Building Department.
The district attorney has started an investigation of improper termination pay to former Long Beach city officials, all Democrats, but that seems stalled because of a lack of cooperation from witnesses. Nor does an investigation into the Town of Hempstead’s awarding of vendor contracts for catering facilities by the previous GOP administration seem to be moving. These probes seem to be on a faster track for the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District. Singas’ relationship with federal prosecutors during her first term was not optimal, even if the friction dates to her predecessor, Kathleen Rice. Singas would do well to partner with the feds, who have more investigatory firepower.
A better state-federal prosecutorial partnership also could benefit Nassau residents. Some of the coming changes in state law that could permit the pretrial release of a dangerous person or the disclosure of wiretaps that would identify and put informants and witnesses at risk might be best handled by federal prosecutors if they have concurrent jurisdiction.
Both candidates strongly oppose the push by progressive groups to decriminalize prostitution in the next state legislative session. “Degrading to the human person,” McQuade said. Singas, who has made a career out of working on sex-trafficking cases, said, “It’s a modern-day version of slavery.” Both candidates said they didn’t oppose the legalization of recreational marijuana, but not until there is a valid roadside test to determine whether a driver is impaired from using it.
Newsday endorses Singas.