Diana Florence is a top candidate in the crowded race for Manhattan District Attorney, replacing Cyrus Vance, Jr. He’s retiring. Florence is the most experienced prosecutor in the race. We invited her for a Question & Answer, a chance to tell us who she is and what she can do for us, and she accepted.
Here are our questions and her unedited answers:
Photos: Irina Hage/Irina Island Images
- Would you pledge to investigate viable accusations of malfeasance at RIOC? (Important because with a spineless board and electeds controlled from Albany, there are no checks and balances and, as a result, zero accountability.)
The role of the Manhattan District Attorney is clear – investigate any and all crime that occurs within its jurisdiction. As a 25 year veteran of that office with a demonstrated expertise in complex white collar case, I would, of course, investigate any criminal activity in any entity in my jurisdiction. That includes Roosevelt Island, a place that is often overlooked and forgotten by city government and the current DA. As DA, I’d establish a Roosevelt Island liaison who would be well-versed in the unique governing structure of the Island and come to the Island regularly to provide direct access to the DA for residents to report crimes, whether they encompass public corruption, housing fraud or street crimes. And the RI liaison would ensure that there is follow-up. Too often there is the feeling that reports fall into a black hole, this must end. True public service requires more than simply lip service to addressing resident concerns.
2. You’ve lived in Kips Bay for years, but where did you grow up and how did your experiences there affected your career and values?
I am a native New Yorker, born in New York City but raised on Long Island. I think one of the most important experiences for me was learning at a young age to speak up for my brother David, who is autistic. Intuitively, I realized that I had a role in protecting others, and David was the catalyst for my becoming a lawyer. Although I would have loved to be a singer, I decided to use my voice to aid others and I decided that law school would be the best vehicle for helping people. While working in a law school legal clinic as a student defense attorney, I quickly saw that prosecutors had the most power to help people and decided that was the path I wanted to follow.
3. Work/Life balance challenges professionals. How have you managed the competing demands of wife, mother and attorney?
Any working parent knows the push and pull of all those competing demands. I am very lucky to have a husband and children who all value the importance of my career and we all work together to make sure that, as a family, we all GET IT DONE! I was also very fortunate to work for Robert Morgenthau who placed enormous value on ensuring that a reasonable work/personal life was possible.
4. What are some of your favorite New York things and activities?
I love what most New Yorkers love about their city – the vitality and diversity of its neighborhoods, its ethnic restaurants, and I look forward to its complete and total comeback after Covid. I love Broadway, movies, the City’s ‘walkability’, watching my children play softball in its beautiful parks, and I can’t start the day without a good bagel and a strong cup of coffee!
5. In your nearly 25 years in the DA’s office, you’ve covered a lot of territory. What were your proudest achievements and greatest frustrations?
I think it’s always hard to pick certain cases but there were important themes in my work that I consider my proudest achievements. As a young assistant district attorney, I handled domestic violence cases and saw the awful devastation that it inflicted upon families. As I became a more seasoned prosecutor, I prosecuted scammers who tried to steal money from charities aiding victims of the 9/11 attacks. I found it so rewarding to make sure that funds were going to those who were most harmed by the attacks and needed those charitable funds the most. Then, I moved on to endemic corruption in the construction industry where I led a groundbreaking investigation into firms that faked concrete strength testing results, including the tests for new and iconic New York buildings – the new Yankee Stadium, the 2nd Avenue Subway and the Freedom Tower. Ultimately, I became head of the Construction Task Force – as part of that work, I prosecuted scores of wage theft cases that returned millions of dollars to workers whose employers ripped them off. During that time, I also obtained corporate and individual convictions in the case of a young, undocumented carpenter Carlos Moncayo who was killed because his supervisors didn’t think his life was worth $50 to shore up the walls of the trench that ultimately collapsed, killing him.
The greatest frustration is simple – this kind of work must be replicated and expanded and that is one of the major reasons I am running for Manhattan DA.
6. What would you change in how the office is structured?
The job of the DA is to ensure that everyone is safe at home, safe at work, and safe at street. And at its most basic, the office must serve as a resource to the community and not an obstacle. The community must be recognized as a partner and that shift alone will dramatically alter how cases will be handled in the office. Focusing on crimes of power and not crimes of poverty will alter the nature of the cases prosecuted, so that violence is addressed but overcriminalization is avoided.
7. Housing is a huge issue in New York. Do you see the DA’s office as a source for improving conditions and how?
The current District Attorney has completely ignored fraud and abuse that has been allowed to fester in the New York housing market. This enforcement failure rewards bad actors in the real estate industry while punishing law abiding members who suffer a competitive disadvantage for obeying the law. And tenants pay the price. For Manhattan to thrive, its residents need to feel safe at home and be housing secure. I will create a Housing Bureau to investigate and prosecute systemic fraud in the housing arena, from rent stabilized apartments to NYCHA. These investigations will center on tenant inequities, such as illegal rent de-stabilization due to inflated and nonexistent improvements, fraudulent deed cases, tenant harassment, overbilling for poor or fraudulent repairs and falsifying inspections for mold, asbestos, pests, and lead-based peeling paint within the home.
8. In the hustle of Manhattan, the weaker voices of our elderly go too often unheard. Good elder care is an exception. How would you use your office, if elected, to make a positive difference?
Many crimes that impact senior citizens are familiar to all New Yorkers – physical or sexual abuse by strangers, neighbors or family members, cyber-scams, or financial fraud. Since many older people are reluctant, frightened or unsure about ways to seek help, my office will specifically seek out elder abuse in all its forms. The office will maintain close communication with the city agencies that are on the front lines aiding our borough’s seniors, such as the New York City Department of Aging and Adult Protective Services. It will work with the banking community to see how financial institutions can help identify financial elder abuse and reach out to various non-profit organizations that work with elderly New Yorkers and offer training in spotting criminal elder abuse. In particular, the DA’s Office will work closely with NYCHA officials, working to make those complexes safer for its resident senior citizens.
9. If elected, what would be your first act as DA?
New York is facing a gun violence epidemic and that is the most urgent imperative facing the new DA. On Day one, my office will put together a proposal for an interstate compact so that we can work with counterparts in states where guns trafficked into Manhattan are coming from. With this compact, we can truly go after illegal guns and make Manhattan safer.
10. Police misconduct has rattled the country, including New York, how would you respond to demands for greater accountability?
I have several initiatives that I know will increase police accountability. I propose partnering with the Civilian Complaint Review Board to refer potentially criminal conduct to the DA’s Police Accountability Unit which will proactively investigate criminality committed by the police. I also believe that it is important that defense attorneys be informed of any negative or relevant information about officers involved in cases. I will also propose that the City Council mandate a publicly searchable website — 50a.com — that will contain NYPD and CCRB misconduct records.
In memory of Breonna Taylor, I believe that grand jury minutes must be made public in any case where a grand jury fails to indict a police officer on the top charge or publication of a grand jury report detailing wrongdoing or recommending policy changes, including revisions to state law or police department policy.
11. Keeping politics out of the office is difficult when you must run campaigns. How would you avoid political pressures in making decisions?
That’s simple for me – I will make decisions based on what my mentor, Robert Morgenthau, always reminded his assistants: Do the right thing, without fear or favor.
12. What would be your five biggest goals, starting on Day One?
Reducing Gun Violence – It is impossible to deny the rise in shootings in our City this year. My office will be committed to reducing gun violence and making our streets safer. I have a plan to combat gun trafficking to keep guns off our streets and I will work with violence interrupter organizations and other community organizations to help get at the root of gun crime. I will also ensure that my office uses all tools it has its disposal, including jail, to ensure that gun violence perpetrators are held accountable.
Stopping Hate crimes – Hate crimes, especially against Asian-Americans, have proliferated in our City. My office will be strongly committed to addressing that rise in hate crimes. The current DA’s Office has been reticent to charge these crimes for what they are under the statute. I will charge them as hate crimes and use the full power of the criminal justice system to ensure that all New Yorkers no matter their race or ethnicity feel safe and welcome.
Ending the concierge system of justice – In the current District Attorney’s everyday Manhattanites are shut out while elite New Yorkers retain special access. I will change the culture of the District Attorney’s Office so that large corporations and real estate developers with their white-shoe lawyers are treated like the rest of us. My DA’s Office will work for the people and I have several community engagement initiatives I plan to implement to achieve this goal.
Focusing on crimes of power, not crimes of poverty – Many of the problems in our criminal justice system stem from the fact that we over-prosecute crimes of poverty and we under-prosecute crimes of power. Incarcerating people for low level offenses like drug use unjustly targets communities of colors and does not address root causes. Meanwhile, the Office has not adequately prosecuted crimes of power: corruption, domestic violence, corporate fraud, and gun violence. I will reallocate the resources of the office to focus on crimes of power to keep Manhattanites safe and make our criminal justice system equitable
Safety on transit – The subway system is the heart of our city, but it has become less safe in recent months. Incidents involving mentally ill individuals are becoming too prevalent. My office will immediately focus on making our transit system safe again by investing in community organizations that give treatment to mentally ill individuals. Too often, these people have come into contact with the justice system, but we have not provided them with the services they need. I will create a comprehensive plan to make sure no one falls through the cracks and we are seeing these issues immediately.
13. Are DA’s have been long term? If elected, how long would you project staying in office to achieve your goals?
I haven’t thought about that! Right now I’m focused on talking to as many Manhattanites as I can to share my vision for a safer and more just New York. I’ll be striving for that in office and will serve as long as it takes to accomplish that.
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