* Strauss-Kahn incident latest bad news for Vance
* Vance must balance prosecutor's dispassion with politics
* Has two years to improve public image
By Joseph Ax and Noeleen Walder
NEW YORK (Reuters) - At a staff meeting this week,
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. told prosecutors
and investigators to ignore critics who blame the office for
its recent high-profile setbacks, culminating in the teetering
case against former IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
"I reject that criticism," he said, according to staff
members at the meeting, which had been called to announce staff
raises. "This office has never measured its success based on
But the reality is that Vance -- who, like most U.S.
district attorneys is elected -- must balance his mandate as a
dispassionate prosecutor with the politicking and attention to
public perception inherent to elected office.
That Vance understands the politics at play was made clear
by an e-mail sent by his campaign team days after prosecutors
disclosed that Strauss-Kahn's accuser, Nafissatou Diallo, an
African immigrant working as a hotel maid, had changed her
story about the alleged sexual assault and previously lied on
her asylum application and her tax returns.
Under a banner reading "Cy Vance for DA," the e-mail
reprinted a New York Times opinion piece "The D.A. Did the
Right Thing." The column by Joe Nocera praised Vance for
turning over evidence that would surely make his prosecution
more difficult. Beneath the article was a bright orange button
A spokesperson for Vance declined to comment on the
Observers say that if Vance is considering running for
re-election in 2013, which such a message seems to suggest, he
will be in for a fight.
"I think he's going to have a serious challenge when he
runs again," said Mitchell Moss, a professor at New York
University and a former advisor to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
STREAM OF BAD NEWS
The Strauss-Kahn roller-coaster is only the latest in a
stream of bad news that has hurt Vance politically.
In the last month, prosecutors lost cases against two New
York police officers accused of assaulting a drunken woman and
against contractors charged with negligence in a deadly fire at
the former Deutsche Bank building.
But neither of those cases carried the political freight
that Strauss-Kahn's arrest does.
Soon after news broke of Diallo's credibility issues,
women's groups wrote a letter warning that prosecutors "must
anticipate credibility problems" with sexual-assault victims.
A coalition of advocates for immigrants and minority
groups, led by state Senator Bill Perkins, also wrote a letter
to Vance and held a news conference urging him not to drop the
"Not only have women generally been offended, but he's also
managed to offend blacks," said Hank Sheinkopf, the veteran New
York political strategist. "Is he done? The answer is no. Could
he be? The answer is yes."
Since women typically form a majority of voters in New
York, they are a crucial demographic in city elections.
On Tuesday, Vance's office received a second postponement
of the next hearing in the Strauss-Kahn case, originally
scheduled for July 16. It is now scheduled for Aug. 23.
"I'd like to believe that the changing of the date was
somewhat of a response to our earlier letter and public press
conferences," Perkins said.
Erin Duggan, the district attorney's spokeswoman, dismissed
the suggestion that politics played a role in the
postponements. "Cases are prosecuted on the basis of the facts
and the law and nothing else," she said.
'THE GHOST OF MORGENTHAU'
Vance, the son of former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus
Vance, spent much of his career as a defense lawyer in Seattle.
He was largely unknown in New York before winning the
endorsement of his predecessor, Robert Morgenthau.
Succeeding Morgenthau, who built an international profile
over more than three decades in office, may be Vance's biggest
"The ghost of Morgenthau is hovering over him," said Arthur
Greig, a lawyer and former counsel to the New York County
In an interview, Morgenthau said he "ignored" the politics
of high-profile cases and prosecuted "without fear or favor."
He said the recent string of losses was meaningless, and that
Vance would "do what he thinks is right."
State Senator Thomas Duane, who endorsed Vance in 2009,
said that while the district attorney was far from a natural
politician, he was still new to the office and would survive.
Experts also note that unseating a district attorney in any
of New York City's five boroughs had proven all but impossible
over the decades. Frank Hogan, the Manhattan district attorney
before Morgenthau, held office for 32 years.
Perhaps as important, Vance has more than two years to work
on his image.
"He looks lousy, no question, but will it have any
electoral impact?" said Mickey Carroll, who runs the Quinnipiac
University Polling Institute. "There will be a lot of water
over the dam before anybody has to vote for or against him."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax and Noeleen Walder; Editing by Jesse
Wegman and Philip Barbara)
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