Until 2018, New York was behind the curve in terms of criminal justice reform. But spurred by grassroots activists, that year the state legislature surged to the forefront, creating a prosecutorial misconduct commission and initiating debate over the landmark bail reforms passed in early 2019.
The commission was later deemed unconstitutional (because of how its members would be chosen), and the bail reforms were scaled back earlier this year. One of the most vocal opponents of the new measures was Albany County District Attorney David Soares, who served as head of District Attorneys Association of New York, or DAASNY, from 2018 to 2019.
Now, Soares has a target on his back. First elected in 2004 as a promising criminal justice reformer who campaigned on opposition to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, Soares is now being challenged from the left by Albany defense attorney Matt Toporowski, a former prosecutor in Soares’s office.
While Soares was one of the first candidates to win any office in the state with the backing of New York’s Working Families Party, which supported his next three reelection victories through 2016, the group is now backing Toporowski in the June 23 Democratic primary.
Soares “has championed racialized mass incarceration at the expense of our black and brown communities” as a top prosecutor and head of DAASNY, said WFP national organizer Tiffany Cabán, who narrowly lost the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney last year. In Cabán’s view, Toporowski represents “much-needed change.”
Throughout his 16-year tenure, Soares has become increasingly less progressive, and critics charge that the office is not keeping pace with the bail reform legislation. Soares has been accused of favoritism toward NXIVM, the Albany-based sex cult, and Albany judges have sharply criticized his office’s handling of recent high-profile cases.
Toporowski — who also has been endorsed by leading Albany-area activists Barbara Smith and Jess Wisneski (of Citizen Action of New York, which advocates for decarceration) — pledges to return a social justice commitment to the DA’s office. His many proposals include expanding transparency by providing public data tracking the office’s adherence to the expanded discovery requirements included in the 2019 bail reforms. After Toporowski entered the race in early February, Soares warned that “to run to the left of me would be encroaching on recklessness.” But he may have underestimated his opposition.
Despite his four terms in office, Soares has raised just over $33,000 in 2020, according to a May 22 filing, adding to the $25,000 in his account from previous campaigns. Gun retailers, a group generally not allied with progressives, kicked in $4,000. After expenditures — mainly on consultant Mark Streb, who has close ties to Gov. Andrew Cuomo — he has close to $11,000 on hand. Toporowski, meanwhile, has raised more than $62,000 and has $43,000 left to spend. The incumbent’s weak fundraising suggests that Soares envisioned coasting to another reelection.
One high-profile case that drew judicial scrutiny of Soares’s office involved NXIVM, the Albany-based cult known for branding its female members.
After meeting with people involved with the group, Soares in 2007 indicted Joseph O’Hara, a local consultant who had formerly worked for NXIVM but had parted on bad terms. During the preindictment investigation, the DA allowed Kristin Keeffe, then one of cult leader’s Keith Raniere’s top aides, to work in his office for several weeks in order to help build the case against O’Hara.
A judge dismissed the indictment, which accused O’Hara of grand larceny in connection with his business dealing with NXIVM, for lack of evidence. A Soares spokesperson later claimed that Keeffe had been allowed access to the office “because she worked for an organization that was the alleged victim of a crime.”
Keeffe, who later had Raniere’s child, eventually broke with NXIVM. In 2019, Raniere was convicted of sex trafficking in federal court and is scheduled to be sentenced later this year.
Soares oversees a team of just over 30 prosecutors, in proportion with Albany’s population of roughly 300,000. (By comparison, Brooklyn, the state’s largest county — with 2.6 million people — has over 500 prosecutors in its DA’s office.) Yet in the past three months, two Albany judges have chided Soares’s small office for mismanagement.
In one case, Judge Peter Lynch said a conflict of interest between a prosecutor and defense attorney “was a direct product of (Soares’s) lack of oversight over the day-to-day prosecutorial operations of the office and failure to establish office policy prohibiting such work.”
In late 2017, Soares’s team won the high-profile conviction of Albany city worker Edward Mero for two murders. After the trial, Mero informed the court that he had since learned that Cheryl Coleman, his well-known local defense attorney, had an active business relationship with Steven Sharp, the veteran prosecutor who handled the case. Coleman had paid Sharp $20,000 over the preceding five years in order to prepare appeals in cases that Coleman handled outside of Albany County.
At a post-trial hearing to determine the extent of the conflict of interest, Soares testified that he was “shocked” to learn of the ties between Coleman and Sharp. Still, it took more than a year before Sharp was forced to resign. (Mero’s conviction was ultimately upheld by Lynch.)
Toporowski views the conflict as emblematic of Soares’s administration. “It’s a small office and everyone works closely together,” said Toporowski, a prosecutor under Soares from 2013 to 2015. “Sharp was a golden boy in the office, but Soares failed to take responsibility for what happened on his watch. He also failed to lead by example in terms of ethics.”
In mid-May, an Albany judge slammed Soares’s office for failing to adhere to a new six-month “speedy trial” timetable that was part of the bail reform legislation, dismissing charges that prosecutors had brought against Michael Snyder, a corrections officer at the Albany County Jail accused of sexually assaulting two incarcerated women. In his ruling, Judge Thomas Breslin found the prosecution to be “fraught with dilatory conduct.”
How far Soares’s office has strayed from his initial reputation was on display in the DA’s late March objection to the early release of a prisoner from the Albany County Jail because of the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Although that person had just six days remaining on a four-month sentence (on a low-level sex offense), Soares’s prosecutor insisted that safety precautions at the jail were sufficient.
Again, an Albany judge disagreed with Soares’s judgment. In light of the “extreme” circumstances caused by the pandemic, Lynch wrote, there was “no legitimate purpose” in keeping that person in jail. In general, that’s a question that more prosecutors should be asked. Albany voters can now demand answers from Soares.