jails

Correction Officers Are Top Donors to Unopposed Bronx DA Darcel Clark

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark has no challenger in the election on Tuesday.

Yet she has raised roughly $343,000 in the run-up to that second-term bid — with $22,000 coming from the union representing jail guards, whom her office investigates and prosecutes in its jurisdiction over Rikers Island and two other lockups.

State campaign finance records show the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, or COBA, made six contributions to the Committee to Elect Darcel D. Clark Bronx District Attorney beginning in April 2018.

In fact, COBA has been Clark’s biggest single contributor for her two runs for the office — donating $27,000 in all to Clark since former DA Robert Johnson arranged for Clark to fill his ballot spot in 2015, all but guaranteeing her election.

Clark received significantly more in contributions from the union than any other district attorney candidate in recent history, with Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn running second at $16,000.

Only Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and two Albany lawmakers have received more from COBA in the past decade.

COBA did not respond to repeated requests for comment from THE CITY.

Clark’s campaign declined to comment.

Few Prosecutions

Most of COBA’s 18,000 members work in jail facilities under Clark’s jurisdiction as a prosecutor: Rikers Island’s complex of eight different jails; the Vernon C. Bain jail barge docked off Hunts Point; and Horizon Juvenile Center. Clark has followed through on a promise to set up a satellite office on Rikers to help investigate violence, smuggling and other crimes.

In the first half of 2019, six cases involving alleged criminal use of force by Department of Correction personnel were either pending or actively being prosecuted by the Bronx DA, according to a report issued last week by a court-appointed monitor overseeing correction officers’ conduct.

The federal monitor in what’s known as the Nunez case found “hasty, hurried, thoughtless, reckless, careless” response by department personnel to incidents involving detainees in city jails. In the year through June, according to its findings, “hyper-confrontational” corrections officers used violent force at the highest levels since the monitor began issuing reports in 2016.

The Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center barge in The Bronx.
The Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center barge in The Bronx. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“Very few cases actually result in criminal prosecution,” the report said. Under the monitor’s watch, 80 cases involving use of force have been considered by outside law enforcement agencies, including the Bronx DA, but only four have resulted in criminal prosecution, according to the report.

A dozen cases dating as far back as 2016 remain under review, the monitor found, by city Department of Investigation, Bronx DA and federal prosecutors “or passing from one agency to the next for years.”

Bronx DA spokesperson Patrice O’Shaughnessy declined to provide broader statistics on cases involving prosecutions of corrections officers, instead referring THE CITY to press releases on the office’s website.

Among those convicted by Clark’s office include a group of Rikers correction officers who in 2012 beat a Rikers detainee so badly they fractured both eye sockets and other bones in his face. The attack and its cover-up resulted in prison sentences for six officers.

“I hope these sentences will deter those who think a uniform and a badge gives them license to brutalize inmates or cover for officers who do,” Clark said in a statement from the 2016 sentencing.

“These correction officers must now pay the price, as will anyone who commits a crime of violence or corruption on Rikers Island,” she added.

Stepped-Up Scrutiny

The sizable COBA donations to Clark come at a time when district attorney fundraising is under heightened scrutiny.

Last year, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance committed to refuse contributions from lawyers with cases before his office following outrage over campaign contributions from attorneys for media mogul Harvey Weinstein and the Trump family, both targets of investigations.

Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon, who like Clark is running unopposed, does not accept contributions from defense lawyers, a spokesperson told THE CITY. McMahon has received no COBA contributions during this campaign, after getting $2,500 in 2015, records show.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Vance followed recommendations of the Columbia University Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity after asking the center to suggest ethical practices for district attorney fundraising.

Among its recommendations: “District attorneys should not accept contributions from individuals who are parties to matters before the office, including defendants and other participants in cases, and targets of investigations.”

Criminal justice reform advocates said Clark’s correction officer contributions pose serious ethical problems.

“There is an obvious conflict of interest when district attorneys accept money from police unions or corrections unions, and all such donations should be rejected and returned,” said Nick Encalada-Malinowski, the civil rights campaign director at VOCAL-NY, an advocacy group for low income New Yorkers.

“It’s DA Clark’s job to prosecute guards at Rikers Island when they commit crimes, and how can she do so with a clear eye when money is involved?”

Independent Check

In one high-profile case before Clark took office, the Bronx DA declined to prosecute anyone connected to the death of Jason Echevarria, who swallowed a ball of soap while in solitary confinement — only to have federal prosecutors step in and win conviction of a captain.

Josh Kelner, an attorney who secured a $3.8 million civil settlement with the city on behalf of Echevarria’s family, called the COBA contributions to Clark “a transparent attempt to curry favor and buy access.”

Kelner continued: “It’s particularly troubling here, because the Department of Correction and the union have been so unwilling to hold their officers accountable for misconduct directed against inmates. The DA’s office is the only potential independent check on corrections officers who abuse their positions, and it’s extremely troubling that COBA is attempting to compromise that independence.”

The Nunez monitor found more than 2,000 internal Department of Correction use-of-force discipline cases expired without resolution in the first half of 2019 after an 18-month clock ran out.

Since 2010, COBA has contributed more than $2 million to various candidates and party committees, donating to Republicans and Democrats alike. The Bronx Democratic County Committee’s housekeeping account received roughly $74,500 over the last nine years from the union, making it one of the biggest recipients.

Bronx party leaders handpicked Clark to replace Johnson in September 2015, a move that garnered criticism about her closeness to the party machine.

Johnson waited until after the September primary to announce he was seeking a state Supreme Court position, triggering a state law that allowed county party leaders to name his replacement.

In the Bronx, where Democrats make up more than 76% of active voters, the party’s nomination virtually guarantees a win in the general election.

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