tale of the tape

Defendants Freed, Jury Dismissed as Manhattan DA Evidence Woes Deepen

Former assistant district attorney, Diana Florence, center, walks into a Manhattan courtroom, Feb. 5, 2020.
Former assistant district attorney, Diana Florence, center, walks into a Manhattan courtroom, Feb. 5, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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A jury picked for an upcoming trial was dismissed and two defendants were released from Rikers Island as Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. broadened his investigation Friday into whether one of his top deputies committed prosecutorial misconduct.

Assistant District Attorney Diana Florence quietly resigned two weeks ago and was replaced as head of Vance’s Construction Fraud Task Force after being accused of sitting on troves of emails and other evidence damaging to the credibility of her star witness in multiple indictments.

Vance confirmed Wednesday he was looking into all of those cases — hours after Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus dismissed all charges against one defendant, Kyriacos Pierides, citing “staggering” delays in turning over voluminous evidence to the defense team.

On Friday, the repercussions of the accusations against Florence unfolded in yet another courtroom, where Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Ellen Biben presided.

There, prosecutors announced they would consent to the release without bail of two more defendants who plan to appeal their convictions.

A spokesperson for Vance, Emily Tuttle, said the defendants were freed “while we look into their cases and related cases in light of Judge Obus’ decision.”

Re-Thinking Pleas

One of the defendants, Shahid Akhtar, former CFO of HAKS Engineering, had pleaded guilty last May to two counts of filing a false instrument and was serving a six-month sentence. The other, Muhammad Siddiqui, president of Simco Engineering, PC, had copped to one bribery count and was five months into a nine-month prison term.

Akhtar’s attorney, Alex Spiros, argued before Biben earlier in the week that without a witness whose credibility is now in question, the DA “would not have a provable case.” He said he would move to request that Akhtar be allowed to withdraw his plea.

Assistant District Attorney Diana Florence (right) attends 2015 news conference with Manhattan DA Cy Vance Jr.
Assistant District Attorney Diana Florence (right) attends 2015 news conference with Manhattan DA Cy Vance Jr. Photo: Rose M. McDowell/Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

Siddiqui’s attorney, John Martin, said he was looking into how the misconduct allegations played into his client’s case. “I’m pleased that the DA’s office consented to my client’s release,” he added. “That was the ethical thing to do.”

Meanwhile, THE CITY learned Friday that a jury picked for the scheduled January trial of yet another defendant, David Henley, was discharged last month after allegations about Florence’s potential misconduct surfaced.

Henley, a former MTA manager, is charged in an unrelated scheme to make an illegal political donation that was secretly reimbursed by a HAKS executive. His attorney, Aaron Goldsmith, said he filed an appeal due to the “indications of the sloppiness of the investigation.”

A fifth defendant, Henry Chlupsa, was convicted of bribery in November in a non-jury trial. His attorney, Nelson Boxer, has moved to vacate the conviction. His request is pending.

The Contradictory Witness

The case that spurred the ongoing fallout was announced at an April 2018 news conference with Florence standing next to Vance. It marked one of the first big cases of the Construction Fraud Task Force, which Florence was appointed to lead in 2015.

The sole informant in the case was a mid-level city Department of Environmental Protection bureaucrat named Ifeanyi “Manny” Madu, who claimed several high-profile engineering firms had bribed him in exchange for insider information on lucrative city contract bids.

But a taped interview in which Madu swears under oath that he never took bribes or anything of value from engineering firms or contractors only recently emerged.

That tape surfaced Jan. 6 on the eve of trial for Pierides —  after several of the other defendants had either already pleaded guilty to various charges or been convicted at trial.

Prosecutors are required to turn over all evidence gathered during an investigation — including anything that is favorable to a defendant.

Florence said in court last week that she didn’t know about the evidence until “very recently” and turned it over as soon as she learned about it.

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