The Democratic candidates for Albany County District Attorney debated virtually Thursday night.
Sixteen years ago, David Soares upended his former boss in the decisive Democratic primary for Albany County District Attorney. This month, Soares himself faces a challenge from a former attorney in his office, Matt Toporowski. The candidates answered questions from the public submitted to the League of Women Voters.
With concern about racism and police brutality at a high point, both responded to the question "how should a DA help ease tensions between police and civilians." Toporowski, with a nod to Albany’s Center For Law And Justice's Structural Racism report, which he says Soares has ignored, Toporowski promises residents "a seat at the table."
"We need to validate the feelings behind the people who are protesting peacefully day in and day out in the name of George Floyd and in the name of many others that have been killed in the name of law enforcement, public safety, and also people like Ellazar Williams we have here locally, who was shot in the back by police and paralyzed from the chest down here in Albany. And so first we're validating those opinions and those feelings, we're giving these people space to be heard and we're listening."
Soares, who is black, says racism is nothing new and is part of the country’s history. He pointed to what he said was a record of accomplishments including creating what he called "a transparent grand jury process."
"The experiences that many African-American men experience are the same experiences that I experienced myself as a youth, and that's what motivated me to become part of the system and change the system from within."
"I don't think that the rhetoric matches the record here because actually there's a really lack of people of color, lawyers of color, handling cases in this district attorney's office. You can just go on the website and look at the leadership that's there. The majority is white people. And that's an issue because again if we're talking about structural racism, you need people in this office that have experiences that the people that are coming into the courtroom." Citing a case a federal judge referred to the DA's office for criminal prosecution where Albany County paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle claims that corrections officers at the county jail abused and sexually assaulted young inmates who been transferred there from Rikers Island, the candidates were asked "how do you investigate and decide whether to prosecute a case like this." Toporowski said he would have taken the case seriously and prosecuted it quickly. Soares labeled cases that are referred like this one as "allegations" that must be supported by fact and move through the appelate process.
Candidates were asked what the DA should do to combat political corruption, enforce campaign finance laws and promote good government. Soares mentioned his service on the Moreland Commission and said he's consistently held elected officials accountable.
"The office of the Albany County District Attorney was the first office to accept the complaint filed by a challenger in the Alan Hevesi case. That case was prosecuted by my office and then the subsequent part two of that case was prosecuted by my office in conjunction with then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo."
Toporowski countered Soares' office has failed to handle public integrity cases.
"Shawn Morse, Cohoes. A mayor who engaged in corruption, not prosecuted by the this office. Dean Skelos. Sheldon Silver. I mean the list goes on of politicians that were engaged in corruption right here in our backyard in Albany that were not held by this DA's office." Candidates were asked if they were satisfied with new bail reform laws. Soares answered "85 percent of those laws are fantastic." He says all of today's problems have roots in the other 15 percent.
"Today, if someone decides to take a brick and head over to the CVS, which they've already done, on Central Avenue in Albany, and throw that brick through the building and go in and loot, that individual is charged with a burglary, that individual is brought to the precinct for booking and then they're released. We warned the governor, we warned the legislature of these problems. They made some corrections that we will be experiencing on July 1st. But we have to wait until July 1st."
Toporowski says the bail reform was a long time coming and its importance was highlighted by the pandemic.
"Because without bail reform, we would have had that bloated jail population, 50 percent of it, for people for pre-trial on misdemeanors because they didn't have enough, 3 or 400 bucks, to get out and pay bail."
Toporowski added he believes in cases where bail is assigned, it should be greatly reduced.
The primary is June 23rd.