During last Saturday’s forum for Democrats running for Queens District Attorney, former Nassau County prosecutor Betty Lugo said choosing when to prosecute under the state’s felony murder laws is a decision that must be made on a case-by-case basis.
One of her opponents, Mina Malik, seized the opportunity to launch what appeared to be a not-so-veiled broadside at Queens Borough President Melinda Katz
“That’s where a DA needs basic understanding of criminal law,” Malik said. “Experience matters.”
Malik’s comment came after Katz, who has the endorsement of the Queens County Democratic Party, became the primary target earlier in the debate when candidates were given the opportunity to ask a question of one opponent.
Katz, outside of holding political office, is an attorney, but has largely handled land use and real estate matters in her career.
Malik, getting the first question, asked Katz to list the criminal cases she has handled either as a prosecutor or defense attorney.
Katz responded that she knows all too well what it is like to be the victim of a crime.
“My mother was killed by a drunk driver when I was 3 years old,” she said. “That person left my father to raise four children ... I grew up without a mother.”
Katz said her experience in government has given her the management and leadership experience necessary to effect the reforms she wants to bring to the DA’s office.
She also said she worked on criminal cases as both an intern and as a law clerk under future U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
Laughter broke out in the audience at the Robert Ross Johnson Family Life Center when former prosecutor and judge Greg Lasak went next, and also addressed Katz.
“I’ve gotta stop doing so well in the polls,” Katz quipped.
Lasak began by asking if she had considered running for district attorney five years ago — before she was facing term limits.
Lasak posed a question he put to the Chronicle earlier this year about when a ranking NYPD chief or even the commissioner is in her office to brief her on a major case.
“You will have to make a decision,” Lasak said. “Not an assistant district attorney — you.” He added that in answering Malik’s question about criminal law experience, she had to go back to her law school days.
“You have no experience,” he said.
“If all you’re looking for is someone who’s only interested in racking up convictions and racking up prison sentences, I’m not your guy,” Katz said, leading into a discussion of her goals to reform the office and make it more active in preventing serious crime and cutting recidivism by working with the community, nonprofits and faith-based organizations, people she said she has been working with her entire public career.
“If you have to introduce yourself to those people on day one, it won’t work,” Katz said.
She also pointed out that while outgoing DA Richard Brown was a judge, he had never been a prosecutor until being appointed to the office 28 years ago.
Katz has promised to crack down on wage theft and workplace safety issues among her office’s investigative and prosecutorial priorities.
“How can you do that when you have accepted $250,000 in contributions from the real estate industry?” asked public defender Tiffany Cabán, who went next.
Katz said in her time on the City Council she served as chairwoman of the Land Use Committee, and is proud of the role she has played in the revitalization of Jamaica, all while having to deal at arms’ length when necessary with the industry over 25 years in public life.
Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) also brought out the heavy artillery, pointing to Katz’s record of voting twice for the death penalty while serving in the state Assembly.
Katz admitted she first went to the Assembly with residual anger left over from her mother’s death.
“But people can change, and grow,” she said, pointing to her later support on the City Council for resolutions to stop the death penalty in New York, and legislation she crafted when in Albany to help women and victims of sex crimes.
And Katz yielded no ground to Lancman, chairman of the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, when he asked why as borough president she has not submitted a single bill for the criminal justice reforms she is championing to the Council, as is her right under the authority of the Borough President’s Office.
Katz said a lack of visibility does not mean a lack of interest or action.
“I don’t hold a press conference every day on the steps of City Hall,” Katz said.
“And I don’t have public hearings just to have them.”