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Queens Chronicle

QUEENS VOTES: 2019 Betty Lugo makes her case in DA race

Candidate would ‘consider’ running on GOP line if she loses Dem primary

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Posted: Thursday, March 21, 2019 10:30 am

Progressive proposals like ending cash bail and closing the Rikers Island complex have dominated the policy conversation for the June 25 Democratic primary race for Queens district attorney.

But candidate Betty Lugo of Maspeth is staking out more conservative ground.

The former prosecutor is the only candidate to publicly call for keeping Rikers’ jails open.

And as for Mayor de Blasio’s plan to restore the old House of Detention in Kew Gardens?

“I don’t think that Queens should be burdened with that,” Lugo said in a sitdown interview last Thursday with the Chronicle.

As an alternative, she favors rebuilding the Rikers facilities; experts say the structures’ physical layout plays a major role in their levels of violence and dysfunction.

In 1992, the candidate co-founded Pacheco & Lugo, the first Latina-owned law firm in the state, and has been a partner there ever since. Before that, she was a Nassau County assistant district attorney from 1984 to 1987 and, while a student at Albany Law School, interned for the Albany and Manhattan district attorney’s offices; while at the latter, she worked on the famous “pizza connection” drug trafficking case.

As a private practice lawyer, her specialties include commercial, construction, white-collar defense and real estate litigation.

During one case that stands out to Lugo, she represented a group of families with loved ones buried at the Cypress Hills Cemetery. Their bodies had been placed on top of debris from construction.

“We sued the city,” she said. “We sued all the funeral homes and we sued the cemetery. We sued everybody because basically they were letting people get buried in garbage.”

Lugo has a long list of titles in the legal world. To name a couple: vice chairwoman of the state Bar Association’s trial lawyers section and chairwoman of the Puerto Rican Bar Association’s Judiciary Committee.

This isn’t her first time running for office. But it is her first as a Democrat.

After having first been a member of the party, she switched over to the GOP. Lugo ran as a Republican for a Lower Manhattan City Council seat in 1997, losing to Margarita Lopez.

“Last year, I became a Democrat again,” she said, adding that she wished she returned to the party sooner because of her opposition to President Trump.

Lugo said she may be open to running as a Republican in the general election for district attorney if she loses the Democratic contest.

“I would consider it,” she said, pointing to the success of now-City Councilman Robert Holden (D-Middle Village). He lost a Democratic primary to Elizabeth Crowley in September 2017 but unseated her in the general election two months later after securing the Republican nomination.

No GOP candidate has yet emerged in the race to succeed Richard Brown.

The incumbent, who had the job for nearly 30 years, will step down on June 1. He was harshly criticized by criminal justice reform activists, whose own ideas are more supported in the field of candidates for the June 25 election.

While in agreement with her opponents on some points, Lugo criticizes many of their positions as way too “far to the left” and soft on crime.

“The duty and responsibility of a prosecutor is to make sure the community is safe,” she said. “Otherwise, nobody’s going to want to live here.”

Her six rivals in the race are public defender Tiffany Caban, Borough President Melinda Katz, City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), former state Supreme Court Judge Gregory Lasak, ex-Civilian Complaint Review Board head Mina Malik and former prosecutor Jose Nieves.

Some have proposed totally ending cash bail. Lugo wants it gone for nonviolent, low-level offenses. But she says it’s necessary for violent crimes. She mentioned the case of a client in Brooklyn: a seven-months pregnant woman who was kicked in the stomach outside of a school in front of her children.

Candidates in the district attorney race have been highly critical of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s making arrests at or near the criminal courthouse in Kew Gardens.

Some of them favor abolishing ICE. Lugo does not, though she does not want the agency to have free rein near courthouses.

“But I don’t think they should be arresting people in the court or near the court unless there’s ... a violent crime,” she said, saying it would be highly inappropriate for low-level offenses.

Additionally, Lugo said that witnesses in major cases may not come forward if they are worried about ICE agents arresting them if they go to the courthouse.

The candidate said she would decline to prosecute people for “loitering, spitting on the sidewalk, turnstile [jumping],” having an open can of beer or small amounts of pot.

Lugo intends to make the staff at the District Attorney’s Office more in touch with the communities they prosecute.

“If you’re prosecuting a crime in South Jamaica and you live in Malba or College Point, I would want you to come into South Jamaica and get to know the people there,” she said, adding that prosecutors would have to participate in the community — for example, being a mentor to a youth or volunteering at a boys and girls club.

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