Incumbent Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten fended off attacks from challenger Edward Kopko in a testy Zoom forum on Tuesday night, which largely focused on Van Houten’s record and controversies during his tenure.
During the forum, hosted by the Tompkins County Democratic Committee, Van Houten’s relationship with law enforcement was a recurring topic of attack for Kopko throughout the night, accusing Van Houten of improper conduct in two separate cases.
Kopko pointed to the April 2019 incident in the Commons to demonstrate his belief of law enforcement’s “improper influence” on Van Houten.
Rose DeGroat, one of the defendants in the case — also represented by Kopko — was initially charged with felonies by police. Van Houten initially reduced those charges, but later convened a grand jury and indicted DeGroat on the previous felony charges.
“The current relationship between Mr. Van Houten and the police is improper,” said Kopko, implying that Van Houten’s decision to convene a grand jury was influenced by a meeting with the Ithaca Police.
Van Houten acknowledged the mistakes he made in that case — “moving too quickly” in his analysis — but “vehemently contested” the accusations of partiality to the police.
“To say that anyone influenced me is baseless, reckless and inflammatory,” he said. “I made my decisions on my own, after talking to many people from many points of view.”
The Commons incident sparked community protests and criticism; Kopko viewed them as protests against the D.A.’s policies “because they lack faith in the system.”
“I pay attention to the protests,” Van Houten hit back. “There were protests about decisions in a case and not about policies.”
The second instance Kopko pointed to occurred in 2018, when Van Houten recused himself from prosecuting a Tompkins County Sheriff’s deputy accused of rape, appointing a special prosecutor in his place.
Van Houten defended his decision to appoint a special prosecutor: “When you’re prosecuting a police officer, you face the presumption that either you’re going to treat them preferentially or more harshly, neither of which is fair.”
Firing back, Kopko asserted that Van Houten’s recusal “undermined the integrity of the judicial system.”
“There are no circumstances where the D.A. should disqualify himself from the prosecution of a police officer,” Kopko said.
Van Houten explained his conflict of interest in pursuing the case was because he had a “working relationship” with the accused officer.
“Imagine being that young woman who has made these serious allegations of rape coming into my office and having to walk the gauntlet of the friends and girlfriend of the accused [many of whom worked in that office],” Van Houten said. “How do we protect her rights?”
Kopko maintained that Van Houten’s reason for recusing himself was improper and a neglect of his responsibility to “prosecute rogue police officers.”
The challenger also went after Van Houten for his office’s track record on LGBTQ+ cultural competency training and transparency in posting statistics separated by race and gender. Van Houten said he would be “very open” to adopting both sensitivity training and increased transparency.
“The D.A. had three years to do [cultural competency bias] training and nothing has happened,” Kopko said. “My entire staff will be trained and sensitive from the beginning.”
The candidates further sparred on New York State’s recently passed bail reform. The reforms aim to expand bail-eligible offenses and rolled back previous efforts to limit cash bail.
Kopko expressed an opposition to the eligibility of more offenses for bail: “I believe that bail is a way of keeping people in jail.”
Van Houten supports the expanded bail eligibility for offenses such as causing someone’s death in a motor vehicle accident.
“Bail is not a punitive measure,” Van Houten said, but rather a way to “ensure someone is returning to court.”
Kopko continued to pressure Van Houten on transparency. Van Houten maintained that it is unethical for both prosecutors and defense attorneys to “comment with the public” about ongoing cases.
“That’s often frustrating because I’d like to talk to the community, but ethically it’s more important to protect the rights of the accused,” Van Houten said.
Kopko countered, citing the New York State legal ethics code and explaining that prosecutors can make public comments on criminal prosecutions. “You are not totally silenced about these things,” he said.
When asked about the steps he would take to reduce inmate population in state prison, Van Houten suggested a possible mechanism of recommending prison sentences for people in the local jail “only when it’s absolutely necessary.” He deferred, however, offering that the D.A. lacks the authority to alter the sentences of those already in state prisons.
Kopko again shot back, stating he would make “smart” decisions in prosecuting. “The D.A. actually has the authority to affect the prison population,” he said, referring to the wide discretion prosecutors typically enjoy in pursuing cases and seeking harsher charges.
On the topic of standards for prosecuting law enforcement, Kopko said that he would discontinue internal affairs investigations by police departments.
But, according to Van Houten, that proposal “doesn’t reflect an understanding of the system” because “those are parts of the state and local police,” saying that “attorneys don’t have the ability to ban a part of another agency.”
Despite butting heads on many fronts, the two did manage to find some common ground. For instance, both emphasized the importance of prioritizing the well-being of survivors in sex crimes.
The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program — which allows police officers to divert people from arrest to rehabilitation services — also received strong support from both candidates, although Kopko stated that funding has been suspended in Albany while Van Houten clarified that LEAD is a local program and would not be funded by the state legislature.
Van Houten also highlighted his work in implementing other alternatives to incarceration in Tompkins County, such as the creation of a mental health court.
Van Houten and Kopko both acknowledged the importance of minimizing consequences for minor, nonviolent undocumented immigrant offenders, and agreed on prosecutorial decisions for violent crimes.
A violent offense is “something that we need to prosecute to promote public safety,” said Van Houten. Kopko agreed: “If there is an illegal immigrant who committed a violent crime, that person needs to be prosecuted.”
Both candidates committed to supporting the eventual Democratic nominee and agreed to not run as a third party in the general election. Kopko previously ran as an independent in the 2016 general election after Van Houten prevailed in the Democratic primary.
This piece is part of The Cornell Daily Sun’s Election 2020 Section. Read more of The Sun’s election coverage here.