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Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance reflects on Trump and Weinstein cases as he leaves office

New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance at a news conference in New York. Vance is stepping down after 12 years in office.
Frank Franklin II
New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance at a news conference in New York. Vance is stepping down after 12 years in office.

One of the nation's most high-profile prosecutors is stepping down after 12 years in office.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. will likely be best remembered for his face-offs with famous names, including former film producer Harvey Weinstein and former French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Vance also leaves a major piece of unfinished business — his criminal case against the Trump Organization.

Last July, a grand jury indicted the Trump family business and its long-serving chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, for running an alleged 15-year conspiracy to cheat tax authorities out of millions of dollars. That made Vance the first prosecutor in American history to indict a former president's company.

Vance's probe began in 2018, but was delayed due to COVID-19 and then-President Donald Trump's efforts to block a subpoena. Trump took Vance to the Supreme Court, twice, losing both times.

Vance says that once his office obtained the financial records he was seeking, it only took four months to bring an indictment.

"I don't think we could have pushed any faster," he said.

Vance sees his Trump investigation as picking up where the Justice Department left off in 2018, when federal prosecutors convicted Michael Cohen for an illegal campaign contribution. They didn't charge Trump, who allegedly directed the scheme, and who by then had become president.

"When they closed that investigation, we were prepared to go forward," Vance said. "This office has always taken on big cases, and not infrequently taken on big cases that other institutions chose not to."

Vance, 67, has a full head of silver hair and recently sat for an interview with NPR in his spacious office in Lower Manhattan, surrounded by memorabilia: a desk that belonged to his father, Cyrus Vance Sr., a former secretary of state in the Carter administration, another desk that belonged to former District Attorney Frank Hogan, and a desk ornament that reads "The Buck Stops Here."

In 2015, a model named Ambra Battilana Gutierrez walked into a police precinct and lodged a complaint against film producer Weinstein for sexual assault. She even made a recording of herself talking with Weinstein the next day.

Vance chose not to charge Weinstein. That decision sparked outrage when it came to light.

Vance says the evidence wasn't strong enough at the time. But three years later, with new witness testimony, Vance indicted Weinstein. He attended the trial, and considers Weinstein's conviction for rape a major accomplishment of his office. (Weinstein is appealing his conviction.)

"It was Manhattan that ultimately ended up deciding to take on a case that was enormously challenging, but important to do. And we did it," Vance said.

A move away from low-level prosecutions

Vance's office now brings about 42,000 cases a year. When Vance became DA in 2010, it was over 100,000 yearly cases. Manhattan prosecutors are no longer routinely charging for nonviolent offenses like loitering and smoking pot in public. Vance says the change came from the realization that Black and brown people were disproportionately affected, and that even one night spent in jail on a relatively minor charge could wreck a defendant's life.

"I have evolved and my willingness to think differently and more actively about what we shouldn't be doing has evolved," he said.

Tina Luongo, from the Legal Aid Society, says Vance gets points for funding alternatives to cash bail. But it was pressure from advocates, and new legislation, that really pushed down the total number of prosecutions.

"I don't think he can take the credit for that," Luongo said.

Vance says he will continue to practice law, but he wants to spend more time with his family. He recently became a grandfather.

"There's a danger in always feeling that you have to be the one to be there," he said. "Sometimes the wisest thing ... in a public institution, is to bring someone else in ... so that institution can grow, evolve, beyond where you left it."

Incoming Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is no newbie to suing Trump. As a state prosecutor, he helped bring a successful civil case against the Trump Foundation, in which Donald Trump acknowledged personally misusing charitable funds.

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Ilya Marritz