AP Interview: Ex-IMF chief case spotlights NYC DA

Dominique Strauss-Kahn had just been to court in the sexual assault case that made headlines around the world. Manhattan's district attorney stepped before the microphones with a message aimed directly at Europeans grappling with how the United States had treated the powerful French diplomat.

"Under American law," Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said, "these are extremely serious charges."

It was an unprecedented moment for a DA who holds one of the nation's most prominent prosecutors' jobs but has used its limelight sparingly. Yet now he finds himself a subject of international attention, with French media outlets pegging him as "a prosecutor sensitive to the cause of women" pursuing "the case of his career."

If it is, Vance isn't one to say so. No matter how many times he's asked.

"People will pay attention, in the external world, to certain kinds of cases," he allows, in an interview with The Associated Press. "I say this not to be evasive: I really think that we try to treat every case as important."

After 18 months on the job, the DA has had a whirlwind few weeks that included prosecuting a rare state-level terrorism case against two men accused of plotting to blow up synagogues, and getting a controversial verdict in a rape case against two police officers, who were convicted only of misconduct.

But Vance would rather talk about a proposal he's pushing to strengthen penalties for domestic-violence offenders, his newest idea for unclogging chronically overloaded misdemeanor courts, or the way a new cybercrime unit is both creating its own cases and strengthening others.

He's much more likely to detail his thoughts on crime prevention than to tell rough-and-tumble tales of prosecution, and mostly avoids public discussion of individual cases. And he will say, flat-out, "I don't think I've ever strayed off-message."

"It's not very complicated, what we're trying to do. It's a very complicated office ... but, fundamentally, I'm driven by enhancing public safety and enhancing fairness in our system," Vance said Thursday in his airy, understatedly stylish office, where one of the first things visitors notice is an attractively weathered cement wheel that happens to be a grindstone. No symbolism, he says.

At 56, the Democrat holds a storied post won by only two other people in the 67 years before him. The Manhattan DA's office is one of the nation's busiest, with about 500 lawyers and a workload of about 110,000 cases a year. It has prosecuted the famous — including rap star Lil Wayne and supermodel Naomi Campbell — and the infamous, among them mob boss John Gotti and John Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman.

A former Manhattan assistant prosecutor and defense lawyer here and in Seattle, Vance won the DA's job in his first run for public office, but he arrived with an elite political pedigree. His late father and namesake was President Jimmy Carter's secretary of state from 1977 until April 1980. The elder Vance resigned over his opposition to what later proved a disastrous plan to rescue American hostages in Iran. Eight servicemen died in the failed effort.

His son rarely brings up his father, who died in 2002. If asked, he will say he looks to him as an example of "good judgment, and it was not clouded by self-aggrandizement."

Some others, though, suggest a family resemblance.

"Cy is continuing the tradition of his father, if you look at his father's careful and respectful handling of his position as secretary of state," former Gov. Eliot Spitzer said in a telephone interview. He and Vance met as assistant Manhattan prosecutors in the 1980s.

Spitzer, who became state attorney general and then governor before he resigned in a 2008 sex scandal, is one of several New Yorkers who have parlayed top prosecutor spots into broader political careers. Gov. Andrew Cuomo also was the state's attorney general. Former New York mayor and presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani was Manhattan's chief federal prosecutor.

But though others may wonder about Vance's ambitions for higher office, he and people who know him insist he's focused only on his job.

He hasn't shrunk from public attention, but he also hasn't striven to project a larger-than-life persona. The one case he's selected so far to prosecute personally — an unusual step for a big-city DA — doesn't involve boldface names or big money. It concerns an alleged violent drug ring that made life miserable, he says, on a block in Harlem.

With the publicity surrounding the Strauss-Kahn and terrorism cases, "everyone's saying, 'Oh, let's take a look here,'" says George Arzt, a veteran political consultant who advised Vance on his 2009 campaign. But "it's not about a steppingstone to some greater office. This is what he always wanted to be."

A New York native with degrees from Yale and Georgetown's law school, Vance spent six years working for then-DA Robert Morgenthau before heading to Seattle in the late 1980s. He has said he was keen to build a professional name outside New York, where his father had a prominent law practice.

Vance's clients there included thousands of women who reached a $72.5 million settlement with the Boeing Corp. in a gender discrimination suit; former University of Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel, who won $4.5 million in a wrongful-firing lawsuit; and Vili Fualaau, a former student who unsuccessfully sued a school district and police for failing to prevent his affair with his sixth-grade teacher, Mary Kay Letourneau.

Vance returned to New York in 2004. He and his wife, a photographer and printmaker, have two college-aged children.

Many of Vance's cases began on the watch of his predecessor, the influential and indefatigable Morgenthau, who held the post for 34 years and retired at age 90. Among cases Vance initiated, his office won a murder conviction for a man who said he'd merely helped a motivational speaker kill himself and lost a manslaughter case against a rigger accused of causing a crane collapse that killed seven people.

He recently charged convicted California serial killer Rodney Alcala with murdering two Manhattan women in the 1970s and accused dozens of taxi drivers of systematically manipulating fares to rip off thousands of riders.

He's launched a roster of new initiatives, including assigning a group of top lieutenants to investigate claims of innocence. At least one now-sealed case was dismissed because of the effort, he said.

"That's really what my goal has been: to take an excellent office and make it even better," Vance says.

While few in the legal community want to publicly criticize a DA, some defense lawyers complain that Vance's office is over-cautious, requiring higher-ups' input on fairly minor cases that could otherwise be resolved more quickly. "They ponder themselves into paralysis," says attorney Ronald Kuby.

Vance says he has confidence in junior prosecutors but wants to get a handle on cases he may be asked about.

Among cases sure to bring questions is Strauss-Kahn's. He's due back in court Monday; the former International Monetary Fund leader denies charges of trying to rape a hotel maid last month. The DA and his staff are bracing for another onslaught of attention to the case.

With or without it, Vance says: "This is the best legal job, I think, in the country. And I plan to be here a long time, assuming the voters want to keep me here."


Jennifer Peltz can be reached at