While the position of District Attorney is an elected office, the role of the DA as chief law enforcement officer of the County is one that must be conducted apolitically and independent of outside influence. Prosecutorial independence—and the obligation to avoid even the appearance of political influence—is a hallmark of our legal system.

Elected prosecutors wield significant power in the criminal justice system, both in determining how cases are initiated and resolved on a day-to-day basis, and in deciding how to best promote public safety. In carrying out these decisions, prosecutors are ethically bound to pursue just results, protect fundamental rights, and serve as ministers of justice in their communities, free from political considerations and influence.

The ability to maintain their independence in the face of political pressure and influence is a challenge for District Attorneys across the country and across the political spectrum. Here, the ability of the Westchester County District Attorney to exercise her sound discretion and independent judgment is uniquely challenged by the current budget structure and the lack of clear boundaries and divisions between the District Attorney’s Office and the County’s political system. It is a challenge we have met, but should not have to face.

District Attorneys must maintain independence even from members of their own party since their work often includes identifying, investigating and prosecuting public fraud, corruption and abuse regardless of political affiliation. Elected officials should have no influence over the District Attorney’s policies or individual cases, either through direct means or through indirect methods such as withholding budgetary funding or control over personnel needs and hiring. Guardrails must be established to prevent individuals with personal or political agendas from attempting to interfere with a prosecutor’s fair administration of justice. These guardrails are important to prevent any actual interference, but also the appearance of political influence. When public trust in the justice system suffers, so does public safety.

1. The Need for an Independent DA’s Office Budget
The Westchester County District Attorney’s Office (WCDAO) is funded through a line-itemized budget appropriated by the County Board of Legislators (BOL). Once the budget is finalized, the BOL must approve all hiring and any changes to budget lines. The Westchester County Charter Section 167.121 “Transfers of Appropriations” states:

No money shall be spent by the county or any agency thereof, nor shall any obligation for the spending of money be incurred, unless in pursuance of the annual appropriation act therefor, except as provided in this section. Transfers of appropriations between general classifications of expenditures within the same department may be authorized by the County Executive on the recommendation of the Budget Director and with the approval of a committee of the County Board, designated by resolution of such board. Transfers between departments may be authorized by the County Board on the recommendation of the County Executive. Supplemental appropriations from any moneys not otherwise appropriated may be made at any time upon recommendation of the County Executive by a majority vote of all members of the County Board.

Practically, if the WCDAO wants to allocate existing resources toward hiring more prosecutors, or investigators, or promoting line prosecutors to stem attrition, we must seek approval from the County. This structure puts the BOL and the County government in a position to exert significant influence over the WCDAO, and creates the potential for reprisals if the WCDAO priorities do not align with those of other elected officials, or the WCDAO needs to investigate or prosecute members of those bodies. To state it plainly, should the WCDAO want to devote more resources to public corruption investigations, or other priorities of the independently-elected District Attorney, the current budgetary structure creates an unnecessary risk that the BOL and other members of County government could potentially impact those efforts.

Increased budgetary independence is critical to ensuring that the WCDAO remains autonomous and apolitical. An independent budget is one that provides the WCDAO with (1) sufficient financial resources to perform its operations; and (2) ensures that the independently-elected District Attorney can determine the priorities of her office. An independent budget is needed to shield the WCDAO from potential politically motivated defunding. Without such provisions, the WCDAO is in the position of seeking the annual budgetary approval of those with agendas potentially different from the elected DA. Westchester should adopt a model similar to what is used in New York City. The five District Attorney’s offices each have full control over their office’s budget after the appropriations process. Erie County also employs a similar structure to its funding of the District Attorney’s office. This model gives other elected officials less authority over the day-to-day operations of the District Attorney’s offices, while still preserving their authority to oversee spending. Adopting such a model in Westchester would improve prosecutorial independence without severely impacting the budgetary process.

2. Rules to Encourage Reporting of Possible Crimes and Forbidding Elected Officials from Interfering with Prosecutorial Decisions
On more than one occasion over the past three years, credible allegations of criminal wrongdoing were not reported by other government officials through the appropriate channels of the WCDAO, severely hampering our ability to conduct a timely investigation into those allegations. It is imperative that the County enact a specific regulation requiring elected officials and their staff to report credible allegations of wrongdoing of which they become aware through the WCDAO’s official reporting process.

3. Limiting Inappropriate Communication Between Elected Officials and the District Attorney Regarding Investigations and Cases
Over the past three years, there have been several instances where elected officials have communicated directly with the District Attorney regarding ongoing investigations and cases, including, intentionally or not, in ways that seemed tied to the budget process they oversee. This is inappropriate because even the most well-meaning inquiries create the risk of an appearance of improper influence. The County should enact a policy requiring that elected officials wanting to inquire about pending cases should do so through a designated government affairs liaison. Inquiries regarding the status of particular cases should never be done in a way to suggest that they are in any way connected to, or tied to, budget or other approvals, and outside elected officials should not attempt to influence the DA Office’s decision on a case, no matter how well-intentioned.

4. Strengthening the Westchester County Board of Ethics
In order to have effective anti-corruption oversight, Westchester County needs an oversight body to build the public’s trust in governmental integrity. The creation of the Westchester County Board of Ethics was a significant step in the right direction, but it has the potential to be a stronger, more effective ethics body. The Westchester Board of Ethics does not have a professional staff and is instead comprised solely of a volunteer board made up of members appointed by the County Executive and the BOL. In order for the Board of Ethics to be able to conduct investigations regarding ethical violations in the County, there must be a paid staff, including an investigator, to conduct investigations. Further, historically, there has been little to no coordination between the Board of Ethics and the WCDAO. We recommend that the Board’s membership include a representative from the WCDAO to facilitate investigations and provide insight into allegations of ethical violations and whether they rise to the level of criminal offenses.