Add Cy Vance to the Trump family’s personal chickenshit club.
That’s the title of journalist Jesse Eisenger’s book about the federal prosecutors who let the bankers who blew up the American economy in 2008 off the hook. His New Yorker bombshell on Wednesday—written with his ProPublica colleague Justin Elliott and WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz—showed money talking and Trumps walking in Manhattan as the well-compensated Manhattan DA found a way to see no evil.
That happened in 2013, when Vance—up for reelection—overruled his own prosecutors on the Major Economic Crimes Bureau and dropped a criminal probe of Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr., even as his office seemed to have them dead to rights for misleading potential buyers of Trump SoHo condos. That project verged on collapse when units hit the market just after the economy fell off of a cliff in 2008. The DA’s office had emails, one person who’d seen them told the magazine, with the Trump kids desperate to salvage the project discussing how to coordinate their fraudulent statements to potential buyers—and Junior even assuring a broker, who was in on the reported hustle, that no one outside of the email chain and the Trump Organization would ever know about it.
But Vance dropped the case just after returning a $25,000 contribution from Donald J. Trump’s personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz. In 2009, one of his colleagues at Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman had run against Vance, and the firm had sent $300,000 to her campaign. After a $25,000 contribution in 2012 to Vance, bygones were bygones and Kasowitz soon had a meeting with the new DA himself to discuss the Trump SoHo case. That came days after his check was returned, which Vance told the magazine is his office’s standard procedure when a donor has a case before it. In any event, Vance said, the big give had “no influence whatsoever on my decision-making in the case”—which was already in the works when Kasowitz cut it.
Three months after Trump’s attorney “simply repeated the arguments that the other defense lawyers had been making for months,” according to the New Yorker report, the case against the kids was dead, and six months after that Kasowitz—who says his gift had nothing to do with the case that he asked Vance to drop, but came because he was “extremely impressed by him as a person of impeccable integrity”—gave the D.A. an additional $50,000.
Vance, now running unopposed for a third term, says he dropped the case because “I did not at the time believe beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime had been committed”—which is usually the standard for jurors, not prosecutors. And that he’ll give back the $50,000, too, since “I don’t want the money to be a millstone around anybody’s neck, including the office’s.”
Too little, too late.
So Vance appears to have joined Republican Attorneys General Pam Bondi of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas in Trump’s personal chickenshit club. As Trump himself explained on the campaign trail about how he did business with politicians before becoming one:
“I gave to many people… I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.”
When New York’s attorney general, Democrat Eric Schneiderman, filed a civil suit in August 2013 charging Trump and associates with fraud at Trump University, where employees were told that “an attendee’s problem represents a golden opportunity” to peddle ever more pricey “education” packages, Bondi’s Florida office said it was “reviewing the allegations,” what with dozens of complaints against Trump Institute, as it was called in the state.
That same week, the Trump Foundation—a charity!—made a $25,000 gift to a campaign group working to reelect her. This after Bondi, according to an aide, had personally solicited Trump for campaign cash. Unrelated, Bondi says, she decided not to pursue any charges against Trump University, and three years later his charity (which in its 2013 annual disclosure had said the money it donated that went toward her reelection was for a charity with a similar name in Kansas) paid a $2,500 fine to the IRS for its illegal gift to a political campaign.
Also in 2013, Greg Abbott had his own probe of Trump University, with lawyers in his Consumer Affairs Division who’d gone undercover to expose Trump University’s operations in Texas calling on him to sue Trump and others for $5.4 million in repayment and fines for breaking state laws and operating an unlicensed university.
But one of Abbott’s subordinates with authority over the division told them to drop the case. Abbott, who says he knew nothing about that decision before his office made it, received $35,000 from Trump when he ran for governor the next year.
Said one of the main lawyers involved in the probe after it was shut down: "They can spin it all they want. They treated Trump differently from every other similarly situated scam artist.”
So while Abbott later said that he wasn’t involved in the decision not to charge Trump and Bondi that she had no idea about any possible probe when she reached out to Trump directly for a contribution, Trump sure knew:
“Do you know that these people went to every attorney general, practically, in the country that they could, and do you know this case was turned down by almost every attorney general, from Texas to Florida to many of these states?” he said last year, as he continued to fight Schneiderman’s suit.
While Trump finally didn’t succeed in jamming up the New York State probe with more compromised cash, it sure wasn’t for lack of trying.
Much of his kompromat scheme was laid out in a bizarre 7,000-word hit piece about the AG published in 2014 by the New York Observer, the paper owned by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. The article was accompanied by an illustration of Schneiderman as the serial killer from A Clockwork Orange, and nearly a thousand additional words of batshit “reporting notes” explaining how “the Observer took great care to ensure fair, unbiased journalism throughout the reporting and editing of this story”—which it turned out that Editor in Chief Ken Kurson had originally assigned to a freelancer then managing a New Jersey ice-cream shop, who quit as it became clear this was “basically a smear piece.” Kurson then hired another freelancer to put his name on the opus.
The scheme, of course, involved Trump money, specifically Schneiderman raising money from Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and another Trump personal attorney, Michael Cohen, even as he looked into Trump University. Unlike the honest attorneys general in Texas and Florida, who decided there was no crime to go after here, the New York AG, declared the family’s house paper, was trying to shake down the family for protection money (which, notably, they paid) even as “the evidence seems overwhelming: Mr. Schneiderman is pursuing a weak case that just got a whole lot weaker.”
But Schneiderman wiped the chickenshit off his feet and pressed on—likely aided by the Observer story, which was so bizarre and nakedly self-interested it became a story itself, and made other outlets reluctant to wade into the waters it muddied about the AG’s fundraising. At least one reader appreciated it, though, albeit in a tweet that generated almost no responses.
And Trump finally gave in. After years of vowing that he’d never settle, and bragging about the great education Trump University provided its many satisfied students, he cut a deal just after winning the presidency last November, agreeing to pay out $25 million without acknowledging wrongdoing and with most of that money going to compensate his many marks.
There are two obvious lessons, at least in hindsight, for clashing with Trump: Stay the course, and stay away from his cash. Those come too late for Vance, who made what looks to be a reputation-destroying political decision at a time when the Trumps seemed much less important.
But they’ve been noted by other state and local prosecutors, whose honest services have never been more important now that the Justice Department answers to a man who’s made a career out of buying influence, and tarnishing its purchasers in the the process.