Manhattan DA Is Doling Out $734 Million In Forfeiture Funds With Virtually No Oversight

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Anders Hagstrom Justice Reporter
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A single New York City District Attorney has $734 million in civil asset forfeiture funding, an amount nearly six times his operating budget, according to the NYC Independent Budget Office.

Cy Vance serves in Manhattan and is one of the city’s five DAs, and as of June 2017, his office controlled $734 million in forfeiture funds, according to an IBO report. At the same time in 2016, his office held $250 million. The money comes from state and federal forfeiture cases against drug lords, gangs, and Wall Street banks, and he enjoys virtually total discretion over how it’s spent.

According to the IBO, Vance’s office need only keep the city, state, and federal government appraised of how much money is in the account. He has virtually total discretion as to how to spend it. Effectively, Vance’s office has become a prosecutor’s office with the ability to bestow funding grants.

Vance opened the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative (CJII) in 2016 when the forfeiture funds started piling up. The CJII holds roughly $250 million of Vance’s funds and invests it “transformative projects” around the city to “improve public safety, prevent crime, and promote a fair an efficient justice system,” according to the CJII website.

“The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is proud to fund CJII with $250 million in ill-gotten gains seized in international financial crime prosecutions,” Vance writes. “With this commitment, CJII will invest in innovative community projects designed to fill critical gaps and needs in New York City’s criminal justice system.”

Vance’s office holds an incredibly outsized proportion of funding compared to his fellow New York DAs. The offices in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island held between $3 million and $8 million each. The DA in Queens had $113 million, according to the IBO.

In 2015 and 2016, Vance spent the cash on funding grants to organizations both inside and outside the city, bringing up the question of whether a prosecutor should be making executive spending decisions. Vance’s office is unashamed of the account and its use.

“We are proud of the investments we are making to reform the justice system and fight 21st-century crimes, and proud of the transparency with which we are investing these dollars,” Vance’s communications director told the Village Voice.

The IBO argued otherwise.

“Given the sums of money involved, and the fact that it’s effectively public money, more accountability and transparency would be warranted,” the IBO wrote.

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