Schneiderman to create bureau to review wrongful convictions

This just in from New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman:

A.G. SCHNEIDERMAN ANNOUNCES LANDMARK INITIATIVE TO ADDRESS WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS IN NEW YORK

Conviction Review Bureau Will Promote Partnerships With District Attorneys To Address Claims Of Innocence

A.G. Will Also Conduct Top-To-Bottom Review Of His Office’s Investigatory & Prosecutorial Procedures For Reliability, And Make Improvements As Needed

Sweeping Initiative Also Includes Committee To Efficiently Resolve Claims Against The State For Unjust Conviction

NEW YORK – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced the establishment of a Conviction Review Bureau in the New York Office of Attorney General (OAG), a first-of-its-kind statewide initiative to address issues related to wrongful convictions across New York State. Partnering with law enforcement across the state, Schneiderman said the bureau will work to ensure that New York’s justice system maximizes its ability to convict the real perpetrators of crimes, while preventing innocent people from being penalized for crimes they did not commit.

“There is only one person who wins when the wrong person is convicted of a crime: the real perpetrator, who remains free to commit more crimes. For victims, their families, and any of us who could suffer the nightmare of being wrongly accused, it is imperative that we do everything possible to maximize accuracy, justice, and reliability in our justice system,” Schneiderman said. “As a result, my office will be working with District Attorneys across the state to address compelling claims of innocence, and I will conduct a top-to-bottom review of my office’s investigatory and prosecutorial procedures, and adapt them as needed to ensure reliability.”

Schneiderman emphasized that there are numerous examples of District Attorneys successfully reviewing and re-investigating cases, perhaps most famously the Central Park jogger case in New York County. However, there may be instances in which it is helpful for an independent and specialized entity to enter the process. To address this criminal justice imperative, the Conviction Review Bureau will:

1)  Review Potential Wrongful Conviction Cases. The Conviction Review Bureau will work with D.A.’s offices to identify cases where the involvement of the Conviction Review Bureau may be of use. The OAG will be available for referrals from District Attorneys as resources allow, and on referral will investigate in anticipation of potential litigation. These might include cases where a D.A.’s office lacks the additional staff required to conduct a review, or a conflict might exist. It is anticipated that these cases will be serious felonies and ones in which the claimant’s other options are exhausted (eg, an Article 440 motion has not succeeded). In addition, the OAG will continue to address claims of actual innocence in its own cases.

2) Conduct Top-to-Bottom Review of OAG’s Investigatory and Prosecutorial Procedures. The Bureau will conduct an internal review of the OAG’s investigative procedures (e.g., identification procedures, the recording of confessions). After intensive study, the Bureau will adopt best practices for the office’s investigative division with the goal of maximizing reliability. In addition to addressing the efficacy of investigations, the Bureau will also devise guidelines for best prosecutorial practices to be applied by OAG attorneys, to help ensure the fair administration of justice .

3) Efficiently Resolve Unjust Conviction Torts. A subcommittee of the Bureau will meet to resolve unjust conviction torts filed against the state. This will enable those found by the courts to have been unjustly convicted, and meeting the requirements for compensation under state law, to receive it in an efficient, streamlined manner.

In making his announcement, Attorney General Schneiderman expressed gratitude to the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY) led by Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore, as well as to the New York State Justice Task Force, commissioned by Chief Judge of the State of New York Jonathan Lippman, both of which have been exploring improvements to law enforcement procedures to make them as fair and reliable as possible.

The new bureau will be led by Chief Thomas Schellhammer, an Assistant Attorney General and former homicide prosecutor in the New York County District Attorney Office, and Director Blake Zeff, who serves as senior advisor to the Attorney General.
“I look forward to continuing to partner with leaders in law enforcement in New York State, so that together we will lead the way for the nation, when it comes to criminal justice reforms,” Attorney General Schneiderman said.

Schneiderman’s announcement today was hailed by bipartisan leaders in the criminal justice and law enforcement communities

Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York, said, “Attorney General Schneiderman is to be commended for his landmark effort to curb the nightmare of wrongful convictions. One wrongfully convicted person is one too many, and I believe the reforms announced today will help pave the way toward reducing such injustices.”

Janet DiFiore, Westchester County District Attorney and President of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, said, “The integrity of the criminal justice system in New York State hinges on ensuring that the guilty are held accountable and the innocent are protected. The District Attorneys Association continues in its efforts in this regard and appreciates Attorney General Schneiderman’s leadership in seeking to partner with us in this effort, by allocating resources and the expertise of his office.”

Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, said, “We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for taking on the problem of wrongful convictions in New York. As we’ve learned through DNA exonerations, wrongful convictions give you an opportunity to see where the system failed and how it can be made more just. We hope that district attorneys throughout the state will take advantage of this initiative, because all New Yorkers are hurt when the wrong person is convicted of a crime and the real perpetrator is free to commit more crimes.”

Kathleen B. Hogan, Warren County District Attorney, said, “District Attorneys have always appreciated the seriousness of post-conviction review. Many offices have limited resources, with 40 D.A. offices in the state having ten or fewer attorneys to handle their entire caseload. That’s why I applaud Attorney General Schneiderman and welcome his assistance in providing experienced attorneys who will work collaboratively with D.A. offices to review cases in the post-conviction context.”

Dr. Hazel N. Dukes, President of the New York State NAACP, said, “The NAACP New York State Conference believes this is a step in the right direction because we need more effective measures to prevent ‘wrongful convictions.’ The NAACP NYS Conference commends the AG’s office for the creation of the CRB and we look forward to following its progress and results.”

Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., Manhattan District Attorney, said, “I applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for his innovative initiative to curb wrongful convictions. My office has instituted a program to ensure the integrity of our convictions, and I am delighted to partner with the Attorney General in achieving justice for New Yorkers and preserving the public’s confidence in law enforcement.”

 

Vincent E. Doyle III, President of the New York State Bar Association, said, “Attorney General Schneiderman has long demonstrated a commitment to addressing the serious issue of wrongful convictions. The Association was proud to work with then-state Senator Schneiderman on legislation addressing the root causes of wrongful convictions, which we hope will be enacted in the near future. We commend the Attorney General for making the resources of his office available to help address this ongoing problem.”

William J. Fitzpatrick, Onondaga County District Attorney, said, “As prosecutors, we should always be vigilant of preventing wrongful convictions. That starts with establishing and implementing practices and procedures to ensure the right person is arrested and tried. It also requires careful examination of legitimate claims of innocence that warrant review after conviction. In recent years, the District Attorney’s Association of the State of New York has established standing committees to address these issues, such as the Committee on the Fair and Ethical Administration of Justice, the Best Practices Committee and the Ethics Committee. To have Attorney General Schneiderman, offer assistance to district attorneys’ offices and partner with state prosecutors to ensure that the guilty are convicted and that the innocent are exonerated is a testament to his leadership, vision and cooperation. As one of the 62 elected district attorneys in the state, I along with my fellow prosecutors, applaud his efforts.”

Glenn Garber, Founder and Director of the Exoneration Initiative, said, “The Attorney General’s Conviction Review Bureau is a significant step toward justice for the wrongfully convicted in New York, especially for those who lack DNA to prove their innocence. By reexamining investigative and prosecutorial practices in certain cases, the Attorney General is providing an important and needed opportunity within the system in New York to exonerate the innocent.”

Lonnie Soury, President of Falseconfessions.org, said, “Eric Schneiderman kept his word by fulfilling his commitment to address this urgent criminal justice imperative. He fought to pass legislation to limit wrongful convictions while a State Senator and now, in his role of Attorney General, he is instituting a program that will hopefully be a model for developing best practices on those factors that lead to wrongful convictions such as false confessions and witness misidentification. This program will help prevent innocent people from going to prison, contribute to apprehending the guilty, and give hope to those currently wrongfully imprisoned”

Gov. Cuomo signs DNA expansion bill, now law

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed legislation requiring anyone convicted of a felony or penal law misdemeanor to give their DNA to New York state.

The law makes New York the first state in the country with what’s called an “all crimes” DNA database.

Before today, people convicted of a felony and one of 36 misdemeanors – about half the crimes in the state — had to give a sample of their DNA for the DNA Databank. While civil liberties groups have questioned the measure, law-enforcement groups from around the state have championed it.

“This is a great step forward for all New Yorkers,” Westchester County Janet DiFiore said in a statement today. “The all-crimes DNA Database will enhance public safety for every New Yorker across the State. By requiring virtually every person convicted of a felony and a penal law misdemeanor to provide a DNA sample upon conviction, we will use science to convict the guilty as well as exonerate the innocent.”

People convicted of drunken driving misdemeanors, which are covered by the state’s traffic law, would not have to give their DNA to the state. The legislation also includes an exception for marijuana possession, a Class B misdemeanor, as long as there were no prior convictions.

The compromise bill also expands defendants’ access to DNA testing and comparison before and after conviction in appropriate circumstances, and for post-conviction discovery to prove innocence.

New York launched its DNA Databank in 1996. It has been used for more than 2,900 convictions, according to the governor’s office. DNA samples have exonerated 27 people and helped clear many others early on in investigations.

The New York Civil Liberties Union denounced the legislation in a statement last week.

“It will have a negligible impact on enhancing public safety but increase significantly the likelihood for inefficiency, error and abuse in the collection and handling of forensic DNA,” said Robert Perry, NYCLU’s legislative director. “This unprecedented expansion once again does nothing to address the increasingly apparent inadequacies of the state’s regulatory oversight of police crime labs, nor does it establish rigorous statewide standards regarding collection, handling and analysis of DNA evidence to catch or prevent error and ensure the integrity of the databank.

The law takes effect Oct. 12.

Cara Matthews of Gannett’s Albany Bureau contributed to this post.

Desk of the DA: beware the phone scam

This month’s message from Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore focuses on some recent phone scams targeting senior citizens:

Police in Mount Pleasant and New Castle have recently received reports of a series of calls to elderly residents with urgent requests for money. In one instance, a caller told a grandfather that his grandson had been in an accident in Mexico and needed $2500 wired immediately. The grandfather sent the money, and then sent another $2500 when he received a second call, but it was all a hoax. In another case, a caller claimed a grandchild was in jail in Bolivia and urgently needed $4500 for bail. The grandfather got in touch with his grandson and realized this was a scam before sending the money.

These are not rare or isolated cases. One frequently reported version of this scam involves a phone call that begins with a young caller saying “Hi, this is your favorite grandson”. The grandparent naturally responds with the grandson’s name, which the con artist then uses. The caller then tells the grandparent that he is in trouble overseas and needs money immediately, claiming either to have been in an accident, or to have lost his passport and wallet, or to have some other emergency. In these cases, when a caring grandparent wires money overseas, it is picked up immediately by the scammers and is not recoverable.

If you receive an urgent call asking for help for a family member overseas, be suspicious and make every attempt to find out whether the emergency is real before acting. Ask for the caller’s name and contact information. Make some calls and find out whether the story is true. Don’t be pressured by a caller who tells you that you must act immediately. Even if the caller’s account is true, there is no emergency so critical that you cannot take some time to verify the facts. And if you have been the victim of one of these scams, don’t blame yourself. These con artists are professional criminals who take advantage of a grandparent’s natural desire to help a grandchild.

As with all unsolicited phone calls, be cautious and do not provide any personal or financial information to the caller. Do not respond immediately to requests for donations or offers to sell you things. Instead, ask for the caller’s name, firm and contact information, and then decide whether to respond after you have had time to consider the call. Report any phone calls that you consider suspicious to your local police department.

Desk of the DA: Victims’ Services in Westchester

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore’s monthly message for February is about services offered to crime victims and their families in the county:

Crime can have serious physical, psychological, financial and other effects on victims. As District Attorney and a former judge, I know how frightening and overwhelming it can be for victims who, through no fault of their own, come into contact with the criminal justice system. This is why I consider the Victim’s Justice Center (VJC) of the District Attorney’s Office an essential part of our mission to provide support to crime victims and their families.

In 2010, over 7,300 members of the community received assistance, information and guidance at the VJC, which is located in the District Attorney’s Office in the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains. VJC services are free of charge. The multi-lingual staff provides information about victims’ rights, safety planning, and resources available to them.

The VJC offers counseling and therapy at its offices, as well as referrals for support groups for families of homicide victims and victims of rape, childhood sexual assault, incest and elder abuse. The staff of the VJC provides referrals to shelters or safe houses if appropriate, as well as referrals to other agencies for services tailored to victims’ needs and the type of crime. VJC counselors accompany victims and their families to criminal court proceedings and provide interpreters to assist with translation if necessary. VJC staff assist victims in preparing victim impact statements to be read in court at the time of sentencing of a convicted offender.

The VJC provides help with applications for financial assistance from the New York State Office of Victim Services to compensate victims for lost income, funeral expenses for victims of homicide, medical and counseling expenses and loss of essential personal property. The VJC connects victims and their families to New York’s Victim Information and Notification Everyday (VINE) Program which provides prisoner status and release dates for convicted felony offenders in the state prison system.

At the District Attorney’s Office, we understand that victims of crimes, especially violent crimes, may lose their sense of personal safety and security. Taking the first steps by reporting the crime and seeking assistance can make a difference in moving forward. If you are a victim of a crime, contact your local police department to report it immediately. If you need help coping with the physical, psychological and financial impact of the crime, please contact the VJC for assistance.

Desk of the DA: Credit card scams

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore’s monthly message for December involves credit card “skimming,” or using illegal devices to read your credit card number:

As Westchester County’s chief law enforcement officer, I want to share with you my concern about an emerging trend here in our county and across the country known as “skimming.” This form of electronic theft involves the planting of illegal card reading devices and hidden cameras in and around ATMs to capture account information and PINs from unsuspecting customers. Bank personnel and members of law enforcement are carefully monitoring this crime trend to identify and arrest offenders and protect individuals’ finances. Particularly in this busy holiday shopping season, it is also important to raise public awareness of this issue.

Skimming is one of the new techniques criminals have developed to cash in on or steal your personal financial information. A specialized law enforcement task force, including members of my office, the Westchester County Police and nearly a dozen local police departments across our county, is working alongside the U.S. Secret Service to investigate instances where skimming has occurred. In the last 14 months, eight individuals in Westchester have been arrested on charges related to illegal skimming with devices discovered at banks in Yorktown Heights, Yonkers, Bronxville, Greenburgh, Tarrytown and Rye Brook.

The skimming method used by thieves at ATMs involves placing a skimmer, an illegal card-reading device that looks like the authentic reader, on top of an actual card-reading slot at an ATM. In addition, thieves may place a concealed, pinhole-sized camera nearby, in order to record the cardholder’s PIN. In stores and restaurants, skimming devices have also been used by dishonest employees to capture credit card account information when they swipe customers’ credit cards to pay for a bill. When skimming devices are used, customers usually go about their business, unaware that they have provided information to thieves. The thieves retrieve the recorded information and create counterfeit cards. Using the stolen account and PIN information, the thieves can “cash out” an account or fraudulently charge purchases to the credit card.

Some experts believe that skimming is costing banks across the country millions of dollars in losses. For victims, knowing that thieves have gained access to their personal financial information is very unsettling. Skimming devices may be difficult to detect, but I urge you to keep these important safety measures in mind when you are using your credit, debit or ATM card:

Check for any sign of tampering with the slot where you insert your card. Look at the area above and around the ATM for any sign of a concealed camera. As you punch in your PIN, use your hand to cover the keypad so that a hidden camera is unable to capture it. Never share your PIN or allow someone to punch in your PIN for you. Check your bank and credit card statements frequently and report any suspicious charges or activity to your financial institution immediately

Desk of the DA: Put down the cell phone while driving!

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore’s monthly message for November (edited for length) centers on the dangers of texting while driving:

As Westchester County’s chief law enforcement officer, I am concerned with all aspects of public safety, including safe driving, and I would like to focus drivers, especially young drivers and their parents, on safety issues and changes in the law with respect to driving while using cell phones and other hand-held portable electronic devices.

It is illegal in New York State for a driver to use a hand-held portable electronic device while driving. The new law allows a police officer to stop a vehicle whose driver is using a hand-held portable electronic device and issue the driver a ticket.  The new law defines “using” broadly, to include “holding a portable electronic device while viewing, taking or transmitting images, playing games, or composing, sending, reading, viewing, accessing, browsing, transmitting, saving or retrieving email, text messages or other electronic data.”  The new law also increases the penalty, from two to three points on the driver’s license, and allows for a maximum fine of $150.

Police in Westchester County have issued summonses to approximately 165 drivers for texting while driving as of mid-September, as compared to approximately 100 summonses for texting while driving in all of 2010. In that same July through mid-September period of this year, there were approximately 1,459 summonses issued to drivers in Westchester County for talking on their cell phones while driving.

We know based on research conducted in this area that using a cell phone or other hand-held electronic device is a dangerous distraction to a driver.  A Clemson University study carried out using a simulator found that text messaging and using iPods caused drivers to leave their lanes 10 percent more often than drivers who were not distracted. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 20% of injury crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving.

Teen drivers are of particular safety concern to me because of their relative inexperience as drivers and their high rate of texting. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teens. Nielsen reports that the average teen is sending or receiving 3,339 text messages every month, an astounding number that averages out to six messages per hour when these teens are not asleep. Pew Center researchers found that one in three texting teens, ages 16 to 17, admit to texting behind the wheel – one in three ! Government statistics show that the under-20 age group has the greatest proportion of distracted drivers. Of drivers under age 20 involved in fatal crashes, 16% were reportedly to have been distracted while driving.

Drivers need to put down hand-held device, and parents need to model this behavior for their children, just as they insist on seat belts. Let’s get back to road safety basics: keep your eyes, your hands and your mind on the road.

 

Desk of the DA: Domestic violence awareness

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore is focusing on domestic violence in her monthly message. In light of the recent Friedlander family murder-suicide in Cross River, it’s a message that is more than appropriate.

Every October, along with the leaves changing color, the color purple appears on ribbons and pins on lapels and signs posted in our neighborhoods as a way to promote Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As chief law enforcement officer and District Attorney of Westchester County, I would like to share with you the work that my office is doing to keep victims of domestic violence and their children safe, to hold offenders accountable for the crimes they commit, and to engage in public education strategies to prevent domestic violence.

Domestic violence occurs when an intimate partner exerts undue power and control over his (or less often, her) partner, using methods of control that can range from physical violence to emotional, verbal, sexual and even financial abuse. Nationally, nearly one in four women reports experiencing violence inflicted by a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in time. In New York State, almost half the women murdered are killed by an intimate partner. It is likely that someone you know has been or will be a victim of domestic violence. And for victims of domestic violence, choosing to leave an abusive partner can be difficult because of fear, and because of the emotional and financial ties that bind families together.

In the District Attorney’s Office, we prosecute all offenders who have committed acts of domestic abuse that violate our criminal laws. Our specially trained prosecutors seek to hold offenders accountable while finding outcomes that will be safest for victims and their children. Assisting our prosecutors is our team of domestic violence aides who assist victims in navigating the legal system, creating safety plans and linking victims to service resources. In 2010, my office handled over 2,700 cases of domestic violence in Westchester County. We anticipate that this year our case load will reach 3,000.

In order to provide support to victims of domestic violence on site near the District Attorney’s Office and the Courthouse in White Plains, in May 2010, Westchester County’s Family Justice Center opened its doors. This centralized, one-stop resource is located adjacent to the District Attorney’s Office and provides safety planning, legal assistance, counseling and other services for domestic violence victims and their children in one secure location. The Center is a collaboration between the District Attorney’s Office and the County’s Office for Women, and is supported by a federal grant. In 2010, the Center served and assisted 600 victims of domestic violence.

This month, my office is joining with our domestic violence partner agencies in a county-wide campaign to “Shine the Light on Domestic Violence.” The Special Prosecutions Division of my office will be distributing information as well as purple lapel ribbons which are symbolic of domestic violence awareness during the month of October. We will also be participating in important public education initiatives. On October 15, 2011, my office will be once again taking part in a seminar presented by the African American Men of Westchester, “Stop the Violence, Men Speaking to Men to Stop Violence against Women.” The goal of this event is to reach out to young men to promote positive, respectful relationships between intimate partners. On October 19, 2011, my office will participate in the annual Domestic Violence Police Training, and I will address police officers from around the county on the importance of their work on domestic violence. The conference will provide these law enforcement officers updates in the law and safety strategies when responding to a domestic violence call. These educational efforts are an integral part of my commitment to addressing domestic violence in Westchester County.

If you need immediate assistance, always call 911. For the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, please call 1-800-942-6906 (English) or 1-800-942-6908 (Spanish). For more information, please visit our website at www.westchesterda.net or the Family Justice Center website at http://women.westchestergov.com/about-us/family-justice-center.

9/11 film explores legal questions of human worth

A Westchester County woman has helped to produce a documentary focusing on the legal, moral, and ethical issues surrounding the 9/11 Victim’s Compensation Fund and its impact on the civil justice system.

Judy Wacht, a Purchase resident who worked for years as a guidance counselor at Blind Brook High School, is the associate producer of “Out of the Ashes 9/11.” The public is invited to a free screening of the film at 5:30 p.m on Monday, Sept. 12 at the New York County Lawyers Association, 14 Vesey Street, between Broadway and Church Street, one block from Ground Zero ( St. Paul’s Chapel is across the street).

The federal government created the Victim Compensation Fund 11 days after the attacks, making it one of the largest public entitlement programs ever. The film will explore questions such as: Was justice delivered? Were the methods for calculating the value of a human life, an appropriate model? Did the Fund undermine our legal system, hide the facts about 9/11, or offer 9/11 families a way to avoid the cost, complexity, and slow pace of a lawsuit?

Following the film will be discussion by the Co-director/Executive Producer of the film, Seattle University Law School Professor Professor Marilyn J. Berger and invited guests. The documentary will be shown again on Sept. 13 at 5 p.m. at the Quinnipac University School of Law and on Sept. 14 at the Yale School of Law.

In related news, this week’s edition of the New York Law Journal is featuring essays written by top judges and lawyers around the state about the impact 9/11 has had on the law and how it’s practiced. One of the essayists was Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore. Others include Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau, state Bar Association President Vincent E. Doyle III and former U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey.

Desk of the DA: Public Integrity prosecutors

Westchester County Janet DiFiore discusses the importance of prosecuting crimes by public servants and government employees:

As District Attorney and chief law enforcement officer in Westchester County, I believe that public servants must be held to the highest level of accountability, acting honestly and ethically when carrying out their duties, and should not use their position for personal financial gain. Corruption at any level erodes the confidence and trust that the public is entitled to have in its government. A dishonest public official or employee undermines our government’s ability to protect its citizens and one individual can taint an entire group or department of hard-working, honest public servants. That is why the investigations and prosecutions being carried out by the Public Integrity Bureau of my office are so vitally important.

The assistant district attorneys assigned to the Public Integrity Bureau in my office investigate and prosecute all types of crimes committed by public employees, elected officials, candidates for public office, and others who hold the public trust. As part of the Office’s Investigations Division, the Bureau investigates public corruption in government at all levels by any employee, including acts of larceny, bribery, perjury, election fraud, and other fraud-related crimes.

Government employees who serve in capacities that involve handling public funds have a fiduciary responsibility to correctly report financial transactions they oversee, a special duty because that money belongs to the public. My office aggressively pursues investigations into the theft and misuse of public funds and other crimes by utilizing the skills of experienced public integrity prosecutors, a squad of seasoned computer forensic investigators, and certified public accountants who forensically examine public and financial records for such criminal activity.

I have worked hard to create an atmosphere of public trust and confidence in the work of our Public Integrity Bureau. In 2010 alone, the Bureau opened 84 investigations. We successfully prosecuted cases that involved a county corrections officer who submitted fraudulent health insurance claims, an attorney who stole from his escrow fund, a postal worker who pilfered items instead of delivering them in the mail to the intended recipient, a local government worker who gave false testimony in a civil hearing to cover up his illegal receipt of monies from a elderly citizen, and a man who, on behalf of a husband, forged documents for an uncontested divorce without the wife’s knowledge.

Moreover, I created a Mortgage and Fraud Unit within the Public Integrity Bureau in response to the skyrocketing number of real estate related fraud cases, including mortgage fraud by owners, refinancing fraud using straw buyers, deed theft and foreclosure rescue scams. In 2010, a full-time forensic accountant was added to assist the unit with its increasing caseload. As a result of this new initiative, we uncovered a major mortgage fraud scheme involving the victimization of four families who were swindled out of the deeds to their homes which were then used by the defendants to obtain $1.4 million in bogus loans. Six defendants have been convicted to date for these crimes. And recently, we announced the indictment of a local political leader for residential mortgage fraud and a real estate attorney for his role in a scheme to defraud homeowners.

In its relentless pursuit of individuals who have stolen public funds, the Public Integrity Bureau prosecuted three individuals in the theft of Housing and Urban Development funds, as well as Social Security and Welfare benefits. In these cases, we have recovered over $130,000 in court-ordered restitution. These prosecutions are important not only because they hold wrong-doers accountable for their crimes, but because they also serve as a powerful deterrent to anyone who might think about defrauding the government and the taxpayers.

The important and complex work being done by the Public Integrity Bureau could not be accomplished without the willingness on the part of you, the public, and other government agencies to approach my office for assistance and cooperation in the area of public corruption and misconduct. In order to maintain the public trust and protect our tax dollars, we must work together toward our mutual goals. If you know of or suspect misconduct may be taking place, you can contact my office and make a formal complaint by first calling 995-3303 or by downloading a copy of the written complaint form online.

Westchester DA tapped to lead New York DA group

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore is now the newest president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York. She was sworn in to a one-year term on Saturday at the association’s annual conference in Cooperstown, N.Y. In a statement, DiFiore said she was “truly honored” to be chosen from among the state’s 62 District Attorneys.

“In any profession, receiving recognition from one’s peers always holds a particular distinction, and when coupled with the important work that the Association does on behalf of prosecutors throughout the state and being able to contribute to this coming year’s agenda is sincerely gratifying,” she said.

Franklin County District Attorney Derek P. Champagne, the association’s outgoing president, praised DiFiore’s experience, commitment and work ethic.

“Her tireless commitment to Justice through the Justice Task Force and her distinguished legal career makes her the perfect spokesperson and leader for the association,” he said in a written statement. “I look forward to assisting her in any way possible to build upon the associations’ reputation as being the preeminent voice of Justice and the voice for those who cannot speak because of acts of violence in New York State.”

The DA’s Association has about 1,000 members. It was formed in 1909 as a professional organization for district attorneys and assistant district attorneys in New York State. Thirty-eight district attorney offices have fewer than 10 prosecutors and 20 offices have fewer than five. Seven offices, including Westchester, have more than 100 prosecutors.

Photo: Champagne swearing in DiFiore on Saturday. Courtesy of the Westchester County District Attorney’s office.