Ours is the only nation in the world where local prosecutors are elected, a way for citizens to hold them accountable for the enormous power they wield on individual lives and our collective well-being.
That wasn't always the case. District attorneys were once appointed by governors or the state's top judge. The result was patronage for political supporters and partisan investigations of political opponents. A reform movement swept the nation in the mid-19th century, and the public won the right to elect local prosecutors.
So now district attorneys must respond to the electorate even though their institutional role demands they be separate and removed from everyday politics.
Acting Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, a Democrat, and Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, a Republican, are in a fierce race to succeed Kathleen Rice.
Few do retail politics better than Murray, always accessible and delivering what her constituents want. Unfortunately, her extensive resume does not include the critical background in criminal law and courtroom procedure that is essential to being a successful prosecutor.
Singas doesn't have Murray's high name recognition. Instead, she brings 24 years of respected experience in law enforcement. The evidence points to only one verdict: Singas is by far the better choice.
Rice hired Singas away from the Queens district attorney in 2006 to head Nassau's special victims unit, which deals with crimes against children, sexual abuse and domestic violence. Singas, 49, of Manhasset, became top deputy in 2011; and when Rice left for Congress in January, Singas became Nassau's acting district attorney and has handled the job ably.
Stopping 'pay to play'
Singas has shown she's willing to fight public corruption and stop the pay-to-play culture corroding the public's faith in government.
After a federal indictment charged state Sen. Dean Skelos and his son with improperly influencing the county's awarding of a $12 million wastewater treatment contract, Singas responded by reviewing Nassau's entire contracting process.
That investigation is continuing. But in July she issued a report that found deep flaws in the county's system, one that failed to flag potential conflicts of interest, including identifying vendors with criminal convictions and shaky finances.
Her findings pressured Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano to appoint a panel led by former Nassau Interim Finance Authority chairman Frank Zarb and accept its recommendation to improve the process. Singas wants to extend her review to Nassau's towns and cities.
Using her office as a tool to make systemic changes is also seen in her comprehensive response to the heroin scourge. Beyond the criminal prosecution of dealers and traffickers, she wants to reduce demand.
Singas is funding a desperately needed program to provide round-the-clock treatment of heroin addicts. The program will allow Maryhaven's Hope Crisis Center in Freeport to have 35 beds for those who overdose, are revived with Narcan in emergency rooms but then have no place to go to kick their habit. Maryhaven vans will go to emergency rooms evenings and weekends to take recovering addicts directly to the facility. In crafting her plan, Singas worked with addiction counselors and families. The $585,000 program is the first in the state paid for with forfeiture funds, the assets seized as criminal proceeds.
Wrong place to learn the job
Murray, 53, of Levittown, who has led Hempstead for 12 years, sees the job of district attorney as one of setting a vision and then managing the office of 187 attorneys to achieve it.
This managerial approach worked in her current job and prior positions as a state legislator and town clerk. But being a prosecutor demands singular skills and specialized knowledge that take a long time to develop. Her few years as an assistant attorney general defending the state against lawsuits by state prison inmates isn't enough. Leading an organization while trying to develop a deep and granular understanding of what it does would present a steep uphill climb.
Critical legal skills
The district attorney is solely responsible for decisions on civil liberties -- such as signing affidavits, authorizing search warrants and wiretaps, dismissing cases when there is no evidence to support charges, or indicting someone despite his or her prominence or political connections.
Murray deflects concern that she would be the first district attorney in recent history on Long Island not to come from the ranks of active attorneys working in criminal justice or from the judiciary. Pointing to her job as supervisor, Murray says she has surrounded herself with smart staffers to run the town. Managing the budget, she says, is one of her top skills, and her campaign literature includes the phrase "tax cutter." That's not only inaccurate, it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the unique nature of the post she is seeking. If Murray wants to move on to a countywide office, she seems better suited as a candidate for county executive.
In detailing her priorities as district attorney, Murray lists battling the heroin epidemic, domestic violence and political corruption. Murray says she will advocate for tougher sentences for drug dealers, although it is the presiding judge in a particular case who makes that decision. Targeting the heroin scourge on the streets is a complex effort that involves working with federal agents in the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to take down trafficking rings. It will take Murray a long time to establish the deep trust and professional respect needed to work on sensitive investigations in which strategies and confidential informants are shared.
Murray likes Singas' idea
Murray understands well the toll the heroin problem has taken on the county's young adults.
Her answer is to expand Singas program. That's quite an endorsement of her challenger. Singas said she will commit more funds but she wants the pilot program tested before expanding it.
As for her third priority, public corruption, Murray asserts she has done more than Singas on this front. Her sole example is that she turned over a complaint in 2012 that then-Hempstead Town Clerk Mark Bonilla had made unwanted advances on a young female staffer. Murray said she called Rice directly. She did, but then Rice turned to Singas to oversee the case. Singas uncovered much more damning evidence against Bonilla, and he was convicted of official misconduct.
Sexual harassment by an elected official is an uncommon definition of public corruption. And Murray only reported an incident that was reverberating off the walls at town hall.
When asked whether she would prosecute county legislators for the misuse of taxpayer dollars on official mailers before Election Day, Murray said there were "issues far more important that should be focused on." Singas wants the law changed so that she can.
Public officials who can't or won't do what is expected of them are exactly what's frustrating Americans from Main Street to Washington. Choose a district attorney who can and wants to do the job.
Newsday endorses Singas.