The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association demanded May 1 that the New York City Bar Association withdraw a report calling for the State Legislature to repeal a law protecting police officers’ disciplinary records from public scrutiny, saying its writers had a conflict of interest because they were involved in litigation opposing the statute.
“This tainted report is a serious black eye for the City Bar Association and its reputation for integrity and objectivity,” PBA President Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement. “The authors have engaged in clear ethical misconduct by failing to recuse themselves or to even note their obvious conflicts of interest.”
‘Omissions and Biases’
“They have co-opted the City Bar into putting its stamp on a report full of mischaracterizations, omissions and biases to support their own anti-police legal agenda, making a mockery of the organization’s standards of objectivity,” he continued. “...The only solution is for the City Bar to rescind this report and reprimand the authors for their unethical behavior.”
In releasing the report April 30, the bar association joined about 30 other groups calling for a repeal of Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law, which was passed 42 years ago with the support of police unions. The goal of the law was to keep attorneys for criminal defendants from rummaging through police records in order find unsubstantiated information they could use to impeach officers on the witness stand. It requires that either a judge or the officers involved approve the release of disciplinary data.
“Because of overbroad interpretations of CRL 50-a, public awareness of police misconduct is stymied,” the bar association’s report said. “And without transparency, officers may be less accountable to the communities they serve.”
The law has been a particular issue in New York City, which had not followed it until two years ago, when disciplinary reports were suddenly removed from the NYPD press room. Police-reform advocates said that flew in the face of Mayor de Blasio’s promise of greater transparency.
Mr. de Blasio replied that he would ask the Legislature to repeal the law but that the city needed to follow it until that happened. A legal challenge to the law is now before the state Court of Appeals.
Authors Not Objective
The PBA said the report’s two authors are involved in litigation filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society that opposes the bill. Cynthia Conti-Cook is a senior attorney at Legal Aid and has personally represented it in numerous recent legal challenges to the law, the union said. She has also criticized the law in the news media, the PBA said.
Philip Desgranges is a senior staff attorney at the NYCLU, which is involved in a legal challenge to the law, according to the union.
Mr. Desgranges is chairman of the bar association’s Civil Rights Committee and Ms. Conti-Cook is a member.
“The City Bar’s Handbook confirms that interested members like Ms. Conti-Cook and Mr. Desgranges have absolutely no business drafting or approving reports,” the PBA said. “Specifically, the handbook states that: ‘There may be occasions when a member has such an immediate, direct interest in a particular set of issues that the perception of his or her involvement in any committee report or action involving these issues will compromise the integrity of the process...In such instances, a member must always disclose his or her activity to the committee, and as appropriate, recuse himself or herself from discussion, research, drafting and/or approval of any report or statement touching these issues.’”
The report did not disclose the authors’ employment, the employers’ challenges to Section 50-a or Ms. Conti-Cook’s advocacy against the law, the PBA said.
“Unfortunately, by issuing a report that is transparently intended to advance the litigation and other interests of two committee members (and their unnamed employers), the City Bar fell woefully short of satisfying its own ethical guidelines,” Mr. Lynch wrote in a May 1 letter to the bar association’s president, John S. Kiernan.
Mr. Lynch noted that Mr. Kiernan had recused himself from reviewing the report because his law firm was involved in a matter involving Section 50-a. The union leader complimented Mr. Kiernan for his withdrawal.
But, he continued, “It cannot possibly be the case that you were appropriately recused from even reviewing the report based on this more-tangential Section 50-a connection, while committee members such as Ms. Conti-Cook who actively litigate Section 50-a cases—and have pending appeals—remain free to draft the report.”
The list of organizations that have signed on to the request to repeal the law included the NYCLU, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the New York State Committee on Open Government, Reinvent Albany and Citizens Union.