Not you’re Average “Joe”: Crimes & Misdemeanors in the Race for Brooklyn DA
By Terrence M. Winston
Incumbent Charles “Joe” Hynes is looking to be re-elected to the Brooklyn District Attorney office for an unprecedented fifth term. Several newspapers (including this one) have reported on the alleged improper use and abuse of power that DA Hynes and his office exercise. Power, he’s not ready to relinquish. But there is one candidate that has him looking over his shoulder, again: Sandra Roper. Four years ago Ms. Roper, on a hope and a prayer budget, lassoed nearly 37% of the votes; widening the eyes of many political pundits who assumed that her chances of winning were nil. For Ms. Roper this race is more than just about winning a powerful position free of term limits, she says that, “It’s all for the people of Brooklyn, because they deserve better.”
The real tale behind the scramble for the office of District Attorney is something out of a Machiavelli children’s story. Both current and former candidates challenging Hynes have felt his fangs puncture their images and suck the life out of their campaigns; they have suffered strategically timed indictments, being thrown off ballots, and having personal assets seized. Ms. Roper, who recently defeated accusations and charges of forgery and fraud by a former client, for the second time (first before a grievance committee which found no fault; then before a hung jury) is continuing a battle initially waged by retired Judge John L. Philips and campaign compatriot John O’Hara. O’Hara, a campaign adviser for Ms. Roper and former political aspirant, says he has had, “three trials and ten appeals,” after having been indicted on voter fraud by the DA’s office. Eventually he was convicted; a felony that cost him $20,000 and 1500 hours of community service (which he is still serving) and disbarment.
Judge Philips is remembered as one of the many colorful personalities that graced the Bedford-Stuyvesant community for years. According to Ms. Roper, he was coined “the Kung-Fu Judge” for running his own martial arts dojo on Nostrand Avenue and dispensing “Kung-Fu Justice” in the courtrooms. He instructed students on his “gorilla-gnat” martial art style, a hybrid developed after years of study in the Far East. He was also a neighborhood real estate magnate, owning several properties valued at an estimated $10 million. One of those properties is the closed Slave Theatre on Fulton St. off Bedford Avenue, where generations of community residents went to have their minds and spirits nourished by the lectures of some of our finest scholars.
Described by O’Hara as “a rebel,” Phillips served 13 distinguished years on the bench in Brooklyn’s courts. In 2001, Mr. Phillips aided by Mr. O’Hara, then a political gadfly with political roots in Sunset Park, decided to make a second attempt at running for Brooklyn DA His first try in 1997, was thwarted when he got kicked off of the ballot, an easy accomplishment due to the way the rules are set up. A candidate gets on the ballot by filling out petitions signed by registered voters. Apparently any mistakes made on the petitions; a misspelled name, wrong address or abbreviation, can result in that candidate being disqualified and an opponent has the right to challenge the authenticity of a candidate’s petitions. The result can be extended court sessions, a lot of wasted time and denying voters a greater variety of choice. Part of O’Hara’s responsibility in the 2001 campaign was to assure that Judge Phillips got and remained on the ballot.
It was during this time that Ms. Roper was being encouraged to run for City Council. A Panamanian immigrant who began her career in the pharmaceutical industry, Roper never had aspirations to serve in public office. Describing herself as, “generally a grassroots person,” her interests have always been with the residents in the Bed-Stuy community, specifically the elderly. She was busy nurturing the NAACP legal clinic, her creation, and battling against predatory lending (a process where certain banks and mortgage companies prey on the ignorance or desperation of low income loan applicants, making the terms such that it is impossible to repay the often exorbitant interests rates, leaving them vulnerable to foreclosure) by using her considerable skill as an attorney to provide services that helped to improve the lives of the people in the community. As is often the case with those who facilitate change for others, Roper was unaware that she too was being affected by change.
The tentacles of DA Hynes’ office had tightened its grip on the life and assets of Judge Phillips. Hynes claimed that Philips was suffering some kind of dementia and was in danger of being taken advantage of by financial predators. The court ruled that Phillips was incapable of handling his personal affairs and appointed a temporary legal guardian who seized control of his assets. Judge Phillips no longer lives in Brooklyn. On December 28. 2004, he was moved from the Bronx VA Hospital to the East Haven Nursing & Rehab Center where he’s currently living. After it became obvious that Judge Phillips wouldn’t be able to continue his quest for office, Ms. Roper took up the baton and is anchoring the final leg of the race.
O’Hara is still licking his wounds too. A compelling figure in all of this, he has the dubious distinction of being the only other person since Susan B. Anthony in 1876, to be convicted of a felony over a suffrage law. In spite of his challenges he feels that what was done and is being done to Judge Phillips is the real crime. Acknowledging the DA’s misuse of power as a symptom of a larger political disease he says, “Prosecutors are above the law.” O’Hara believes Hynes is worried that Roper, based on how many votes she received in the 2001 election, may eat more votes in this election thereby potentially unseating him. He also cited that Liz Holzman is the only other woman to serve as DA in Brooklyn (coincidentally the person whom Hynes replaced in ’89) adding, “There is a bias in voting for women for DA. Sandra is the type of person who should be the Brooklyn DA.”
Ms. Roper has big plans for Brooklyn. The death penalty and the Rockefeller drug laws are two issues she takes an uncompromising stand against. Her first words at the beginning of the interview were, “If you want to stand for justice, it starts with a clean hand and a clean heart.” The Brooklyn criminal justice system could use a good cleansing. www.Roper2005.com Comments can be sent to this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
(As of this writing DA Hynes could not be reached for comment)