ITHACA, N.Y. –– On Monday night, WRFI Community Radio News hosted a District Attorney candidates forum between incumbent Matthew Van Houten and his challenger, Ithaca Attorney Ed Kopko.
The hour was contentious as Kopko hammered the current DA with critiques of for his actions in last year’s Commons incident that have been reinvigorated in light of recent police brutality protests. Van Houten fired back with implications that his opponent has continuously been less than truthful in his criticism and that personal attacks leveled against him are “unbecoming of a District Attorney.”
The two spoke on alternatives to incarceration, cultural competency in the DAs office, Wellness and Recovery court and sex crime sentencing.
Perhaps the most striking moment of the hour was a long silence that followed a question by moderator and WRFI News Director Michayla Savitt regarding Kopko’s role in a defamation complaint leveled against the woman at the center of last year’s Scott Walters trial on behalf of his client Matthew Pinney.
Pinney, who got a plea deal in exchange for testifying in Walters’ trial, had brought a civil suit for defamation and emotional distress against the woman in trial’s early stages –– Pinney later told the court he raped the woman while she was incapacitated. Savitt’s question, submitted by a listener, asked “how can we trust you to support and believe survivors when your history shows you support rape culture?”
“At the time that the claim was brought against the women, my client was insisting that there had been consensual sex with that and that was the basis for a defamation claim against her, based upon the information that was immediately available to me,” Kopko said in response. “Later as we proceeded with the case, that lawsuit was dismissed and there was a disposition of the case that was totally consistent with the facts that were explained in court.”
The forum gave candidates three minutes each for opening statements, one minute to answer questions from the community posed by Savitt, 30 seconds to respond to their opponent and two minutes for a closing statement.
In the first half of the forum, many of the questions were centered around community policing. Again, Ed Kopko took every opportunity to bring up Van Houten’s missteps involving the Commons case and a perceived inclination to protect law enforcement.
“When Mr. Van Houten had the opportunity arising from the Commons case, he did absolutely nothing but protect the police. The county court decision, dismissing the charges against Rose DeGroat noted that the Ithaca Police overreacted. That in and of itself should have been prompt to investigate the Ithaca Police,” Kopko said.
Van Houten responded, “If there was any crime committed by any of the police officers, I would have changed that and my opponent knows that there are no criminal charges that could be applied and he’s just throwing it out there because he knows they could not be changed with any crimes.” Later, when the subject was broached again, Van Houten discussed what he would have done differently, given the chance.
“I think that if I would do over again, I would be slower, I would be more careful and I understand that mistake that I made caused trauma to Rose and Cadji, and I do regret that and I think it’s important to note that at no time, did I ever propose a resolution to that case that would’ve resulted in a criminal conviction. Those cases would’ve been sealed under the proposal I had made and I think the system ultimately worked,” Van Houten said.
The second portion of the forum directed more specific questions aimed at each candidate. Van Houten was asked about the trial of Nagee Green for the murder of Ithaca College student Anthony Nazaire in addition to more questions regarding the Commons incident.
Kopko was questioned about his 1989 run for DA in Pennsylvania, during which he ran on a conservative Republican platform of harsh punishments for non-violent drug crimes.
“We had less understanding about the human problems that were causing all of this stuff,” Kopko said. “Yes, I am today holding a position that was different from 30 years ago and I’m very proud to say that I’ve grown and developed in that position and I hope to continue to do it.”
Kopko and Van Houten will be competing for the Tompkins County District Attorney Democratic nomination coming up on June 23. Find out more about how to vote with an absentee ballot here.
You can listen to the entire forum below.