New Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. vows to improve his office’s relationship with the local law enforcement community, partly by tackling some of the toughest cases to prosecute, not just the ones “wrapped up and tied with a bow.”
He plans to veer from the office’s existing plea policy, which resulted in plea-deal offers being pulled from the table after a defendant’s indictment.
Flynn also has named his new leadership team, adding three veteran local attorneys, all of whom previously worked for the District Attorney’s Office.
In an hourlong interview in his office this week – after 10 days on the job – Flynn also revealed that he plans to have a full-time prosecutor on public integrity cases, create a separate Narcotics Bureau and target drug dealers preying on opioid-addicted users.
He also plans on doing what he can to boost his office’s abysmal minority-hiring record.
Declining to take any verbal jabs at his predecessors in the District Attorney’s Office, and even saying he respects them all, Flynn mapped out a conscientious platform of new initiatives.
“I think the biggest change is going to be the relationship with law enforcement, specifically chiefs of suburban police agencies and the Buffalo Police Department,” Flynn said. “Their main concern was that they didn’t feel this office was taking on the tough cases, that they wanted cases that were wrapped up and tied with a bow.”
Flynn cited a widespread theory he’s heard that the 2012 acquittal of Dr. James G. Corasanti on the most serious charges in a hit-and-run vehicular death may have “spooked” the office, making the office more reluctant to tackle tough high-profile cases.
“I have no idea if that’s true or not,” he said.
But Flynn said he has made that new commitment clear to his attorneys.
“I told my troops on Day One when I met with them that they were not going to shy away from tough cases,” he said.
He said he understands the problem for prosecutors.
“Not every case has DNA. Not every case has an eyewitness. Not every case has a confession,” he said.
“My litmus test would be, I have to convince myself that this person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
For that, he plans on calling on his own experience, especially as a Town of Tonawanda judge for four years. The 50-year-old Flynn also has worked as both a criminal prosecutor and defense attorney.
“I’m not afraid to lose a case,” he said, adding that in a homicide case, for example, as long as he can look the victim’s family in the eye and say his prosecutors did the best they could, at the end of the day that would be enough.
Asked about specific policy changes, Flynn cited the plea-deal policy written by former District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III in 2011 that pulled reduced plea-deal offers after indictments.
The new district attorney vowed never to change two prongs of that policy, to assure felony cases move quickly out of lower courts and to trial.
But Flynn plans to stay away from such a blanket policy on plea deals.
“As of right now, I want to look at those on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “I’m not going to have a blanket policy.”
Another Flynn goal is to devote more resources to the root of the opioid problem, the dealers.
“You have drug dealers out there licking their chops, seeing this growing population [of opioid addicts], and they’re taking advantage of them,” he said.
So he plans on creating a stand-alone Narcotics Bureau, with its own chief and a third prosecutor added to that unit.
The new district attorney plans to encourage his assistants to support any diversionary drug programs in the city and town courts that can help people who are hooked on opioids.
“Let’s not treat these people as criminals first,” he said. “Let’s give these people some compassion and give them the help they need, unless they cross the line [into other criminal behavior].”
Flynn surprised his new staff when he asked for the resignations of two longtime office chiefs, Thomas M. Finnerty and Christopher J. Belling, considered go-to people for advice and their historical memories of the office.
His new administrative team will include Michael J. Keane, his first assistant, who will start March 1; William Coughlin as his chief deputy; and longtime criminal-defense attorney Joseph A. Agro.
“I wanted people who have been in this office,” he explained. “I wanted people I knew well and who are loyal to me. I believe I’m entitled to have my own leadership team. I ran on the issue of change in my campaign.”
Asked whether he’s leaned on any of his predecessor district attorneys, Flynn said he’s sought advice from Edward C. Cosgrove, his uncle, and Frank J. Clark, who hired Flynn when he was district attorney.
He even plans to reinstitute one of his uncle’s practices, assigning an individual assistant DA to every law enforcement agency in the county, to act as a liaison and field any complaints about the office.
Flynn also has his sights sets on improving minority hiring in the office, by hiring a minority investigator who will become the first one among 16 investigators. The office now has five minority attorneys among about 90 assistant district attorneys — less than 6 percent.
“I’m not going to pin myself to a number,” he said. “I just want more qualified minority candidates.”
Flynn also plans to assign one assistant district attorney to the Public Integrity Unit, which has lost its only prosecutor.
The new quick-talking district attorney, who wants to be known as “John” to everyone in the office, described himself as energetic and engaging, an administrator who won’t summon people to his office but will visit them while still keeping an open-door policy.
“People should not be afraid to tell me how they feel,” he added. “I want to improve the morale of this place.”
Asked whether he would take back or change the tone of anything he said about his opponents or predecessors in two heated campaigns last fall, Flynn repeated what he said at his swearing-in ceremony, that he may have been caught up in the campaign and said some stupid things.
“If I said anything that was out of line or over the top, I apologize.”