Even while playing out in the shadow of the larger State Assembly primary, the District Attorney’s race has been the far more fiery of the two contests— and in fairness, has crossed the line into rather ugly territory on more than one occasion. Perhaps that could have been predicted, as the 2016 competition between the two candidates, local attorney Ed Kopko and incumbent Matt Van Houten, ended with Kopko filing a lawsuit and calling the nomination process illegal after Van Houten was selected as the Democratic nominee.
The race comes at a particularly significant time for the criminal justice system and law enforcement, both of which are under significant scrutiny as protests over police brutality against Black people have dominated the national conscience over the last month. Both Kopko and Van Houten have supported the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the police reform package that was recently signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Kopko has been consistent in his attacks on Van Houten: that his office isn’t diverse enough, that he hasn’t done enough to reform the criminal justice system locally during his four years in office, and that Kopko represents a more progressive alternative. He also hasn’t shied away from bashing Van Houten over specific low points in his tenure (a sentiment even Van Houten would partially agree to), namely the incumbent’s conduct during the prosecution of Rose DeGroat and Cadji Ferguson, two Black people roughly tackled and arrested by Ithaca police officers after an altercation with another group on the Commons in April. The incident has become a primary point of contention in the campaign, intensified by the fact that Kopko was DeGroat’s defense attorney for the case. Van Houten’s pursuit of charges in the case drew scorn at the time and has continued to do so, even after Ferguson was found not guilty and DeGroat’s felony charges were dismissed. Van Houten has acknowledged “missteps” during the process and admitted to moving too quickly, but has maintained he presented options in the case that would have allowed the cases to be sealed after a restorative justice process.
Van Houten has responded as most incumbents would, by defending his hiring policies and touting the progress that has been made, like the 2018 establishment of the Mental Health Court in Ithaca which he hopes to help expand and falling jail populations while he has supported Alternatives to Incarceration, while rebuking Kopko for selling a vision that isn’t realistic given some of the limitations of the office. One of the larger ideas Van Houten has pushed during the campaign has been the establishment of a stronger community police board which would be able to enforce more accountability on officers in Tompkins County and serve as a more powerful liaison between the community and law enforcement.
Kopko has also taken advantage of the recent protests about racist police violence, delivering a speech in front of the gathered crowd on the Commons on June 14 and using the ongoing rallies to consistently re-air Van Houten’s handling of the DeGroat and Ferguson cases. Both DeGroat and Ferguson have spoken at these rallies as well, with DeGroat specifically urging people to vote for Kopko. He’s excoriated Van Houten for not being tough enough on the police who were involved in those arrests, though Van Houten has said that their conduct was wrong but not to the extent of criminal charges.
The candidates do agree on two primary topics: bail reform and the repeal of Civil Rights Law 50a. Both voiced support for the 50a repeal just before it was approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, ending over 40 years of police and corrections officers’ personnel records being sealed to the public. Both also endorse bail reform and the reduction of cash bail practices, though Van Houten did say he thought District Attorneys statewide should have been more involved in the initial statewide bail reforms package, which would have helped it maintain traction instead of being walked back by politicians earlier this year.
But aside from their agreements, mud has continued to be slung late in the race between the two candidates. On Thursday, June 11, Kopko posted a letter to his Facebook page alleging that Van Houten had sent an email to an attorney in Kopko’s divorce proceedings, which are ongoing. Presumably, Van Houten meant to send the email, which contained publicly available information on Kopko’s campaign funding, to Kopko’s wife’s attorney, but Van Houten actually sent it to the attorney representing Kopko. Kopko alleged that this represented a malicious ethics violation and that it happened on tax-payer time; while the email likely represents an unbecoming political tactic, its actual illegality is dubious since the information was already public.
“It’s frustrating that Mr. Kopko continues to use the bully pulpit of social media to drag this race through the mud,” Van Houten’s statement said. “His language, accusations and obvious fabrications of DA’s role and it’s office is truly exhausting at this point. Publicly available documents are just that, available to the public. There are no ethical concerns therein. My personal intention is to always advocate for women, and I will continue to do so.”
As for Kopko, he’s faced questions about his conduct during a 2018 rape trial in which he filed a lawsuit on behalf of his client alleging the victim was committing defamation; his client, Matthew Pinney, later admitted to raping her while she was incapacitated. Kopko said he was simply trying to defend his client most effectively and didn’t know the rape had occurred when he filed the suit; Van Houten called the move “pure harassment” and said it “shocked the conscience.”
Further, a document leaked to the Ithaca Times shows that Judge John C. Rowley admonished Kopko during a 2019 criminal trial, accusing him of deception for “cutting and pasting paragraphs from different documents made at different times and reordering the paragraphs without proper attribution” and declaring that Kopko would be hit with sanctions over the conduct. The document seems to lend some credence to Van Houten’s vague but pointed attacks late in the campaign that Kopko is an untrustworthy corner-cutter.
“Such unethical conduct by an officer of the court is deeply troubling,” Rowley wrote. “Sanctions will be imposed.”
But in response, Kopko shared a letter with the Ithaca Times that he sent back to Rowley. The Ithaca Times has confirmed that sanctions beyond Rowley's letter were not imposed, but that Kopko's conduct as explained did take place in the view of the court. Kopko accused Rowley of impartiality, “favoritism, anger, antagonism, revenge [and] disrespect” in the letter and asked to start a Judicial Conduct Review.
The two men have vowed they will support whoever is the nominee and not run a third party campaign after the primary. The truthfulness of these statements bears watching.