With just two weeks left until the primary election, incumbent Tompkins County District Attorney Matt Van Houten and challenger Ed Kopko traded blows in a fiery debate held on community radio station WRFI.?
The forum, hosted by news director Michayla Savitt (with full audio here), featured questions both on past actions and policy priorities either candidate would push for when in office. Overall, it sealed the theme of much of this campaign: these two men, whatever their policy disagreements, also just don’t like each other. Notably, though, they both did commit to not running as a third party candidate if defeated in the Democratic primary on June 23.?
“If you want a DA who will lie to you, who will use unscrupulous tactics, I am not your guy,” Van Houten said in his opening statement, setting the tone for the debate. “The community should not wonder about the integrity of the District Attorney.”?
Van Houten came out swinging, saying that Kopko’s platform is either stuff that Van Houten is already doing, or things that aren’t possible. Van Houten also advocated for the creation of a strong, diverse community police board during his opening comments.
Kopko responded in kind, blaming Van Houten for using the campaign to make promises that the DA hasn’t made progress on over the first four years of his term. Kopko quickly brought up the Commons incident from last year (much more on that later), a black mark that continues to haunt Van Houten and has become a central theme of the debates between the two and the campaign in general.?
“His admission of mistakes has never turned into an apology to the community or to the people who have been directly involved in this,” Kopko said, referring to Rose DeGroat and Cadji Ferguson. “Ignoring these concerns creates a lack of accountability that fosters racism. When people close their eyes to systemic prejudices, they become part of the problem.”
Early debate touched upon the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program and the Mental Health Court established in 2018 in the City of Ithaca. Van Houten, long a proponent of the additional court avenue, said that his vision for the court is to expand it beyond Ithaca and noted that other jurisdictions can now refer people to the court.?
Calling the court a “laudable idea,” Kopko still cautioned that involving the courts in the matters of mental health is a risky proposition in his mind.?
“I’m not totally convinced that the proper forum for these people is to funnel them into an already overloaded court system,” Kopko said, though his time was cut before he was able to explain which social services he would employ to handle them. Van Houten did use a rebuttal on that point, saying that sometimes it is difficult to tell without the screening process (which the Mental Health Court utilizes) that a mental health issue is the primary problem for someone accused of a crime.?
Both, obviously, endorsed widespread use of alternatives to incarceration, with Van Houten touting that the jail population has fallen under his watch. They also endorsed the use of Cultural Competency Training among police officers. Kopko once again swiped at the diversity of Van Houten’s office, clearly implying that his office has a racial diversity problem, though Van Houten said he is only able to hire who applies and hasn’t been able to recruit more widely. Kopko didn’t buy that answer, arguing that Van Houten should be putting in more effort to find minority Assistant District Attorneys.?
The candidates were then asked about public complaints regarding lenient sentences for sex offenses. The primary case this stems from is that of Remanu Philips (though that specific case wasn’t actually vocalized), who was convicted of felony sexual abuse of a 10 year old but only sentenced to six months in prison.?
Kopko blamed it on Van Houten’s charging patterns, saying the charges the DA has brought don’t result in harsh enough minimum sentences, allowing judges more leeway to give low sentences.?
“That explanation by my opponent is absurd,” Van Houten quickly shot back, noting that the prosecutor on the Philips case had indeed asked Judge John C. Rowley for a five year prison sentence. He argued that his office charges what they believe the evidence can give them. “In those cases, we’ve been dissatisfied with those sentences. [...] Sentencing is up to the judge, not the DA.”?
On the topic of protests about police violence, Kopko took the opportunity to once again use the Commons case, in which he represented Rose DeGroat, to paint Van Houten as beholden to the police. DeGroat and Cadji Ferguson, both black, were thrown to the ground and arrested by Ithaca police in a case that drew scorn from the public and has reemerged during the recent local protests about police brutality.?
“As a result of that, the entire integrity of the criminal justice system is affected,” Kopko said as he accused Van Houten of allowing the police to manipulate the charges brought against DeGroat and Ferguson; the former had her charges dropped, while Ferguson was found not guilty. He continued that he would try to repeal qualified immunity and impose personal damages on “rogue cops.” Van Houten called Kopko’s allegation of undue influence “reckless” and said that while Judge Rowley (who dropped the charges against DeGroat) characterized the police’s behavior as an “overreaction,” that did not amount to criminal behavior on their part.?
The tone of the debate then took a definitive turn, with Kopko and Van Houten both knocked slightly off-balance by listener-submitted questions. The first was for Kopko, who was asked about his campaign as a Republican for District Attorney in Pennsylvania in the 1980s, which included harsh positions on non-violent drug offenders, counter to what he has touted now.
“I have been growing and developing in my positions, I am proud to say,” Kopko said, a bit defensive. He said that drug culture has changed and more is known about the root causes now. “We now understand that these are socioeconomic and cultural problems and not individual problems. [...] I am, today, holding a position very different than I was 30 years ago.”
Next was Van Houten, who faced another question from listeners about how he handled the DeGroat-Ferguson situation from last April. Van Houten has commented at length on the case before, repeatedly citing his “missteps,” though these might have been his most thorough, candid comments yet.?
“I absolutely would have done things differently,” Van Houten said. “What I did wrong was I moved too fast, and I listened to a lot of people during the course of that case, trying to do the right thing. I really wanted to do restorative justice and have a mediation in the case so everyone can understand the points of view of others. But I think that if I would do it over again, I would do it slower and more careful.”
Van Houten continued that he knows he caused trauma to DeGroat and Ferguson, and that he regrets that, but that with both of them eventually freed “the system ultimately worked.”
Kopko took the opportunity to pounce on Van Houten, saying that if he never had the intention of leaving the two with criminal charges, he shouldn’t have pursued felony charges against DeGroat and again lodged that Van Houten had been unduly influenced by police.?
“My opponent’s statement that I was improperly influenced by the police is baseless, reckless and flat out untrue,” Van Houten said. “I know what the proposed offers in those cases were. [...] I did not want there to be permanent consequences of these young people.”
Kopko was then posed a question about his conduct during the Scott Walters trial last year. Walters, a Tompkins County police officer, was acquitted of first degree rape charges during the trial. Matthew Pinney, Kopko’s client, served as a witness in the case and admitted that he had raped the woman while she was incapacitated, but had received a deal before testifying that resulted in him only receiving misdemeanor charges. On Pinney’s behalf, Kopko filed a civil suit against the victim for defamation and emotional distress, and was asked how he could be trusted to support victims with that kind of mark on his resume.?
Kopko answered that he had an obligation to do everything within reason to defend his client, and felt that he had not gone out of bounds during the course of that, arguing that Pinney had deceived him by telling him the intercourse was consensual when the suit was filed. Van Houten took the opportunity to call Kopko’s filing of the suit reprehensible.?
“I have never heard of a defense attorney bringing a civil defamation lawsuit against a sexual assault victim,” Van Houten said. “That is beyond the pale and it is pure harassment. It shocks the conscience.”
When asked, Van Houten said he did not believe there was any police misconduct in the Nagee Green case, who was convicted of killing Anthony Nazaire in 2017 but for whom justice activists have rallied for recently, and that there was no reason for a retrail. Kopko then challenged Van Houten to re-try the case if he was so confident in the outcome.?
The two closed with statements reiterating much of what their campaigns have focused on: Van Houten on his track record and that Kopko is liable to cut corners if elected, and Kopko that the election provides an opportunity to advance his vision, which he argues fits the community better than Van Houten’s last four years has.