Harvey Weinstein, the Trumps and the OTHER swamp

Manhattan DA defends not prosecuting Weinstein
Manhattan DA defends not prosecuting Weinstein

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Manhattan DA defends not prosecuting Weinstein 01:33

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: In separate cases Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance declined to prosecute both Harvey Weinstein and the Trump Organization
  • Louis: Vance's campaign accepted campaign contributions from lawyers for the potential targets of investigation, some of which he returned

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Add Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance to the long list of people harmed by the exploding Harvey Weinstein scandal. Critics are faulting Vance for failing to prosecute Weinstein in 2015, when an Italian model told cops she'd been sexually abused by the movie mogul and worked with police to record Weinstein admitting to grabbing her.

Vance is being slammed for declining to charge Weinstein with a misdemeanor sex crime -- and later that year accepting a $10,000 campaign contribution from David Boies, one of Weinstein's attorneys. Vance says he didn't have sufficient evidence to prosecute Weinstein, that Boies was not Weinstein's lawyer in that criminal case, and that the donation had nothing to do with his decision in the case.
The controversy won't put Vance's job in danger. He's cruising to an all-but-certain re-election to a third term in November. Vance faced no Democratic challenger in the primary and Republicans didn't even bother to field an opponent this year.
    But the episode is an occupational hazard for Vance, who operates with a white-hot spotlight on his every move. He oversees hundreds of prosecutors in a high-profile jurisdiction that includes Wall Street, the United Nations and the homes of a noisy crowd of billionaires, celebrities and power brokers.
    And because Manhattan is also the nation's media capital -- home to the headquarters of CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and the New York Times -- every controversial move by Vance can easily end up being picked over, second-guessed and broadcast worldwide.
    The Weinstein controversy, for instance, comes on the heels of a damning investigative report about a questionable real estate deal involving two of President Donald Trump's children. Once again, Vance declined to prosecute powerful New Yorkers involved and received a political donation from their lawyers around the same time.
    That case is centered on the Trump SoHo, a troubled condominium project in Manhattan.
    According to a story jointly reported by the New Yorker, ProPublica and public radio station WNYC, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. faced a probe and the possibility of indictment in 2012 for allegedly deceiving buyers of units at the SoHo about the financial status of the project.
    And when it looked like prosecutors might come after The Trump Organization, a combination of well-timed political donations and direct pressure on an elected official, described in the article, gave the appearance of greasing the wheels so that Ivanka and Junior could walk away scot-free.
    Trump sons distance themselves from fundraiser
    Trump sons distance themselves from fundraiser

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    Trump sons distance themselves from fundraiser 02:06
    The problems began in 2006, when Donald Trump and his family organization launched the Trump SoHo project -- with Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. signing the licensing deal alongside their father in a public passing of the torch.
    In 2008, the two, along with Ivanka's brother Eric, made a press appearance at which Ivanka Trump falsely claimed that 60% of the units had been snapped up by investors, even though, according to a sworn affidavit by a Trump partner filed with the New York Attorney General's office, by March of 2010, almost two years after the press conference, fewer than 16% of the condos had been sold, the New Yorker story said.
    Lying about the slow pace of sales may have tricked potential buyers into paying more than the units were worth. And under the terms of the deal, according to the New Yorker story, buyers would be owed a refund unless a minimum 15% of the condos were sold.
    Some investors sued The Trump Organization and other backers of the SoHo project for their money back, alleging a "substantial and ongoing pattern of fraudulent misrepresentations and deceptive sales practices" and "a consistent and concerted pattern of outright lies." And the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance -- specifically, the Major Economic Crimes Bureau -- began probing the case to see if the actions of the Trump children amounted to a crime.
    The Trumps reportedly pressured Vance to drop the criminal case by sending their attorney, Marc Kasowitz -- who also happened to be a donor to Vance's political campaign -- to speak directly with Vance. (Kasowitz had donated $25,000 to Vance's campaign in January, 2012, which the chief deputy district attorney at the time directed the campaign to return before Vance met with Kasowitz about the case in May of that year, according to an article in the New York Times.)
    Three months after that meeting, Vance ordered his prosecutors to stand down and not proceed with the case. And five months after that, Kasowitz hosted an event and donated $32,000 of his own money to Vance's campaign (after the New Yorker story was published, Vance announced the money would now also be refunded; both Vance and Kasowitz told reporters that his contributions were not a quid pro quo).
    In the end, after reaching a settlement with the Trumps and their partners, the investors who'd sued got 90% of their money back (The Trump Organization admitted no wrong-doing) and, according to the New Yorker story, "agreed not to cooperate with prosecutors unless they were subpoenaed." Vance told the Times that this non-cooperation from victims was largely responsible for his calling off the case.
    Role of Trump's children in the White House
    Role of Trump's children in the White House

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    Role of Trump's children in the White House 04:18
    A Trump lawyer said the buyers' lawsuit was a case of "buyers' remorse" related to their mistimed purchase of real estate and was not focused on Trump Sr. "in any material way," according to a Times story last April. The SoHo ended up in foreclosure and was taken over by a creditor, although the Trump name remains emblazoned on it. Only about a third of the building's 391 units ever got sold.
    Vance easily won reelection as District Attorney in 2013.
    In short, the swamp returned to normal. The stinky SoHo deal stands as a reminder of Trump's bumpy business ride to the White House, taking its place alongside his bankruptcies, his failed ventures, the shady tenants of one of his main Manhattan properties and the allegations of fraud that led to a $25 million settlement with former customers of Trump University.
    Americans voted for a candidate to drain the swamp because of a pervasive, all-too-accurate belief that a small group of wired Washington insiders -- including lobbyists, government contractors, trade associations and wealthy political donors -- are using government like a piggy bank, pursuing private profits rather than the public good.
    A poll published earlier this year found that fewer than a quarter of Americans think Trump is making good on his promise to clean up the Beltway.
    This latest tale of his organization's brush with the law helps explain why.
    Meanwhile, Vance will get another four years to wrestle with the tough job of cleaning up the New York outpost of the swamp without getting dirty in the process.