In a statement Friday afternoon, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office appeared to suggest it may consider removing Rensselaer County District Attorney Joel Abelove from office, after the local prosecutor was arraigned earlier in the day on two counts of official misconduct and one count of perjury in connection with his handling of the April 2016 police shooting of Edson Thevenin on the Collar City Bridge.
“The integrity of the District Attorney’s office is paramount and the allegations laid out here are disturbing,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi. “Counsel’s Office will be reviewing the grand jury’s findings as well as applicable laws and precedent in order to determine potential next steps.”
After Thevenin’s death, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office, acting under an executive order appointing it special prosecutor when a law enforcement officer causes the death of an unarmed civilian, sought more information from the district attorney. However, rather than cooperate, “Abelove quickly and surreptitiously presented the case to a grand jury,” before whom he withheld material evidence and “took the extraordinary step of conferring immunity upon” the Troy police officer who shot Thevenin, the AG said in a statement.
The official misconduct charges stem from those alleged actions before the Thevenin grand jury, which did not indict the Troy police officer, Sgt. Randall French. The perjury charge, a felony, relates to comments from Abelove before the grand jury convened by the AG.
In the second floor lobby of the Rensselaer County courthouse after his arraignment, Abelove said he had “done nothing wrong” and called the charges “frivolous and overreaching.” He intends to stay in his position.
There is no legal requirement that a district attorney leave office if charged with a crime. Indeed, there is some precedent for the opposite: Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams, for instance, did not resign until two weeks into a bribery trial earlier this year.
“Arguably any elected prosecutor charged with a criminal case ought to resign immediately given that the very nature of his job is to uphold the law,” said Jennifer Rodgers, executive director at the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School, speaking generally rather than about this particular case. “[B]eing charged himself will inevitably lead to losing the public’s confidence, and also such a case would be a huge distraction that would impact the office’s efficacy.”
The state District Attorneys Association, which counts both Schneiderman and Abelove as members, issued a lengthy statement on the pending criminal matter, something it does not ordinarily do. The association did not call for Abelove’s resignation, though it acknowledged the seriousness of the accusations.
“Most importantly, we are concerned that the criminal justice system continue to function in Rensselaer County and that this not create a distraction from our duty to ensure that justice is served for the victims of crime and society at large,” the association said.
A perjury charge against an acting district attorney “taints the very essence of who we are as prosecutors and goes against all that we strive to do to ensure the public’s trust in the criminal justice system,” said DAASNY president and Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara. “Honesty and ethics are our core [principles].”
Bennett Liebman, government lawyer-in-residence at Albany Law School and former deputy secretary for gaming and racing in the Cuomo administration, told The Alt that while the governor has the power under the state constitution to remove a district attorney from office through a quasi-judicial proceeding, it is “extraordinarily unlikely” that he will do so in this case.
“If the prosecution is successful, then Abelove would lose his position by operation of law,” Lieberman said.
But while state prosecutors told the court Friday that they are ready for trial, pressure may mount for Abelove to quit or be removed in the meantime. Outside the courthouse, Troy resident Messiah Cooper, joined by two others, held a sign that read, “ABELOVE MUST GO!” (The Aug. 15 police shooting of Cooper’s nephew Dahmeek McDonald is currently under investigation by the Schenectady County District Attorney’s office.)
Abelove “doesn’t represent me,” Cooper told The Alt. “We’re gonna force him out.”
County Executive Kathy Jimino, County Sheriff Pat Russo, Troy Mayor Patrick Madden, and the Troy Police Department did not return The Alt’s requests for comment on Abelove’s indictment. We will update this story if we hear back.