ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A New York state agency launched four years ago to protect the disabled from abuse and neglect was staffed with a team of investigators and prosecutors empowered to bring criminal cases against alleged wrongdoers. But it lacked one key thing, according to three recent court rulings: the legal authority to actually prosecute anyone.
That has potentially put dozens of convictions in jeopardy and threatens to undermine the mission of the agency, known as the Justice Center, to protect the 1 million disabled, addicted and mentally ill in state care.
"The Justice Center's approach is providing a 'get out of jail free' card to anyone they have within their sights," said Democratic state Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, a frequent critic of the agency.
The three unrelated cases involved two staffers at facilities for troubled youth and a drug counselor charged with sexually abusing clients. Judges in Albany County dismissed the charges — in March, August and earlier this month — after determining the Justice Center couldn't bring the cases because the state Constitution requires criminal prosecutors to be elected.
The judges added that the agency, which even has someone designated as a "special prosecutor," could only bring criminal cases if it is working alongside a local district attorney.
If the decisions stand, dozens of people previously convicted by the Justice Center could seek to reopen their cases.
A spokesman for the agency said it works well with local prosecutors now and noted that the law giving the agency prosecutorial power was backed by the Legislature and the governor.
"We respectfully disagree with these local court rulings and will be appealing," said spokesman Bill Reynolds.
The Justice Center was created in 2013 by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo following a New York Times series on horrific abuse cases. The center maintains a complaint hotline and a list of banned employees, and seeks administrative or criminal penalties for those found to be mistreating patients. It operates a team of investigators and prosecutors.
According to state documents, the center has overseen 107 prosecutions by itself. Along with those it has referred to local prosecutors, it says it has participated in 448 total criminal cases since it was created.
It's not the first time questions have been raised about the agency's success in prosecuting cases. An AP analysis in 2015 showed that since the start of 2014, the Justice Center had substantiated about 7,000 cases of abuse or neglect, including some resulting in death. But just 169 cases, or less than 2.5 percent, had resulted in criminal charges.
In the first dismissed case this year, Judge Thomas Breslin wrote that the agency could only prosecute cases if working under the supervision of the district attorney. Failing that, "the Justice Center did not have authority to prosecute this case."
Attorney Michael Pollok represented the defendant in that 2014 case, who had been accused of having sex with a resident of a facility for troubled teens in Albany. Pollok said the state constitution requires prosecutors to be elected in order to give residents ultimate oversight of law enforcement.
"What the governor has done has basically created his own prosecution arm, which he's not allowed to do," he said.
This story has been corrected to say the Justice Center has overseen 107 prosecutions, not 97.