Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance is a traveling man with some high-end tastes.
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The prosecutor spent $249,716 on meals and work trips to everywhere from the City of Angels to the City of Lights over the past five years, according to records obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request.
Vance paid for it all – including a $4,780 roundtrip flight to London and a $2,800 stay at a five-star Paris hotel – with money his office obtained from state-asset forfeiture funds largely tied to big-sum legal settlements with banks, records show. He controls more than $600 million stemming from forfeitures.
The Manhattan prosecutor far outspent the city’s other four district attorneys, the data reveals: Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, who expensed $18,407 to cover travel to multiple conferences across the country since taking office on Jan. 1, 2016, came in a distant second.
Clark and the other city district attorneys say they did not use asset forfeiture money to cover their work travel expenses.
Vance says his trips were necessary to attend conferences covering anti-terrorism, cybersecurity and gun control, among other issues.
“I can’t look at my defensive perimeter as the southern and northern tip of Manhattan,” he told THE CITY. “It requires an international approach and international partnerships and relationships to do the work that we do.”
Still, fiscal watchdogs note that forfeiture-fund spending gets little scrutiny.
“There’s very little transparency when it comes to how the DAs use state asset forfeiture funds,” said Bernard O’Brien, a senior budget analyst with the city’s Independent Budget Office.
A TRUE PARISIAN MANSION
Expense reports show that in the last fiscal year alone, Vance visited Washington nine times, Aspen and London twice, and Paris and Los Angeles once apiece.
While in Paris, he spent four nights at Hôtel d’Aubusson, paying $2,816. The five-star hotel “is housed in a true Parisian mansion dating back to 1634” and boasts “discrete luxury, Louis XV furniture, original Aubusson tapestries and a wonderful wood burning fireplace,” according to a description posted on TripAdvisor.
In London, Vance was booked at the Ned Hotel, paying $994 for a two-night stay. The five-star accommodations are located in a former bank described on the hotel’s website as an “abandoned architectural masterpiece,” with a rooftop pool that overlooks St. Paul’s Cathedral. Vance spent $128 for a meal in the hotel’s restaurant, records show.
The prosecutor’s most expensive flight last year was a $4,780 “discounted upper class” round-trip ticket on Virgin Atlantic to London to attend the Ditchley Foundation Conference on Policing, chaired by the London police commissioner, from Jan. 24, 2018 to Jan. 27, 2018, expense reports reveal.
Roundtrip New York-to-London flights run an average of $675, according to faredetective.com, which tracks flight fees.
In the summer, Vance rang up a $1,840 roundtrip ticket on a premium economy Air France flight to Paris to meet with the city’s top prosecutor and staff about “Counter Terrorism, Human Trafficking and Global Cyber Alliance” from Aug. 22, 2017 to Aug. 27, 2017, records show.
By contrast, the average cost for the same flight costs $777, according to faredetective.com.
Vance, who was paid $212,800 in salary last year, said he doesn’t have a policy for which classes of flights he takes.
“There’s no rule that I set out on the flying,” he said, noting that he typically flies coach on domestic trips.
But he regularly flies in some version of premium economy class for international excursions, records show.
“Fiscal people who booked the tickets put me on economy class,” he said. “That seems to be the balance that they seem to think is correct and that’s how I’ve proceeded.”
All other DA staffers and rank-and-file city workers must book travel “at the most economical pricing,” according to the city comptroller’s regulations. They are also instructed to avoid last-minute arrangements that typically cost more, according to the rules.
But the city’s district attorneys are not required to follow similar regulations.
Vance sometimes pays more in part because his team makes flight arrangements a few days before the trip or due to last-minute changes, records show.
For example, his administrative staff booked a roundtrip ticket to Los Angeles five days before a conference there for $748 on Virgin America on April 25, 2017, expense reports show.
But business in the office required Vance to return earlier, so he spent another $810 for a one-way return ticket on Delta on May 1, 2017, records reveal.
He went to L.A. to participate in a panel discussion on “Solutions to America’s Underemployment Crisis” at the Milken Institute Global Conference.
During the event, Vance touted how he’s using forfeiture money to build five hubs for youths and “criminally justice-involved family” that offer an array of support services: “If we want to get serious about dealing with kids falling into trouble and then into jail we have to hit them and their families as early as possible.”
FINE DINING ON TWO CONTINENTS
Vance also does not skimp when it comes to eating out – in New York or abroad, records reveal.
He spent $645 at Patroon on East 46th Street to cover dinner with the Paris city prosecutor and four visiting French legal staff members on Nov. 14, 2017, records show.
Vance defends the spending, saying he pays the bills of officials as a courtesy when they are in New York. The Paris officials were here to attend the Financial Crimes and Cybersecurity Symposium held annually by Vance’s office.
Over the last year, Vance also has expensed five meals at Tribeca’s Odeon for a total of $897, taking out members of his legal staff, among other guests, records show.
Vance also picks up the tab when he’s away, documents reveal.
Le Christine suggests customers order a starter of “classic terrine of foie gras” with a main course of “fillet of pan-fried sea bream on mushroom and dessert of kiwi soup with green apple sorbet,” according to a description on TripAdvisor. A “trust the chef 4 courses tasting” costs an estimated $56, an online menu shows.
No other city worker or supervisor would be allowed to rely on public funds to cover the complete cost of that sort of meal. Rank-and-file DA staffers must abide by reimbursement rates for meals based on U.S. General Services Administration guidelines.
DISCRETION OVER $620M FUND
Vance maintains the $620 million in asset forfeiture money his office controls is being well spent.
He has used the funds to create a “Criminal Justice Initiative” that invests in “transformative projects that strengthen and support our youth, families, and communities in New York City,” according to his office.
The 50 grantee organizations include the Legal Aid Society, Osborne Association, Prisoner Reentry Institute, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Health Justice Network, Global Cyber Alliance and Saturday Night Lights.
Vance has also used $38 million in forfeiture money to assist local prosecutors across the country with testing rape kits. The funding has led to 165 prosecutions, with 64 convictions so far, according to a New York Times story.
DAs have wide-ranging flexibility on how asset forfeiture money is used. Expenditures must cover “law enforcement” issues — but few other rules exist.
The funds are audited by an independent accountant each year, and each district attorney office also files annual spending reports to the federal government.
But those reports do not include a line-by-line breakdown of how the money is spent, only generic categories. The money also is exempt from traditional city budgetary oversight.
Vance’s office provided a line-item breakdown of the personal spending only covering the past year.
THE CITY reached out to his staff for additional details on March 5. The prior four years would take at least another month to generate, according to his spokesman.
All told, the broad overview report listed 66 items as “airfare” over the past five years. Vance was the only city prosecutor who did not provide a more detailed account of work expenses over that stretch.
Vance’s office issued a lengthy statement saying his travel and spending didn’t break any rules and reflect “a sound return on investment.”
Vance spokesperson Carey Dunne also pointed to several cases where “our international relationships have led to important victories.”
They include a probe with the City of London Police and the Royal Mounted Canadian Police that led to the arrest of six individuals in New York, London and Canada charged in a cyber scam involving StubHub.
Dunne also cited the case of Robert Depalo, a New York-based defendant, who defrauded UK-based investors out of $6.5 million through private offerings. Last summer, Depalo was convicted of grand larceny, money laundering, scheme to defraud and securities fraud.
CLARIFICATION (April 4, 2019, 6:20 ET p.m.): An earlier version of this article featured a graphic that compared spending of NYC district attorneys “over the last five years.” The graphic has been updated to only include fiscal year 2018, as some of the DAs have been in office for less than five years.
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.