NEW YORK (NY)
HuffPost [New York NY]
May 6, 2021
By Molly Redden
Messages show the former prosecutor helping well-connected New Yorkers navigate her old sex crimes unit.
In 2015, when Harvey Weinstein had his first close shave with law enforcement, his legal team enlisted Linda Fairstein, the former New York City sex crimes prosecutor, to vouch for them with her old colleagues.
It looks like they weren’t alone.
Emails released to HuffPost this week through a public records request show that Fairstein, who quit as head of the sex crimes unit in 2002, and her successor, Martha Bashford, maintained a close friendship that opened the door for Fairstein to weigh in on ongoing cases. Fairstein denies her involvement was ultimately meaningful.
The emails, released by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, are heavily redacted. But they offer a rare glimpse of how well-connected New Yorkers try to minimize their exposure to the law, and the role adopted by Fairstein, one of New York law enforcement’s most famous alums.
In one episode, Fairstein tried to help a prestigious Mount Sinai doctor, Dr. Adam W. Levinson, avoid losing his medical license after he was arrested for filming up women’s skirts on the subway. In a recent interview, she said she was there to “get a fair resolution on both sides” and “present a picture of what was at stake for this young man” — his medical license, “which is what this guy cared about, really.” Bashford recalls she asked for “leniency.”
Fairstein got involved because Levinson’s godfather was a friend of “one of my vineyard best friends,” she told Bashford in a 2012 email.
“An fyi,” Fairstein wrote to Bashford on December 11, 2012. “I don’t know if [BLANK] used my name today, about [BLANK]. Got a call last weekend from one of my vineyard best friends [BLANK] … At whose home I have apparently met [BLANK’S] very lovely godfather. I promised nothing except that I would talk to [BLANK].”
Fairstein at the time was a New York City celebrity, a fixture of elite social circles who sat on the boards of charities and was a vaunted champion of women’s rights. Her prosecutorial work had served as the inspiration for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”; the show’s star, Mariska Hargitay, has called Fairstein her “fairy godmother.” Fairstein and Bashford were and are extremely good friends. The emails released to HuffPost form a picture of longtime confidants who constantly have each other’s ear.
The Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements, though, have prompted a reckoning with how the New York City district attorney’s office has perpetuated the worst inequalities of the criminal justice system.
Fairstein has become infamous for her role in overseeing the prosecution of the Central Park Five, five Black and Latino men who were falsely convicted of the 1989 rape of a white jogger in Central Park. In Ava DuVernay’s 2019 Netflix drama about the case, “When They See Us,” Fairstein is one of the central villains. (She denies playing a hands-on role in the original investigation and is suing DuVernay and Netflix for defamation.)
Got a call last weekend from one of my vineyard best friends [BLANK] … I promised nothing except that I would talk to [BLANK].”Linda Fairstein, in an email to Martha Bashford
Bashford was the prosecutor who decided not to charge Weinstein over his alleged groping of the Filipina-Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. Fairstein had been the one to introduce Bashford to Weinstein’s attorney, promising he was a person of great integrity. The main piece of evidence in that case — NYPD audio of Weinstein admitting that he groped Gutierrez — later served as the smoking gun in Ronan Farrow’s Weinstein exposé in The New Yorker. In the midst of Weinstein’s 2020 criminal rape trial, Bashford resigned, although she and the DA’s office denied the timing had anything to do with the case.
Bashford’s boss, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., is still the district attorney but is not seeking reelection this November. Several candidates running for his seat have strafed Vance’s handling of high-profile sex assault cases, vowing to clean house in the sex crimes unit and criticizing Vance’s failure to pursue well-connected suspects.
“The names are familiar to most Manhattanites and New Yorkers — Harvey Weinstein, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Jeffrey Epstein — individual failures by the office,” Dan Quart, a Manhattan assemblyman who is vying for the office, said recently.
The newly released documents raise questions about how many others — whose names the public doesn’t know — tried to leverage their connections with the district attorney’s office for more lenient treatment.
For her part, Fairstein does not think she played a meaningful role in the defense of the doctor, whom she met because she was mutual friends with his godfather on Martha’s Vineyard.
The case was an instant chew toy for the tabloids. They got a lot of mileage out of Levinson’s medical profession — urology — and the spectacle of a highly credentialed, privileged Manhattanite caught “upskirting” by a construction worker from the Bronx. And Levinson was privileged: His godfather had met Fairstein on Martha’s Vineyard at a dinner party thrown by one of her best friends, a “very well-known, well respected” political writer, she told HuffPost.
“He” — Levinson’s godfather — “told me about a sad situation involving his godson, a medical doctor with a stunningly promising career,” Fairstein told HuffPost. “Because of the arrest, the medical board moves right away to retract the license, which is what this guy cared about, really.”
Fairstein declined to be Levinson’s lawyer, believing the accusations against him were fair and the evidence solid. But she accompanied his lawyer to a meeting with Bashford, the chief of the trial division, and another assistant district attorney. Fairstein asked for “leniency,” Bashford recalls.
“It’s a long time ago, I’m trying to think what my role was,” Fairstein said. “I guess to try to help negotiate a result, not me as a lawyer, but as a human, to help present a picture of what was at stake for this young man.” At the time, Levinson was in his 40s. “I was trying to talk through both sides, get a fair resolution on both sides.”
Fairstein roundly rejected the idea that she offers friends and acquaintances special access to her old unit. “I would never, never ask in the middle of an investigation, where was it going and what was happening,” she said.
Levinson was charged with 10 felonies. He pleaded guilty to one count of a second-degree felony in 2014. Fairstein noted that the law under which he pleaded guilty — unlawful surveillance — was one she personally fought to have passed.
Levinson spoke very little at his sentencing, but his lawyer argued that he had reformed. So did the prosecutor; he vouched for Levinson’s “contrition and remorse.” The judge allowed Levinson to avoid serving jail time or registering as a sex offender. In a later proceeding, the New York state medical board allowed Levinson to keep his license after all, pending several years of suspension and probation. HuffPost tried to reach Levinson by phone and sent Levinson a request for comment through an attorney who represented him before the licensing board, but did not receive a response.
“I never heard from [BLANK] again after the day we saw you — and he called to thank me — and I told him never again to tell anyone that he could swear that the guy would never do it again. And [BLANK] was not a great test for recidivism on the subway,” Fairstein wrote to Bashford in 2013. Bashford’s reply is redacted, but they appear to be discussing some new twist in the case. Fairstein wrote back, “Takes my breath away … guess the ‘entirely my fault’ thing was a complete act!”
I made a public records request for emails between Fairstein and Bashford after The New York Times revealed that Fairstein had assisted Harvey Weinstein’s defense team in early 2015. Her role was to convey to Bashford that Weinstein’s attorney, Elkan Abramowitz, was a person of high moral character. “Calling Ms. Bashford to tell her who Elkan was and to ask her to consider meeting with him is the kind of thing I do four to six times every year,” she told the Times.
In 2015, Bashford’s office had an explosive recording of Weinstein admitting to Ambra Battilana Gutierrez that he had forcibly groped Gutierrez’s breasts. It was the first bona fide criminal case authorities had built against Weinstein —Gutierrez had made the recording with police help — and the closest he ever came to facing prosecution until the Times and The New Yorker unleashed a tidal wave of accusations.
Weinstein assembled a top-of-the-line team of defense attorneys to hit back, and the team enlisted Fairstein, an acquaintance of Weinstein’s and longtime friend of Abramowitz, to introduce them to Bashford, which she did. (She told the Times in 2017 she did not think Gutierrez’s complaint was founded. In her interview with HuffPost, she refused to revisit the Gutierrez case on the record.) Over three subsequent meetings, Weinstein’s legal team convinced Bashford that Gutierrez was not credible, and Bashford dropped the case.
As with Levinson, Fairstein also had a Martha’s Vineyard connection to this case: It is where she had first met Weinstein, “on a perfectly manicured lawn”; for years afterwards, she dreamed that Weinstein would launch her screenwriting career.
Fairstein’s reputation at the time was unimpeachable inside the sex crimes unit. Among the documents released to HuffPost was an invitation to the entire unit to attend a Q&A with Fairstein in the role of celebrity alum on April 2, 2015. (Eight days later, Bashford decided not to charge Weinstein.) The meet-and-greet has not been previously reported. At a similar event in 2017, Fairstein took questions and raffled off autographed novels from her successful second career as a mystery novelist.
Fairstein, though, does not think much of her role in the Weinstein case. She says she didn’t make any difference to the outcome and she introduced Bashford to Abramowitz with Vance’s approval. Abramowitz is also Vance’s former law partner. “I wanted to speak to the character and credibility of Elkan,” she said. “You can’t manipulate Martha Bashford.”
While some public officials, like lawmakers in their relationships with lobbyists, are subject to formal rules about conflicts of interest, prosecutors typically aren’t. Many criminal defendants choose a defense team they believe has a friendly working relationship with the prosecutor’s office in the hopes of reduced charges or a favorable reading of the evidence. The American Bar Association charges prosecutors to avoid personal bias but leaves it up to individuals how they do so. And some do choose to avoid old friends.
When she was pursuing the Sackler family for their role in the opioid epidemic, Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, declined to meet face-to-face with certain members of their legal team “because some of them are people I have personal relationships with,” she told journalist Patrick Radden Keefe.
But there are no strict prohibitions. “I don’t think it’s the communication or having those conversations that is as worrisome as, what’s the result of those conversations?” said Jane Anderson, an attorney advisor with AEquitas, a group that trains prosecutors in how to effectively pursue sex crimes.
Fairstein told HuffPost that she has called lots of old colleagues — not just Bashford — for all kinds of different reasons, including to connect crime victims directly with prosecutors. One email released to HuffPost shows just that: Fairstein emailing Bashford with the names of four acquaintances who had witnessed the aftermath of a crime and were willing to help the prosecution.
I guess to try to help negotiate a result, not me as a lawyer, but as a human, to help present a picture of what was at stake for this young man.Fairstein, on her involvement in the Levinson case
She did not represent Weinstein nor Levinson, and in neither case did her involvement make any difference, she claimed. In the case of Levinson, she said, “I didn’t add any dignity to that [situation] and I couldn’t open my mouth about minimizing what this guy had done.”
Bashford, likewise, said Fairstein’s request for leniency for Levinson “fell on deaf ears.” “Your characterization that she had an open door for input on cases is inaccurate,” Bashford wrote in an email to HuffPost.
Emily Tuttle, a spokeswoman for Vance’s office, said, “Our prosecutors’ investigations and charging decisions are based on the facts and the law alone.”
The district attorney’s office ignored my public records request for three-plus years until April, when the general counsel for BuzzFeed, which now owns HuffPost, threatened to sue.
This week, the district attorney’s office released 147 pages of heavily redacted emails. One of the explanations it gave for all the redactions is the same reason someone like Weinstein would seek Fairstein’s help in the first place: some of the cases being discussed ended with Bashford’s unit bringing no criminal charges.
For every page of emails that the DA released to HuffPost, it withheld nearly twice as many: 224 pages that were “of a strictly personal nature, discussing events such as vacation, dinner plans, or discussions about family and mutual acquaintances,” the district attorney’s office said.
Not all of their emails discuss live cases. Over the years, Bashford and Fairstein swapped gossip about other prosecutors, jogged each other’s memories about old case files, and complained about the NYPD. (“File under stupid cops,” Bashford wrote in one email.) They exchange confidences, and Fairstein offers to place nice press coverage for Vance and Bashford.
The various playgrounds of the East Coast elite are a constant backdrop for their conversations, with Fairstein scheduling around her flights to Martha’s Vineyard and asking Bashford if they could meet up on Martha’s Vineyard to discuss work.
One email from Fairstein to Bashford begins, “So on our rainy cruise to Montauk … ”
The entire rest of her message was redacted.
CORRECTION: Levinson pleaded guilty to a felony charge, not a misdemeanor. A previous version of this article also said that Fairstein referred to Levinson’s godfather as “Mr. C” and that he was a well-known political writer. “Mr. C” is actually how Fairstein referred to Levinson’s lawyer.