The New York Times



A Youth’s Troubled Court Case, Tangled in Staten Island Politics


Daniel M. Donovan Jr., left, declined to handle the case of Steven Molinaro, center, grandson of James P. Molinaro.



Correction Appended


The facts seem straightforward enough.


A troubled 17-year-old pleads guilty to two assaults. His prison sentence of at least five years is conditionally converted to probation. Less than a year later, he is convicted of violating that probation by riding by the home of one of his victims, a 14-year-old paperboy, in a slow-moving car and glaring at him. The judge imposes the five-year sentence.


But when the defendant is related to a local politician, and the prosecutor recuses himself because he is the politician’s former deputy, and it is the middle of an election season, things can get a little complicated.


In Staten Island, where all politics are not just local but personal, things have become really complicated.


And so on Tuesday, Borough President James P. Molinaro took out a full-page ad in The Staten Island Advance upbraiding his former deputy borough president, Daniel M. Donovan Jr., who is now the district attorney, for punting the case of his grandson Steven Molinaro to a special prosecutor from Manhattan to avoid a possible conflict of interest.


The ad, headlined “Justice Denied: The Steven Molinaro Case,” also cites an op-ed column in The Advance accusing the special prosecutor, an assistant district attorney, of a “senseless vendetta” against the Molinaro family. It also quotes approvingly from an Advance editorial criticizing the judge in the case.


Needless to say, Mr. Molinaro, who helped put Mr. Donovan in office, is not endorsing him in next month’s election.


Even seasoned observers of the Staten Island scene are a bit perplexed.


“Boy!” said Richard M. Flanagan, a political science professor at the College of Staten Island, adding that the borough president’s offensive “seems to transcend political calculation or any type of power move.”


Professor Flanagan said he found Mr. Molinaro’s attack on the practice of avoiding potential conflicts of interest, one of the standards of the legal system, puzzling. In the ad, Mr. Molinaro notes that his grandson is hardly the only Staten Island defendant to be tried by a prosecutor from off the island, as Mr. Donovan has often requested outside prosecutors in cases that he deemed held the potential for conflict.


“Because of District Attorney Donovan’s concerns about the ‘appearance of impropriety,’ dozens of other defendants face the same fate,” the ad reads.“‘Appearances,’ it seems, can be deceiving.”


Mr. Donovan defended his decision. “The integrity of the office is what gives the people of our society confidence in the justice system,” he said on Thursday, “which is why we took the action we did.”


A spokesman for the state courts, David Bookstaver, said district attorneys were instructed to ask for a special prosecutor whenever their ability to prosecute a case impartially can be called into question.


“The issue is you want to be careful with these things, because the appearance of impropriety is also bad,” he said.


Mr. Donovan’s spokesman, William J. Smith, said that in the last four years, Mr. Donovan’s office had requested outside prosecutors in 67 cases (6 involving Mr. Molinaro’s family), while agreeing to accept cases from outside Staten Island for similarly situated prosecutors 85 times, “so we’re taking in more than we’ve given away.”


He added that the Brooklyn and Queens prosecutors declined to handle Steven Molinaro’s case.


The elder Mr. Molinaro, for his part, is not backing away.


“Everything he has to say is in the ad,” his spokeswoman, Pat Wilks, said on Thursday as she declined an interview on his behalf.


The assaults at the heart of the case happened in 2006. In February, prosecutors said, Steven Molinaro and two others attacked a 14-year-old in a schoolyard.


Five months later, while Steven Molinaro was out on bail, he punched and kicked a 14-year-old paperboy making his rounds for The Advance, prosecutors said.


Last October, Steven Molinaro pleaded guilty in the two cases in exchange for a recommendation that his sentence of 5 to 25 years be converted to a year of probation plus community service. One slip, Justice Alan D. Marrus of State Supreme Court warned him, and the prison sentence would be imposed.


“As night follows day,” The New York Post quoted him as saying, “I will send you to jail if you foul up.”


In January, the authorities told Justice Marrus that Steven Molinaro was not attending court-required programs, and prosecutors and probation officers pushed for incarceration, but Justice Marrus gave him a final warning. His behavior improved, but one afternoon in May, a car drove slowly past the paperboy’s house and Steven Molinaro, who was under a court order to stay away from the boy, glared out the car window, prosecutors said. He was charged with violating probation.


Although a school administrator, a teacher and attendance records all placed Steven Molinaro at his court-required program at the Young Adult Borough Center at the time of the glaring incident, and although a mechanic testified that the car he used was in the shop that day, a jury convicted Steven Molinaro on Sept. 25.


Steven Molinaro’s lawyer, Joseph V. Sorrentino, filed notice on Tuesday that he intended to appeal.


In his ad, Borough President Molinaro accused both the guest prosecutor, Peter R. Hinckley of the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and Justice Marrus, who was on loan from the Brooklyn courts, of treating Steven especially harshly because of who his grandfather was.


Others of various political stripes on Staten Island (both Borough President Molinaro and Mr. Donovan are supported by the Republican party, though Mr. Molinaro is a Conservative party member) have also questioned the handling of Steven Molinaro's case.


The chief assistant district attorney in Manhattan, James M. Kindler, said Steven Molinaro was not singled out. “We have no ax to grind except to see that the matter is investigated completely and we get a just result in the end,” he said.


Justice Marrus, in a telephone interview yesterday, said, “I fully understand the anguish of the borough president, but it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the case.”


It remains to be seen what effect, if any, the ad will have on District Attorney Donovan’s re-election bid. (His Democratic opponent, Michael J. Ryan, could not be reached for comment.)


But Sean Sweeney, the chairman of Community Board 1 in Staten Island and a Democrat, remarked: “Even taking politics out of this, there are no winners in this story. The whole situation from start to finish, it’s a shame.”


Correction: October 30, 2007


An article on Saturday about criticism from the Staten Island borough president, James P. Molinaro, over the way his grandson’s criminal case was prosecuted misidentified Mr. Molinaro’s party affiliation. He is a Conservative, not a Republican, although he ran on both lines in his most recent race.


Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company