The Closing: Cyrus Vance Jr.

The Manhattan D.A. on what Michael Shvo’s indictment says about the real estate industry, meeting President Lyndon Johnson, and achieving</br> fly-fishing zen

Cyrus Vance Jr. (Photo by Studio Scrivo)
Cyrus Vance Jr. (Photo by Studio Scrivo)

Cyrus Vance Jr. is heading into his seventh year as Manhattan’s district attorney, a job that brings roughly 100,000 cases across his desk each year and involves overseeing more than 540 attorneys. Vance is no stranger to politics: He’s the son of the late Cyrus Vance, who was secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter. The younger Vance got his start as an assistant DA in the Manhattan office from 1982 to 1988. He then moved to Seattle, where he worked in private practice and rose to become one of the city’s most well-known white-collar attorneys. In 2009, after returning to New York, he campaigned as a Democrat in a three-way race for the position of Manhattan D.A and won in a landslide after securing an endorsement from the incumbent Robert Morgenthau. Today, Vance is known for his data-driven approach to fighting crime and a willingness to take complex cases to trial. He has also raised his profile within the real estate community through the prosecutions of landlords and contractors. In 2015, he launched a construction fraud task force to root out corruption in that industry.

It could be said that politics is in your blood, right? Did you ever consider a career outside of government?

I thought about being an oceanographer. I guess I thought, and still think, that would be an amazing life — studying the ocean. I like biology and I loved being in the water.

Did you visit the White House as child when your dad was deputy secretary of defense for President Lyndon Johnson?

We actually stayed one night in the White House. I was very young, and President Johnson came out in his pajamas. He gave me a little Swiss army knife with the White House insignia on it. I remember that very well, he had sort of this big, booming voice, and was very tall, very sweet.

After working as an assistant DA in Manhattan, you and your wife decided to move to Seattle in the late 1980s. Why?

I think both of us felt that if there was a time to have an adventure as a couple, it was right then. She was seven months pregnant with our first child. We set out to go cross-country in a car. We thought we’d go camping, but after the first couple of days we stopped camping because she was very pregnant. Seattle was just an adventure for us, to go someplace where we knew virtually nobody, which had big Western skies, and lots of room to make our own mistakes and be judged by ourselves and not by anybody else.

Real estate intersects with so many other industries. Is the tax fraud indictment against developer Michael Shvo indicative of a larger phenomenon in the real estate community?

It’s a case involving tax fraud, and I think that the same principles apply in our tax cases as apply in every other fraud case. Which is that everybody should be playing by the same rules. It’s no more complicated than that.

The Harco Construction conviction in June was the first time in recent memory that a construction company was found guilty of manslaughter. Why has it taken such a long time to bring this kind of case forward?

I think people are under an illusion that a trial of a corporation would be easy. It’s not. It never is. We had a situation where there were known risks, there were known warnings, and despite that, the worker was told to go in a pit that was unsafe, and the worst thing happened — the pit collapsed, and he was killed. Ultimately, it was the evidence that led the judge to find Harco guilty.

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The accounting fraud case against the white-shoe law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf ended in a mistrial last year, and in 2011, you were criticized for the way you handled the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in which the charges were dropped. What have you learned from those setbacks?

I think what I learn from all of these cases is that you simply need to keep your eye on the ball. I liken it to being a professional basketball player, when they’re on the free throw line and there’s 1,000 fans behind them waving white flags and waving things to distract the player from the basket. I think in this job, if you’ve brought the right case, you don’t exactly know what the outcome will be ever, but your job is to simply focus on doing the right thing in that case, irrespective of outcome.

What are your hobbies?

I fly-fish, and I bike.

Do you have a prize catch?

I haven’t kept a fish in 35 years. It’s called catch and release. Catching fish is fabulous and catching big fish is more fabulous, but honestly, at the end of the day, if I haven’t caught a fish, I’m very happy being out on the river. Fly-fishing is an art. You’re throwing a dart and trying to hit a bull’s-eye that is 70 or 80 feet away. It’s a very Zen-like experience, and it’s very peaceful.

Your predecessor, Robert Morgenthau, was in the job for 35 years. Has he been a difficult act to follow?

Absolutely. One of the biggest challenges in an office is to follow someone who was an iconic figure. It’s a challenge because if you come into the office and decide to change things, as I did, you’re changing something that many folks thought was perfect. But I think it was also a blessing to follow someone like Bob because I’ve never had to deal with an office that lost its way ethically.

Do you expect to stay in office as long as him?   

No, I won’t be here for 35 years. But I feel that these two terms have been exciting and really interesting, and I love this office and I love what we’re doing. So, if the voters will have me one more time, I’ll be running again.

Do you think you’ll run for another political office?

I looked at this as a sort of capstone to my time as a lawyer, not as a building block toward something else. Quite honestly, I don’t think there are many other jobs that I will like more and none that I know of in an elected office.