On October 3, 2019, an unusual press release appeared on the official website of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
Most of the office’s press releases trumpeted new guilty verdicts and indictments — “District Attorney Hoovler Announces Indictments in Cocaine and Narcotic Pills Distribution”; “District Attorney Hoovler Announces Guilty Plea By Doctor’s Former Office Manager” — but this one was different.
Titled “District Attorney Hoovler Issues Statement Criticizing Upcoming Bail Amendments,” the press release quoted Hoovler warning that a slate of recently-enacted criminal justice reforms would endanger public safety. “I almost hesitate to call the upcoming bail changes ‘reforms,’ because they don’t change our law for the better,” Hoovler said in the press release.
“I urge all of Orange County’s citizens to contact your state senators and assembly members, to express your concern about the negative effects that the upcoming changes in the bail laws will have,” he added.
Hoovler was not just any old prosecutor.
Just a few months before, he had been sworn in as the President of the District Attorneys Association for the State of New York (DAASNY), which represents the state’s elected prosecutors. Hoovler, a Republican in a swing district, would spend much of his one-year term as DAASNY president making the case against the new bail reform laws.
One month after publishing that press release warning Orange County citizens about bail reform, Hoovler told an audience of people at Drew United Methodist Church in Port Jervis that the new law was unsafe, and that lawmakers had “tucked [it] into the 2020 budget to avoid discussing it and because it had no funding to support it.”
Once the reforms went into effect, he worked with Republican lawmakers to roll them back, speaking in his official capacity as DAASNY president at a GOP-led Repeal Bail Reform Task Force event in the Hudson Valley in March 2020. The effort was successful; in April 2020, the state legislature passed a new law weakening the bail reforms that had gone into effect only months before.
Hoovler’s outspoken opposition angered supporters of bail reform, who pointed to his cozy relationship with the state Republican party to suggest that his dire warnings about bail reform were designed to aid his Republican allies in the state legislature. In an interview with New York Focus, Hoovler objected to that characterization, insisting that he was just speaking out about an issue related to public safety, part of his responsibility as a district attorney.
But bail reform was far from Hoovler’s only involvement in partisan politics. He has repeatedly appeared and spoken at political events affiliated with or run by the Republican Party—in apparent violation of the ethics rules of multiple legal associations, including the one Hoovler himself led.
Mere months after Hoovler was first elected as Orange County District Attorney on the Republican ballot line in 2014, he was celebrated at a Rising Stars reception hosted by the Republican Party of New York State. The event was hosted by then-State Committee Chairman Edward F. Cox, who had married into President Richard Nixon’s family, and Robert P. Astorino, who is running in this year’s Republican primary for New York Governor.
In 2020, while serving as the top elected prosecutor for his jurisdiction of almost 400,000 residents, Hoovler spoke at two “Back the Blue” rallies. At the Washingtonville Back the Blue rally in September 2020, Hoovler exhorted listeners to vote for “pro-police” candidates, stating “you gotta get out, you gotta vote, you gotta support the people that support you.” In a video of the Monroe rally posted to YouTube by Jeff Crianza, who runs media relations for Blue Lives Matter NYC, the district attorney can be seen speaking with Trump 2020 flags waving behind him.
After Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election to Joe Biden, Hoovler announced on Facebook that he had joined Parler, a far-right social media website linked to the January 6 U.S. Capitol riots.
Rebecca Roiphe, a former Manhattan prosecutor who now teaches professional ethics at New York Law School, told New York Focus that “a prosecutor who is actively involved in politics throughout his tenure as DA runs the risk of allowing these personal political connections to affect decisions in particular cases.”
Several organizations that provide guidance on legal ethics issues have denounced such behavior in the past. In 1985, the NYSBA’s Committee on Professional Ethics ruled that “it is not ethically proper for a district attorney to attend political and social functions of a political party except when the district attorney is involved in his or her own campaign for reelection.” A year later, following complaints from DAASNY, the NYSBA ethics committee softened its position, finding that attending can be appropriate on a case-by-case basis, but that “the prosecutor should neither be a speaker at such a function nor publicize his or her attendance.”
Today, the DAASNY ethics handbook also advises that outside of campaigning for their own elections, District Attorneys “generally may not speak at political functions, publicize their attendance at such functions, or act in a manner that could be interpreted as lending the prestige and weight of their office to a political party or function.”
The DAASNY and NYSBA mandates against DAs becoming involved in partisan politics are legally unenforceable. The only binding ethics rules for lawyers are the Rules of Professional Conduct, which do not forbid Hoovler’s behavior.
In an interview with New York Focus, Hoovler defended his appearances at political events. He said that he was not engaging in partisan politics because he was commenting on matters of public safety, which was well “within [his] First Amendment rights.”
Addressing the topics of his speech at the Back the Blue rallies, Hoovler said he addressed “bail reform, full benefits for officers, and getting a street named after” a police officer killed in the line of duty who had grown up in Monroe.
Asked why he participated as a supportive speaker when state Senator Sue Serino organized a meeting of the GOP-led Repeal Bail Reform Task Force in the Hudson Valley, he said, “When you’re the DA, you’re invited to all sorts of press conferences — Democratic, Republican, whatever — where they want you to talk about public safety.”
Hoovler said that his appearances were “entirely proper” and “approved by DAASNY.”
J. Anthony Jordan, the Washington County District Attorney and the current president of the DAASNY, agreed with Hoovler that his appearances at the events did not violate the association’s ethics guidelines.
“District Attorneys serve as the Chief Law Enforcement Officials for their respective counties in New York and are subject to the electoral process. As such, they have wide discretion to criticize those policies that undermine public safety and support those policies that advance it, by freely and vigorously speaking out and writing on criminal justice issues and the individuals involved in those issues,” Jordan said in an emailed statement. “Some may view this as political; however, public safety requires District Attorneys to speak in the interests of the common good of all.”
Jordan did not explain how Hoovler’s attendance and public remarks at political events complied with the DAASNY handbook’s guidance that prosecutors may not speak at such events.
Politics of Bail Reform
Nick Encalada-Malinowski, the Civil Rights Campaigns Director for VOCAL-NY, is a strong supporter of bail reform and a sharp critic of Hoovler. He accused Hoovler of making “misleading” media statements about the impact of bail reform. In the context of Republicans wielding criminal justice reform as a partisan tool against Democrats to help win elections, Encalada-Malinowski said that “having a person like Hoovler lead DAASNY was a bad look.”
DAASNY has consistently opposed the 2019 bail reform legislation, including when Albany County DA Albany Soares, once considered by reform advocates to be a progressive prosecutor, was its president from 2019 to 2020. But Soares, a Democrat, personally endorsed ending cash bail, diverging from the association’s official position.
A 2021 study from the Prosecutors and Politics Project at University of North Carolina School of Law found that prosecutors are very active lobbyists nationwide, and that they have a significant impact on legislation’s prospects. DAASNY opposed the 2019 bail reform legislation and supported its subsequent rollback, but the extent of its formal lobbying related to the issue is unknown.
Hoovler told New York Focus that he does not oppose the intent of bail reform. Instead, he said, he opposes bail reform as an unfunded mandate for prosecutors. If the state allocated more funds to pretrial social services like drug addiction treatment services, he explained, he would be more likely to support the changes being proposed. He blamed the legislature for the lack of consensus between bail reform proponents and prosecutors.
“Even Democratic legislators do not want to say they are hiking up taxes,” he said.