The race between Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) and prosecutor Ray Tierney, who is running on the Republican and Conservative lines, has been a contentious one. At the forefront, Tierney has questioned whether Sini has been as tough on crime as the DA himself has said, especially regarding the MS-13 gang.
The two sat down with TBR News Media’s editorial staff Oct. 11 to discuss several issues including the biggest ones facing Suffolk County.
Meet the candidates
Sini was first elected to the DA’s office in 2017 and is running for his second term. His background includes being an assistant attorney in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York where he ultimately specialized in violent crimes, which included prosecuting murder trials. He went on to serve as Suffolk’s assistant deputy county executive for public safety and was appointed to the county police commissioner position in January of 2016.
“I love my job,” Sini said. “I wanted to serve in my own backyard.”
Tierney also grew up in Suffolk County. He began his law career in the Suffolk DA’s office under DA James Catterson (R).
The challenging candidate left the DA’s office in 1999 and went on to work for a private firm and returned to the DA’s office in 2002 and remained for another six years.
He then worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York as an assistant attorney for more than 11 years.
He left the office in 2019 to become an executive assistant district attorney in the Kings County District Attorney’s office where he was in charge of the violent criminal enterprises bureau, crime strategies unit and body worn camera unit.
In order to run for Suffolk County DA, Tierney had to leave the Brooklyn office and is currently Suffolk Regional Off-Track Betting Corp.’s chief counsel for compliance and enforcement.
Sini said crime since he became police commissioner and even as DA has gone down each year. He said since he’s been in office violent crimes are down by about 30% and overall crimes more than 20%. He added year-to-date crime is down 7%.
“We’ve been very effective in keeping Suffolk safe, and also moving the criminal justice system in the right direction, but we knew that we had to reform the DA’s office and that’s why I ran initially,” he said.
Weeks before his election Sini’s predecessor, former DA Tom Spota (D), was arrested. Sini said the office has been reformed in various ways. There has also been the hiring of more than 100 people, an increase in diversity and an overhauling of the training program.
Tierney disputed Sini’s crime statistics saying shootings are up in Suffolk County, and he wants to use his experience in crime strategies to bring those numbers down.
“Statistics can be manipulated,” Tierney said. “What we’re going to do is we’re going to index the crimes.”
Tierney has criticized Sini’s approach during his campaign. He said the DA’s office will announce numerous indictments via press releases but he said the office doesn’t send out as many announcements about convictions.
“I don’t dispute for a fact that he has very splashy arrests,” Tierney said. “I’m talking about results.”
He also criticized Sini for the number of times his office has used plea bargaining, giving the example of a drug dealer that Sini charged with a top count in 2021. However, he said, a year earlier that same dealer was charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance and then allowed to plea.
“If he’s a kingpin in 2021, why do you give him a misdemeanor in 2020?” Tierney said.
Sini said pleading in certain cases is not unusual, and the DA’s office may not have the evidence needed in 2020.
Tierney said Sini talks about the biggest MS-13 gang busts and asked for defendants’ names, pleas and sentences. He also asked why not one was charged with murder.
“If you have a crime strategies unit, if every two weeks you’re letting the statistics come out the stats will speak for themselves,” the prosecutor said.
Tierney said doing so is an example of being independent from the police and county executive.
Sini said his office has been part of one of the largest MS-13 takedowns, where 96 people were indicted in one county. The case involved three years of wiretapping investigations. The takedown netted a multitude of arrests, and Sini said his office is now prosecuting the cases and is having a lot of success.
The DA said the reason why many were charged with murder conspiracy instead of murder was because law enforcement was able to stop the killings from happening due to the wiretaps used in the investigation.
“Our detectives would go out and stop the violence, and then we charged the defendants in some cases with murder conspiracy,” he said. “We stopped 10 murders from happening that way.”
He said the office, in addition to murder conspiracy pleas, has received pleas to assault and criminal possession of weapons, which have significant sentences attached to them.
“We’re making a difference in terms of MS-13 on Long Island, there’s no denying that,” Sini said. “And it’s not just the DA’s office, and we’re not suggesting otherwise. It’s a collaborative effort from the local police department, all the way up to our federal government.”
Tierney said there were 46 gang members on the indictment, and each one was responsible for two murders, which Sini interrupted and said it was murder conspiracy.
“Now he said he thwarted 10 murders,” Tierney said. “Now how exactly did he thwart those 10 murders? By arresting them? Well, the manner in which he arrested them was, he had this big splashy takedown after two years and then he arrested all 96 at once. So, in order for that statement to be true, that would have meant that as he prepared his press release, as he called all the media, as he got everything all ready for the takedown, the night before 10 murders became apparent. And then he took those individuals down.”
Tierney said he has a problem with that style as “that’s not how it works when we do our MS-13 indictments.”
“We take them down as soon as possible,” he said. “We don’t care about the indictment. We care about the results, and you can’t thwart 10 murder conspiracies, all at once, it’s an impossibility. There’s no way that 10 murder conspiracies come to fruition at the exact date of the takedown.”
Tierney said Sini seals his cases because he doesn’t want the public to see the plea bargains that he has given.
Sini said that was false since indictments are public, except for certain cases that may need to be sealed due to cooperators or under certain circumstances, and it’s appropriate to do so.
Sini said the drug epidemic has been one of the most significant public safety problems for more than a decade. He said the approach is investing in prevention, treatment, recovery and law enforcement.
“Law enforcement even plays a role in treatment, too, because you can create and implement diversion programs, where you get low-level offenders who are suffering from addiction into treatment programs,” he said.
He added drug offenders also need to be aggressively investigated and prosecuted.
“We’ve done that,” he said. “I’ll give you two examples, both in terms of bringing operators and major trafficker charges the top felony counts, these are significant prosecutions, and we’re leading the state on doing that.”
He said the sentences can be 25 years to life.
Tierney said he feels the most significant public safety problem is the rise of crime in the county, whether gun violence or the opioid epidemic.
He added it’s important to keep an eye on the U.S. southern border as powder fentanyl is being brought into the country. The powder form is sprinkled into cocaine unbeknownst to the buyer.
Sini said that Tierney has criticized him for not having as much trial experience as he, and said that’s just an issue of age, since he is younger than the challenger. The DA said that while prosecuting is part of the job there is more to it.
“We’re running to be a CEO of a major law firm,” he said. “I have significant managerial experience with a track record. He has zero.”
Sini said he believes his office has done “great work on a number of different fronts,” and he’s running on his record.
“We brought some of the most significant cases in the region on a variety of public safety fronts — the drug epidemic, gang violence, human trafficking, environmental crime.”
Tierney said he never thought he would get involved in the political process.
“I think what we’re seeing is our leadership is gaslighting us,” he said. “We’re being told everything’s great, everything’s wonderful. They are talking points.”
Tierney said the main function of the office is to prosecute.
“We are dismissing cases,” he said. “We’re not indicting cases. This is the management of the office, but to say you’re a CEO and a manager’s office, it is the prosecutor’s office. We need someone to prosecute those cases.”
The winner of the DA race will hold office for the next four years.