TROY, New York — Joel Abelove’s gleaming black police interceptor sits in a newly minted district attorney’s parking spot, decked out with emergency lights on the dashboard and rear window. It’s a new purchase—with asset forfeiture funds—made by the embattled Rensselaer County District Attorney, who ran on a tough-on-crime platform and declared his support for his employees’ Second Amendment right to pack heat in the office.
But Abelove, who made headlines this year when he reportedly gave immunity to a cop who shot an unarmed black man, has not lived up to his reformist promise. A month-long investigation by The Daily Beast uncovered a pattern of alleged political favors and personal grudges, and a talent drain in Abelove’s workforce.
The apparent rot in the DA’s office, and the shooting of Edson Thevenin, has led to scathing criticism of Abelove. The bad press came to a head on Sunday, when the Albany Times Union published an editorial calling on the 47-year-old Republican prosecutor to resign after three violent felony cases were dismissed under speedy trial rules.
“If it is found Mr. Abelove mishandled the [Thevenin shooting] case, it could be cause for his removal from office by Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo,” the critique read. “Mr. Abelove’s continued demonstration of incompetence and partisanship should make that unnecessary. He should resign…”
Abelove was elected in 2014, owing in large part to his opposition to the 2013 New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, a landmark gun-control law widely denounced in the towns and villages of upstate New York. Known as the SAFE Act, it expanded the definition of assault weapons under New York law and made it harder for individuals with certain mental illnesses to obtain weapons.
“I mean, issues like the SAFE Act, displeasure with certain policies of the governor, I gotta believe that certainly played a role [in the election],” Abelove told WAMC radio at the time.
It’s difficult to overstate the animus against the SAFE Act in Abelove country. At the time, the Rensselaer County legislature even passed a resolution prohibiting the use of the county’s seal in support or enforcement of the law championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Three years later, yard signs condemning the law still speckle the county’s yards and roadways.
Abelove, whom the New York Post once touted as a “potential GOP candidate for state attorney general,” told the newspaper that tougher mandatory minimum sentences would be a better idea than the SAFE Act.
Once he took office, Abelove encouraged his staffers to start carrying pistols, even offering to pick up the tab of the application and safety courses. “I’m not suggesting my staff has to arm themselves. I just wanted them to know I support them if they want to carry a gun,” he told the Times Union.
Once in office, Abelove’s feuds with Gov. Cuomo went beyond the SAFE Act. In August 2015, he railed against Cuomo’s Executive Order No. 147, which allows the attorney general’s office to investigate and to act as special prosecutor in officer-involved killings of unarmed civilians.
Abelove would seemingly disobey this order eight months later when a Troy cop shot and killed Edson Thevenin, a 38-year-old father of two who was unarmed and allegedly led police on a brief chase after a DWI stop. Five days after Thevenin’s death, Abelove reportedly granted the police officer immunity instead of turning over the case to the attorney general. The grand jury did not return an indictment.
In an email, Abelove said his office “does not discuss grand jury matters.”
As The Daily Beast reported yesterday, two witnesses to the incident—including one who believed the fatal use of force wasn’t justified—said they gave statements to police but weren’t called to testify before the panel. One of the witnesses later recanted, and told The Daily Beast he hoped to join the Troy police force.
Legal experts were puzzled by Abelove’s reported decision to give Sgt. French immunity before he testified to the grand jury that was investigating him.
“I have never seen a case where a defendant is testifying at a grand jury, and gets immunity [for the crime the grand jury is reviewing],” Florina Altshiler, a Buffalo-based defense attorney and former prosecutor in Alaska, told The Daily Beast.
“If a prosecutor gives the target defendant immunity, then essentially that defendant can go into a grand jury, testify to all sorts of wrongdoing, and be exempt from prosecution for that wrongdoing.”
Allegations of mismanagement have plagued Abelove well before the Thevenin shooting, and in one case, prior to his taking office.
In December 2014, he eliminated a political opponent’s position as an investigator for the district attorney. Gary Gordon had run for sheriff on the Democratic ticket against Abelove’s ally just three years before, and had vocally opposed Abelove at a Police Benevolent Association endorsement meeting during Abelove’s first run for DA. Gordon said his opposition cost Abelove the PBA endorsement.
“He was naming a bunch of cases he said were mishandled by the current DA,” Gordon told The Daily Beast. “After his presentation, I questioned him publicly at the meeting.”
Four years later, Abelove won the election. Gordon was out.
“There’s only so much money in the budget, and with some of the things I was looking to do coming in, it was necessary for me to cut that budget item,” Abelove told WAMC Radio at the time. “We still have four investigators in the office, so we’ll be able to make do with that and at the same time it allows me to increase some different positions from less than full time to full time.”
Abelove told The Daily Beast that he was not able to comment on Gordon’s allegations because of an unrelated criminal indictment against Gordon.
Around the same time, Abelove asked chief ADA Carmelo Laquidara to drop charges against Martin Reid, chairman of the Rensselaer County legislature and a political ally of Abelove, court papers allege. New York Department of Labor investigators found that Reid had taken home $15,335 in unemployment benefits—all while collecting a $30,000-a-year government salary for his part-time county job.
Laquidara—Abelove’s opponent in the 2014 district attorney race, and who was aiding Abelove’s transition into office—refused to drop charges, according to an affidavit.
When Abelove took over in January, he denied receiving a referral for prosecution from the Department of Labor and said he would not prosecute Reid without direction from police or the state attorney general.
“There has been no referral to my office for a prosecution,” Abelove told the Times Union. “I’ve gotten nothing from the police, nothing from the attorney general. I’ve gotten no letter. The materials existed in the office in whatever form they were with the previous administration… who chose not to do anything.”
Abelove echoed this statement to The Daily Beast. “No request was made by me or my office to Mr. Laquidara or anyone else to drop charges against Mr. Reid before I took office,” the DA added in an email this week.
The attorney general’s office took over, and Reid was arrested in August 2015 on a 41-count felony indictment. He was charged with one count of grand larceny and 40 counts of offering a false instrument for filing, and resigned his leadership position in the county legislature that same day.
“There’s two systems of justice: one for Joel and his friends, and one for everybody else,” one local insider told The Daily Beast. “That’s really what it boils down to.”
Reid pleaded guilty to one felony count of offering a false instrument for filing in September 2016. He lost his county legislature seat, and was sentenced to three days in jail and three years of conditional discharge. He was also required to pay a $5,000 fine, according to the Times Union.
Meanwhile, court papers show that Reid appeared to help Abelove in other ways. During a December 2014 legislature meeting, he introduced an amendment to the county budget to eliminate one $52,519 “special investigator” job—the position belonging to political rival Gary Gordon.
Richard Crist, another Abelove ally and a spokesman for the Rensselaer County legislature’s Republicans, was outraged at the Reid case outcome. “Martin was an effective legislator for years, including work on important job creation projects, providing needed county services, and budgets that stayed within the tax cap,” Crist told the Times Union. “It is sad that an individual act unrelated to his work in the legislature resulted in the court action today.”
The Reid allegations have been a thorn in Abelove’s side ever since, and are mentioned in the Times Union’s recent call for the district attorney’s resignation and a former employee’s affidavit alleging political malfeasance.
Yet the Reid case wasn’t the only one under scrutiny. Crist was himself arrested on child endangerment charges after a physical altercation with his 17-year-old son in July 2014, the Times Union reported.
Abelove, who inherited the case after the election, told The Daily Beast that Child Protective Services and the NYS Office of Children and Family Services cleared Crist of wrongdoing. But his predecessor, Arthur Glass, said Abelove should’ve appointed a special prosecutor to keep matters involving his political allies above board. In fact, multiple judges had recused themselves from the case because of Crist’s political connections. “You don’t even want to give the impression of any impropriety,” Glass told the Times Union, after Abelove dropped charges in January 2015.
Abelove disagreed. When Crist’s attorney moved to dismiss the charges, he didn’t fight him. “He was not directly involved in heading my campaign,” Abelove said at the time. The DA recently told The Daily Beast, “To suggest that I allowed the case to be dismissed for political reasons is clearly false; there simply was no proof to sustain the charges.”
But sources in Rensselaer County told The Daily Beast that in the 2014 election, Crist gathered designating petitions for Abelove that helped him to appear on the Independence Party line—a move that got Abelove 1,596 votes.
The district attorney won the election by a narrow margin of just 492 votes.
“[Crist] was an active participant that helped [Abelove] gather petitions to qualify for the Wilson Pakula,” CB Smith, a local Democratic activist and government watchdog, told The Daily Beast. (The waiver allows a candidate who is not registered with a particular political party to appear on that party’s ballot line.)
“I’m not sure what you mean by the term ‘campaign’ for me,” Abelove told The Daily Beast. “I had many people who supported my candidacy.”
Once in office, Abelove has relied on a little help from his friends in order to run it.
One notable hire was Jessica Hall, an old friend who supported Abelove’s campaign and worked with him under former DA Patricia DeAngelis. She became Abelove’s chief assistant, a right-hand woman who runs the office alongside him.
Abelove also brought in Jonathan Desso, the 34-year-old son of a major campaign supporter. Desso handles public relations, among other things, in his role as a confidential assistant. His father, Louis Desso, is well known in Rensselaer County Republican politics as the town supervisor of North Greenbush.
Before joining Abelove’s staff, Desso worked as a distribution group leader at Target, according to his LinkedIn page. He will take home $78,120 this year, according to public records. In contrast, early-career assistant district attorneys make $45,000 at the office.
Abelove created Jonathan Desso’s full-time appointed position after eliminating Gordon’s, according to court filings.
Christine Labbate, the niece of Martin Reid—the Rensselaer County legislature’s Republican chairman whom Abelove had declined to prosecute—was hired as an assistant district attorney handling major crimes. Cindy Bugbee Mattison, the sister of Republican County Elections Commissioner Larry Bugbee, was hired as a secretary. And sources said that a girlfriend of a former Conservative party chairman was hired as an executive assistant. (The Wilson Pakula waiver the party granted Abelove to appear on the Conservative Party line helped secure his victory.)
“The Republicans in Rensselaer County have rigged the process by controlling the significant minor party lines: the Conservative Party and the Independence Party,” Smith, the government watchdog, said. “I submit that if there was an office of dog catcher, the Republican candidate would win the Conservative and Independence Party lines, even if he or she could not tell the difference between a cat and a dog.”
Abelove said he could not comment on personnel matters in regards to staffing.
Meanwhile, experienced long-time employees didn’t always fare so well under Abelove’s administration. He fired two assistant district attorneys when he took office, and five others quit. The turnover would continue throughout his term, from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Then, days before Christmas in 2015, Abelove fired assistant district attorney Shane Hug without a stated reason. Hug, a holdover from past administrations, was one of the office’s most experienced assistant district attorneys and handled major cases. He had also campaigned for Carmelo Laquidara, Abelove’s Democratic challenger, in the district attorney’s race.
In October 2016, Hug, retired Troy police detective Ronald Fountain, and Gary Gordon—the district attorney’s investigator whose job Abelove had eliminated before taking office—were charged with 15 misdemeanor counts relating to the leak of a 911 call made by a Republican mayoral candidate’s wife. Abelove took the rare step of bringing misdemeanor charges to a grand jury in a case involving at least two political opponents and a complainant who had campaigned for him in the district attorney’s race.
The trio is accused of conspiring to obtain a 911 audio tape from July 2015, when the wife of a Republican mayoral candidate, Jim Gordon, called cops saying her hubby held her down during an argument. A Troy police officer who had campaigned for Abelove and had possession of the tape was given immunity by Abelove in this case.
Gordon lost the election after the recording was leaked to the Times-Union and Democrats used it in robo-calls.
“This is a petty prosecution brought for personal and political reasons by the most ethically challenged district attorney in Rensselaer County in my lifetime,” Trey Smith, Hug’s attorney, told the Times Union when they were charged in October 2016.
In late October, Smith filed a motion requesting Abelove be removed from the case over a “very strong appearance of impropriety.” Gordon and Abelove supported each other politically, with Abelove donating to Gordon’s campaigns from 2011 to 2015, the court filing alleges.
“Abelove has financially supported the complainant’s political campaigns, and the complainant has carried at least one designating petition for Abelove’s campaign for the office he holds,” Smith wrote.
Abelove’s response denied the allegations and said that one part “reeks of an unsubstantiated smear intended to confuse the Court.”
Abelove personally presented the case to the grand jury, while granting immunity to the cop who initially provided access to the 911 call, court papers say. That officer, Troy Sgt. Tim Colaneri, donated to Abelove’s unsuccessful 2011 run for DA and also asked the Police Benevolent Association to publicly endorse him, records show.
Multiple members of Rensselaer County’s legal community—who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity over fear of reprisal from Abelove, whom they described as “vindictive”—say that while the DA is busy playing lawman, his office is suffering from high turnover and undertrained and overworked staff.
“Justice isn’t being served in Rensselaer County,” one lawyer told The Daily Beast. “People are quitting right and left. Now you have all these cases that aren’t being properly handled. It’s frustrating to watch.”
The turnover has been swift and continuous. Abelove fired some holdovers from the previous administration, and kept only a handful—among them, Shane Hug, whom he would later fire. He hired a slate of new prosecutors.
In May of 2015, five months after Abelove took office, the Times Union reported that five of his nine hires had already quit. Abelove declined to provide turnover numbers to The Daily Beast for his assistant district attorneys.
The pay in Rensselaer County has historically lagged behind nearby areas, sources said, and assistant district attorneys had high case loads due to Troy’s crime rates. The office also historically had fewer prosecutors than other counties nearby.
But sources also said that Abelove’s leadership style contributed to increased turnover.
People familiar with the department say Abelove runs it in a hierarchical manner modeled after his experiences in the U.S. military. (He is a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard.) Assistant DAs are expected to run decisions by Hall, the first assistant, who would in turn run things by Abelove.
In his election campaign, Abelove said he hoped that successfully prosecuting low-level offenses would lead to an overall drop in crime through deterrence—essentially a rebranding of the widely disputed Broken Windows theory. “If you address the heroin epidemic, if you address welfare fraud, if you address DWI, if you start addressing all these other offenses that affect the quality of life in our neighborhoods, if you address the burglaries, smaller assaults, robberies, everything… maybe you don’t get a homicide down the road,” he told the Troy Record during his campaign.
But members of the Rensselaer County legal community told The Daily Beast that Abelove’s approach has resulted in more “dead” felonies than substantive changes. Multiple sources told The Daily Beast that the inexperienced office is a boon for the defense bar, who can wait for cases that would have ordinarily been prosecuted to expire under speedy trial rules.
Cases have languished when they weren’t strong enough—or not high-priority enough—to take before a grand jury. If six months pass without a speedy trial waiver from the defense, they become what lawyers call “30-30 dead” under state law. Those crimes are then sent to a lower court, from where they are typically dismissed.
Most recently, an assault on a police officer, a home invasion, and a threat to burn a church died under speedy trial rules, according to the Albany Times-Union.
Lucas Mihuta, the defense attorney in the three cases, said that cases occasionally get dismissed under speedy trial rules, but such dismissals have gotten more common under the Abelove administration.
“[Most often] it’s because maybe a case was not ripe to be prosecuted as a felony in the first place,” Mihuta said. “It’s a lot more rare for a serious case, that should reasonably be treated as a felony, to be dismissed as a 30-30 violation.”
Abelove told The Daily Beast earlier this week that he was not aware of “dozens more expired felonies.” But just days later, the Times Union reported that another four such cases were dismissed in Troy City Court.
Speaking to the paper, Abelove blamed the dismissals on former prosecutors who let their caseloads go and promised to create more accountability going forward. But these steps may be coming a little too late.
On Sunday, the Times Union published an editorial saying it was time for the district attorney “to go.”
“When three people accused of violent felonies go free without having to face a trial because of error by the district attorney’s office, something is gravely wrong,” it said. “The blame for this blunder, a failure to comply with the state’s speedy trial statute, lies ultimately with the person who heads the office, Mr. Abelove himself. And it’s just the latest example of his unfitness for a post he was elected to in 2014.”