The Republican gubernatorial candidate in New York, Congressman Lee Zeldin of Long Island, was physically attacked while giving a speech in upstate New York last week. The alleged attacker was initially arrested by local police and then released. He has since been charged and detained by federal authorities. But local prosecutors’ decision to free the suspected attacker instead of keeping him locked up gave Zeldin a potent talking point to criticize the state’s bail reform law, which was intended to reduce the number of poor people locked up before trial.
Reporter Joshua Solomon of the Albany Times Union has been looking into the matter and it turns out, there is a lot more…politics…to this story. On Tuesday he spoke with Host Sean Carlson on All Things Considered. Here is a transcript of the conversation:
Sean Carlson: Can you bring us up to speed about what we know about the attack? What motivated him and how seriously did he threaten the Congressman?
Josh Solomon: So as you said, it can be rather political especially [depending on] who you ask. The alleged "attacker" – and I use attacker quotes there because law enforcement has said that he didn't actually attack him. He attempted an attack, and that's an important distinction here. So David G. Jakubonis, a 40-something year old man from Monroe County, was arrested on an attempt of an assault, a nonviolent felony, to Congressman Lee Zeldin, who's the Republican gubernatorial nominee.
David came up to the stage during a campaign rally. He walked up, it was a bit of a slow walk. He approached the Congressman with something in his hands between his fingers, lifted his arm up toward the congressman's neck. The congressman then grabbed his wrist and then they tumbled to the ground. People piled on. The congressman got himself out of the way.
And then you were left with this event that happened afterward of what to charge the guy with, who was going to charge him, how much to charge him with, would that charge offense be bail eligible under the state’s bail reform, under these new laws that alter that.
And so you end up with this situation where he was charged with an attempt to assault. It was a non bail eligible offense. He was arraigned in court the next day on Friday [and then] released. But then federal charges came in because he allegedly assaulted a federal elected official. He's now being held for that.
There's a hearing Thursday and Wednesday. And that's where we're at in terms of just the mechanics of the actual offense that we're talking about. But there are a lot of other mechanics that I can get into on the politics of it as well.
SC: As you mentioned, this happened in Monroe County, it was in Fairport. You looked into the data and found that it's pretty unusual for the DA in Monroe County to levy that particular charge in a case like this.
JS: Absolutely. So that specific offense, what I saw from state data, which was recently updated earlier this month in six month increments, there was only one time in Monroe County in which this offense was charged, just what you call the top level offense. The most serious charge when a person came before a judge and the judge was determining what to do with that case. Statewide in 2021, there are only about 200 instances. There are times where bail is set. It's typically because there [is] some type of domestic dispute, a family offense, or there's a criminal history for the person. So there are times when bail is set. There's times when the person is released under supervision -- under some type of conditions. In this instance, they released him on his own, and that quickly turned into this political storm [around] bail reform.
SC: Zeldin saying, look, this is a situation where if not for the bail reform guys, this guy would still be in jail. But ultimately the charge that maybe he should have been charged with would have kept him in jail. Talking about this DA in Monroe County, can you give us some of the stories you've been told about the district attorney, including her role in the Zeldin campaign and her recusal in this case? What really is happening here?
JS: Sure. So Monroe County DA Sandra Doorley came forward with certain charges. Her office came forward with certain charges. But there were charges that came with the Sheriff's office. The chain of events here is: Zeldin is attacked, or alleged attempted attack. The sheriff's prosecutor came forward. The investigator offered certain charges, just this specific one. They consulted with an assistant district attorney out of the DA's office. They agreed on that charge. That charge they acknowledged was not bail eligible according to the DA's office. And because of that, the DA did not bring anyone to court to argue for bail as a condition of release. And that's where things happen there.
Now some of the debate is kind of clouded up in the fact that the DA was for a very, very small moment, according to her, on Zeldin's campaign, which may be an ethics issue according to the District Attorney's Association of New York's ethics guidelines. She, a friend of Zeldin’s, was approached by him to join the campaign sometime in April. She said yes. She then was put out on a list as a campaign co-chair. The next day she spoke with the District Attorney's Association of New York and then informed the campaign that she would no longer be a campaign co-chair. Now I should say all that is according to the DA. We've received no documentation that states otherwise. And the DA was at this event with Congressman Zeldin – a political event. She's also, according to state data, a contributor to the local Conservative Party’s political campaign, and has donated to other would-be politicians and hopeful politicians since assuming the office of district attorney. So there's a lot going on there that makes this a complicated, dense, confusing situation that is ripe for politics.
SC: Yeah. And as reporters naturally connecting the dots with all of this, one could ask, did Zeldin's ally let this man out of jail so he could become a poster boy for the horrors of bail reform? What is Zeldin saying about those allegations - or the DA for that matter?
JS: They're saying they followed protocol. They did what they're supposed to do. And in terms of that recusal, there's two separate stories here, which are a bit of splitting hairs, but there are two separate stories here. Congressman Zeldin during a news conference earlier this week said, I was with the DA right after the event, we were talking just off the stage. She said, I'm going to have to recuse myself from this case. And that's what Congressman Zeldin told reporters. Now on the same day, Monday, the DA's office told reporters [that] there was a lot going on with a shooting that happened to kill a Rochester police officer in Monroe County that same evening. And so the office was a bit, you know, distracted, overwhelmed, juggling several things, important things going on at once. The DA's office was really focused on the Rochester shooting. Then the next morning, the DA informed her office that [she] is going to have to recuse [herself] after thinking about this further. But that thought process appears to have only happened according to the DA's office after the arraignment. So the mechanics of this are somewhat important. If they had wanted, if they thought that there should have been a more serious charge that may have been bail eligible, they may have been able to press for it, push for something more serious and we'd have a different dynamic going on.
But nonetheless, we ended up with what we did. Congressman Zeldin apparently spoke with the district attorney who apparently wasn't a part of his campaign, but was at this political rally. And, and you're left with a really messy situation where reporters, politicians, advocates, experts are trying to figure out what does this mean? What's going on? What is this? Is this something, is there something more going on in terms of politics here? And, and for the most part, like most things, Democrats are saying one thing and Republicans are arguing another.
SC: Josh Solomon is a capital reporter for the Albany times union. Josh, thank you very much for your reporting.