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Opponents square off in final DA debate

Date: 10/25/2010

Oct. 25, 2010

By Chris Maza

Reminder Assistant Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- Hampden County district attorney hopefuls Stephen Buoniconti and Mark Mastroianni continued to display their differences in a debate on Oct. 19.

At the event, which was sponsored by the McKnight Neighborhood Council and the McKnight Neighborhood Youth Council and took place at American International College's Karen Sprague Cultural Arts Center, the two candidates voiced differing opinions on the role of the District Attorney in the office, the role of the district attorney's office in the community and the definition of the biggest crime issue in Hampden County.

Mastroianni continued to go on the offensive regarding Buoniconti's lack of experience as a superior court prosecutor, asserting that the district attorney should be the "top criminal trial attorney in Hampden County."

"I hope that, in tonight's debate, you will examine what qualifications are necessary to make sure that [if] you, your family members or just someone in your community that you know is victimized by a crime, that they are not victimized again by a prosecution that is marked by inexperience and lack of qualifications," Mastroianni said in his opening statement.

Buoniconti asserted that prosecution was just one aspect of the job of district attorney, pointing to his experience as a State Representative as a strength when it comes to being a presence in the community and when going to Boston to advocate for money and resources for the office.

He also said that the current District Attorney William M. Bennett has only handled a "handful" of cases over his 20 years in the office.

Mastroianni agreed that Bennett only prosecutes a handful of cases, but asserted that the reason for that is because, as district attorney, he handles the most difficult and complex cases that often take up to a year to prosecute and that is why superior court experience is needed for the position.

Buoniconti continued to stress the office's need for community advocacy in order to fight and prevent crime, vowing to be "pro-active" in the communities "from day one" to establish crime-preventing community coalitions.

"Right now, the model we have to fight crime is broken. You feel it. I feel it. Neighborhoods are under assault. People are feeling more scared than ever in their neighborhood," Buoniconti said. "Fighting crime takes two things. One is being aggressive about those individuals who have to be taken off the street because they are a danger to others. We also know that if you do not tackle the issue of prevention, the flood of individuals coming into the courthouse is never going to change."

Buoniconti cited his idea for a program requiring assistant district attorneys be assigned to communities and schools for the purpose of education, advocacy and training, a program similar to one Bennett implemented at one time, as one of the major ways to prevent crime and to put a "face to the district attorney's office."

Mastroianni decried that while community work is important, effective prosecution was the "cornerstone" of the district attorney's office's responsibilities.

"Effective prosecution is what's necessary to be an effective district attorney," Mastroianni said. "From those successful and competent prosecutions, the district attorney's office can branch out into the neighborhoods and be involved in all the programs that the district attorney's office, through William Bennett, currently uses -- to be in neighborhoods, to be in schools, to deal with community organizations. But to do it effectively, you have to be a qualified prosecutor to start with."

To that point, Mastroianni said the prosecutor's primary place should be in the courtroom and that the idea of putting assistant district attorneys in the community would further slow the judicial process. Instead, he proposed having trained professionals on his staff to go into the communities as advocates for the office.

Neither candidate elaborated on how they intended to fund their proposals.

While Buoniconti stated that the "illegal use and selling of drugs" was the number one crime issue in the county because it "permeates though all communities and affects people of all ages", Mastroianni stressed that crime in Hampden County should not be generalized.

"You can't just say what it is for Hampden County. You have to look at each community," Mastroianni said, adding that while violent crime is a the most public and biggest problem in the county as a whole, it is important to examine each community in order to recognize different criminal issues that need addressing in different areas.

Buoniconti said he would gauge the success of his office not on crime figures, but by "the smiles on the victims' face," adding that his experience both as a prosecutor and a legislator gives him the tools to properly attend to victims and their needs.

"If we can bring justice to victims, then I know that I'm doing a good job," Buoniconti said. "When you're the victim of a case, that's the most important case in your life. Treating those individuals with dignity, the honor they deserve, trying to seek justice and, hopefully, getting justice on occasion, making them feel that their voice was heard, that the system worked on their behalf and that they felt comfortable being represented by the district attorney. If I can accomplish that, I would be quite proud."

In the Lincoln-Douglas portion of the debate, in which each candidate had the opportunity to ask the other direct questions, Mastroianni pointed out that Buoniconti has yet to release his full tax returns as promised in a primary debate, instead releasing a letter from his accountant with information on his income and taxes paid. Mastroianni questioned why the documents have not been released and why the State Representative's tax rate is significantly lower than the norm.

"It was your promise that you made to disclose your taxes and when you made that promise, you didn't make any reference to identity theft or identity theft issues, which, of course, we all respect and recognize. In the weeks after you made that promise, you made excuse after excuse and identity theft was not one of those explanations that you gave," Mastroianni said. "It's only recently that you raised the identity theft issue to avoid the tax question."

Buoniconti responded by saying that he has been "very consistent from the beginning" and that he took offense to Mastroianni's attack on his reasons for not disclosing his full returns.

"I stated that I would release my tax information and, in fact, I've done that. I've released the summary of all income earned and all my taxes paid. That's more than Mitt Romney, more than Charlie Baker, more than Deval Patrick, more than Tim Cahill have done," Buoniconti said. "I take exception to the comment on identity theft. This is quite personal to me. Releasing tax information doesn't just pertain to me. It pertains to my wife as well. It's a joint return. My wife was the victim of identity theft and we decided to release that information and that information only."

Buoniconti did not respond to the question regarding his tax rate.

In his first question to Mastroianni, Buoniconti asked his opponent, "How are you enjoying this campaign?"

Mastroianni responded by saying that he has enjoyed the "challenge" of the campaign, but said he was not happy with the negative attacks on him the Buoniconti campaign has engaged in.

"I am disappointed in the level the campaign has gone to and I am disappointed because at the very onset of this campaign, you attacked me," Mastroianni said. "You attacked me for being a defense lawyer. You attacked things, including my integrity, for absolutely no reason. You have known my reputation and my integrity over the last twenty years."

When in his next question Mastroianni accused Buoniconti of having a vision for the district attorney's office that included "the almost acceptance that you have no trial experience in the superior court" or in major cases and questioned his ability to hire people who would need more experience to handle such cases, Buoniconti expanded on his definition of the district attorney's role in the office.

"We're not running for chief trial attorney. We're running for district attorney and as district attorney, you have to run an office and you have to manage that office," Buoniconti said, adding that his five years as a district court prosecutor on both Berkshire and Hampden counties gave him the experience to recognize a good district attorney and a bad one and said he would recruit talent from all over the state and not just the local area

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