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DA candidates define differences

Date: 8/31/2010

Sept. 1, 2010

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- The five Democratic candidates and the one independent running for Hampden County District Attorney took the opportunity at the forum presented by the McKnight Neighborhood Council and the McKnight Youth Council on Tuesday to draw distinctions between one another.

Through the questions posed by Council President Walter Kroll, State Sen. Stephen Buoniconti; former Assistant District Attorneys Brett Vottero and Mark Mastroianni; Assistant District Attorneys James Goodhines and Stephen Spelman; and former Assistant District and former Assistant Attorney General Michael Kogut, all tried to pull themselves away from the pack.

About 60 people, many of whom were clearly supporters of a candidate, attended the forum at American International College.

Although the phrase "tough on crime" was repeated by several of the candidates, there seemed to be more substance to this forum than the one conducted earlier this summer in Southwick. While there were no real fireworks between the candidates, there were exchanges between some of them indicating some points of personal contention.

Kogut, for instance, said that if he were elected he would "lock the door" on the policy of allowing assistant district attorneys to take a leave of absence to run for the district attorney position. This remark was directed at Goodhines.

Vottero questioned Goodhines' assertion that he has more cases than any other prosecutor in the Commonwealth.

Spelman, who is a colonel in the Army Reserve, has had two tours of duty in Iraq and served under Gen. David Petraeus as deputy director and senior military officer at the Law and Order Task Force. His comparison of Springfield and Iraq -- calling the city a "war zone" -- was criticized by some of the other candidates and by one audience member in a short speak-out after the forum.

Later in the week, Buoniconti released a tactfully worded press release in which he requested Spelman to "retract his statement that any part of the city is a war zone."

Kogut also took advantage of Spelman's assertion by first visiting Kenefick Park are on Aug. 26 and then again at 11 p.m. Monday night.

"It takes leadership and a commitment to work with the entire community. For Mr. Spelman to suggest that and Kenefick Park in Springfield is a war zone weekdays at noon is irresponsible. To suggest that other places in Hampden County are war zones and should be subject to Iraq law and order may be an attention getter, but his attempt to tap into fear, frustration and anger for political attention is cynical and disappointing," Kogut stated in a press release announcing the walking tour.

Mastroianni noted he is a Springfield native who knows the city well. Kogut then responded that while Mastroianni moved out of the city, he still lives here.

When asked how their effectiveness as district attorney, if elected, be judged, some of the candidate's answers veered away from the topic.

Vottero said the crime rate in the county's 22 communities would be one indicator.

He said, "I'm willing to take the tough cases and bring them to trial."

Spelman said the "core function" is to prosecute criminals and he would bring "the right cases to trail." He added that he would be out of the office in the communities "listening to concerns," and there would be greater emphasis on ethics in the office.

He announced he would be releasing his last three tax returns as part of his campaign to bring more transparency to the office.

Spelman's campaign released the following statement last week: "The tax filings show that in 2007 Spelman earned $25,939.84 as an Assistant District Attorney and $77,804.10 as an Army Reservist, including combat pay for duty in Iraq. In 2008, Spelman earned $33,603.66 as an Assistant District Attorney and $70,121.85 as an Army Reservist, including combat pay for duty in Iraq. While mobilized as an Army Reservist, Spelman was not paid as an Assistant District Attorney. In 2009, Spelman earned $76,742.63 as an Assistant District Attorney and police training instructor, and $30,647.95 as an Army Reserve Colonel.

"He and his wife Elizabeth Dineen paid federal taxes of $23,672 for 2007, $18,098 for 2008, and $25,041 for 2009. Dineen's income during this period was variously derived from the Hampden County District Attorney's office, where she served as a senior prosecutor for Bill Bennett; as the chair of the Criminal Justice Department at Bay Path College; and as a police training academy instructor."

Following the debate, Goodhines also released his tax returns. He and his wife had wages of $99,295 in 2009. Goodhines also posted his returns for the past five years on his campaign Web site,

Mastroianni said the district attorney's performance must not be judge just by statistics of cases won or lost, but if the handling of cases was "in an appropriate manner."

"It is very difficult to do the right thing if you don't know what you're doing," he said, referring to his experience as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney.

Kogut described the district attorney's office as a "service oriented agency" and promised there would be no special interests or lobbyists affecting the office. It was at this time Kogut said he wouldn't allow an assistant district attorney to run for district attorney while on leave.

Goodhines shot back, speaking on his experience as a prosecutor and noted under Kogut "the most qualified people couldn't run [for district attorney]."

Buoniconti said as a state senator and state representative, he understands "it's up to the voter" every four years.

"If the public feels comfortable with you they will return you," he said.

As district attorney, he said he wouldn't tolerate people not doing their jobs.

When asked about how the activities and programs of their office would "intersect with the quality of life in Springfield," Vottero said he would work on reducing drug use and focus on children. He believes "the single biggest issue to prevent crime" would be to increase the high school graduation rate in Springfield and Holyoke.

Spelman said the strategies on crime "used in Iraq would work here." He added he would meet on a regular basis with the heads of area criminal justice agencies to coordinate efforts to address crime.

Mastroianni said, "I'm happy to tell you that Springfield is not a war zone. You can't apply military law here."

He would "focus on areas where crime is." He added that he would accentuate the positive things happening in the city.

Kogut agreed with Mastroianni that Springfield "is not a war zone; it's not Baghdad."

"People do not feel powerless," he added.

Kogut explained he would reach out to the area clergy for advice and assistance and would create a Web site for the office.

Goodhines said his opponents had mentioned positions that he has made and noted with a smile that he knows that "at least four people" have gone to his Web site.

He too would bring together community leaders to address issues.

Buoniconti said he would re-establish an anti-drug task force to deal with the issue of drug use and gang activities throughout the county. He also would address the root causes of crime, which he described as "the break down of the family."

The candidates will be meeting for several other public forums. The Springfield Democratic City Committee, in coordination with Hampden County Democratic city and town committee chairs, is sponsoring a Sept. 2 forum featuring only the Democratic candidates at Springfield Central High School from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Western New England College School of Law will host all the candidates on Sept. 7 at 6 p.m. at the Blake Law Center's J. Gerard Pellegrini Moot Court Room. Another opportunity to see all the candidates speak about candidacy will be at the Rebecca Johnson School from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 9. The Springfield chapter of the NAACP is the sponsor.

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