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DA hopefuls politely tout credentials at debate

Date: 6/28/2010

June 28, 2010.

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor


SOUTHWICK -- Mark Mastroianni, independent candidate for Hampden County district attorney, came to the forum sponsored by the South Democratic Town Committee on Tuesday night hoping to see if he would be invited to participate. While the moderator acknowledged him, Mastroianni remained part of the audience.

What Mastroianni and standing-room-only audience witnessed was five candidates -- Assistant District Attorney James Goodhines, State Sen. Stephen Buoniconti, Assistant District Attorney Stephen Spelman and Attorneys Michael Kogut and Brett Vottero -- all trying to define their experience and career as the one Hampden County voters need to have in the successor of District Attorney William Bennett.

Vottero and Buoniconti both served as an assistant district attorney as did Kogut, who also served as an assistant attorney general.

They spoke about what they achieved and what they would do as the next district attorney during the course of the one-hour forum in a largely polite way, although some sparks flew between Spelman and Vottero as Vottero accused Spelman of having illegally accepted campaign donations. Vottero said state law prohibits Spelman, an assistant district attorney on leave, from accepting money from defense attorneys who have faced him in court.

"He has received over $4,000 from criminal defense attorneys practicing in Hampden County, attorneys on the other side of cases he has handled," Vottero said. "It's illegal to solicit or receive [contributions]," he added.

Spelman said the fact he has received donations from defense lawyers indicates that within the legal community he is seen as fair and is respected.

Although one might expect there would have been a verbal pig pile on Buoniconti, acknowledged by some as the front-runner due to his name recognition and career in the state senate, the candidates largely spoke about themselves.

After opening statements about their backgrounds, the candidates took questions from the audience, the first being on whether they support a proposed new law that would limit the number of guns a person could buy legally in the state to one a month. Introduced by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2009, the bill is designed to prevent "straw purchases" by illicit dealers who are illegally re-selling the guns.

Goodhines, who said his career as a prosecutor has been involved in fighting "guns, gangs and drugs," said he was in favor of "proper gun legislation."

Vottero said he was opposed to the proposed law as "the laws we have are tough." He would rather have efforts to see the present laws enforced and give police officers more search warrants to find guns.

Kogut said he has supported waiting periods to purchase guns and said the focus need to be on the current legal tools and implementing them.

Spelman said he thinks mandatory minimum sentences are effective in gun crimes as they take "discretions away from judges."

Buoniconti said, "I can believe this, but I'm the only one that will say I'm in favor of the legislation." He didn't think buying a gun a month is any serious restriction on a legal gun owner.

Another question concerned how each candidate sees the role of the district attorney balanced between a prosecutor, an administrator and a lobbyist seeking funds for the office.

Buoniconti said while he believes having prosecuting experience is important, he would be the best candidate to secure the funding for the office based on his experience in the Legislature. He said a district attorney must understand the differences between the communities of Hampden County and how to assemble and work with groups and how to build coalitions.

"You need someone with balance in there," Buoniconti said.

Goodhines said the district attorney in the county for the past 52 years has been more than an administrator or "figurehead," but has been a prosecutor willing to "stand up and take on the most difficult cases." Goodhines said his time trying cases in Superior Court gives him better qualifications than someone who has only district court experiences.

Spelman said his assignment running legal units as an Army Reservist he was deputy director and senior military office at the Law and Order Task Force in Iraq from 2007 to 2008 gave him the organizational experience he needs to run the district attorney's office. He said he knows how to manage budgets, review cases and manage people.

Vottero asserted that Buoniconti's answers didn't reflect what the district attorney does on a day-to-day basis. He said the chief function of the district attorney is to be "the lawyer of the people and making decisions every day about how cases are going to be handled."

He added the issue of pleas bargains and when to offer them is one example of the skill and knowledge a district attorney must have.

Kogut took an opposite approach. He said a district attorney couldn't get involved in a case that would prevent him from making the necessary daily decisions about the office. Any one who believes a district attorney can run the office on a daily basis and prosecute a case is "being foolish."

Kogut believes a district attorney needs to reach out to the community and has proposed assembling several different advisory councils if he is elected, including ones comprised of school superintendents and another with college presidents.

To be "bogged down" prosecuting a case would prevent "real reform," he said.

When asked about expanded gaming and casinos, Spelman said the district attorney can not control expanded gaming, but the office will need additional resources for what a casino will a "not just crimes per se."

The district attorney should have "a seat at the table" as casinos are discussed, he said.

Goodhines said that while casinos have made money for Connecticut, the effects on surrounding communities have been "devastating." He said crime increases as people "are trying to feed habits." He also called for additional funding for the office.

Buoniconti said people come into his office every day looking for assistance to find work.

"Big jobs are being lost," he said.

He believes "the pros outweigh the cons" and casinos would bring in additional needed jobs.

He has filed bills, including one to modernize the wiretap law, to assist law enforcement when the casinos are here.

Vottero noted the state is already in the gaming industry with the state lottery and agrees law enforcement needs additional resources.

Casinos could increase the quality of life here with the additional jobs, he said, but added he is concerned about the impact of casinos on non-profits using bingo as well as how casinos will affect entertainment offerings already in the area.

Generally he is in favor of casinos, he said.

Kogut said he is not morally opposed to casinos, but said "no one has taken the time to consider those national studies in the impacts immediately on this area."

Kogut used the opportunity to criticize Buoniconti for not lobbying for additional money for Hampden County courts, police and fire services to deal with the impact of a casino.

A district attorney shouldn't be taking about job growth, but rather how a casino will bring additional crime to the area, Kogut asserted.