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Tompkins County DA Candidates Debate Online

ENFIELD, NY (WSKG) - Candidates for Tompkins County District Attorney answered questions in an online forum on Tuesday night.

The incumbent Matt Van Houten is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Ed Kopko, an Ithaca attorney.

They were asked a range of questions including how they will address the county’s expected budget shortages caused by the pandemic.

Kopko said he will offer more alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment and mental health services.

"We don’t need all of these prosecutions," Kopko said. "And we probably don’t need all of the Assistant District Attorneys [ADA] that we have."

The incumbent, Van Houten, said that the D.A.’s office actually needs at least one more ADA but cannot hire anyone because of a current hiring freeze.

Candidates were asked about prosecution of police wrongdoing. Kopko said, as D.A., he would not allow there to be internal investigations by police. Van Houten criticized Kopko's position.

"I don't think it reflects an understanding of the system to say that there will be no Internal Affairs bureaus because those are parts of the state police, parts of the local police. We don't have the ability as district attorneys to ban a part of another agency," Van Houten said.

The candidates were asked what lessons they learned from a case last year which gained public attention and drew protests against the prosecution of two young people of color after an incident with police on the Ithaca Commons.

Kopko represented the young woman accused of attacking a police officer. The charges were eventually dismissed by a judge. He criticized Van Houten for changing the charges against the woman.

"Under no circumstances would I ever lower charges and dismiss charges and then turn around and go to the Grand Jury and indict someone on exactly the same charges. That is unethical," he said

Van Houten admitted he made a mistake and acted too quickly at first, but denied it was because he was influenced by the Ithaca Police Department.

"I accept responsibility, but to say that anybody influenced me is baseless. It’s reckless and it’s inflammatory," Van Houten replied.

The forum lasted over an hour. The Democratic primary is June 23. This year all voting will be done by mail-in ballot because of the COVID-19 pandemic.