A longtime opponent of Brooklyn’s former district attorney is once again trying to clear his name following one of the most bizarre prosecutions in borough history.
Lawyer John O’Hara has sued to overturn a 1999 conviction for voting outside the district where he was registered, the second ever such prosecution in New York state after suffragette Susan B. Anthony. The newly filed motion argues that former district attorney Charles Hynes selectively prosecuted O’Hara for a crime Hynes allegedly committed himself, and that Hynes let slide across the board in all other instances, violating O’Hara’s right to equal protection under the law.
The motion is based on new evidence that has emerged since the last time O’Hara tried to overturn his conviction. In a court document, O’Hara’s lawyer contends that Hynes and his political allies committed the same type of fraud O’Hara was convicted of, regularly registering to vote in districts they didn’t live in.
“Hynes singled out O’Hara for prosecution, as an act of political retribution, while turning a blind eye to similar acts by others, including, most extraordinarily, himself and others in his own prosecutorial office,” wrote attorney Joel Rudin in the motion.
The document alleges that Hynes, his top lieutenants, and even the prosecutor who handled O’Hara’s case had committed long-term violations related to the residency requirements of their jobs, but unlike O’Hara, had never faced criminal prosecution.
In late 2004, a Harper’s magazine reporter showed Hynes himself had registered his Downtown office as his residence in 1996, and Hynes and his aides gave contradictory explanations for the reported misdeed. Hynes threatened to sue the magazine for libel, but never did, Rudin’s motion points out.
O’Hara had run five times against Hynes allies in the early 1990s and had backed direct opponents to Hynes. The case against him was purely political, Rudin said.
“Even assuming that he allegedly violated the law, he was selected for prosecution,” he said. “He was the only one prosecuted in more than 100 years, and that violates his equal protection and his First Amendment rights. He was singled out for his political activities.”
Following his conviction, O’Hara served five years of probation, faced $20,000 in fines, performed 1,500 hours of community service, and was disbarred.
O’Hara freely admits he voted in the district of his girlfriend’s Sunset Park abode, 14 blocks from his own home, but his claim that Hynes improperly targeted him is bolstered by a state judicial commission’s 2009 decision to reinstate him as a lawyer, and slam Hynes in the process.
“Mr. O’Hara, accurately it appears, claims that the [Hynes’s political] machine went gunning for him and pounced on his change of residency, calling it election fraud,” read a report by the New York state Supreme Court’s 25-member Committee on Character and Fitness.
Hynes ran the Brooklyn district attorney’s office from 1990 to 2013, when he lost in a landslide to Thompson.
Now, as cases Hynes prosecuted and upheld are being picked apart, and often overturned, by a 10-person team assembled by District Attorney Ken Thompson, Hynes won’t pipe up to defend the O’Hara prosecution.
“When Hynes had 1,200 people working for him with badges and guns he had no trouble giving comment,” O’Hara said.
Asked for a response, Hynes’s lawyer chuckled at the mention of O’Hara’s name, then said Hynes isn’t talking.
“He’s not gonna have much to say,” Robert Hill Schwartz said.
Thompson said in a statement that he is looking into O’Hara’s latest claim.
“I am aware of the motion filed by John O’Hara,” Thompson said in a statement. “We will review this matter closely and determine if his conviction should stand.”