NEW YORK, N.Y.—Diana Florence, one of the eight candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Manhattan District Attorney in the June 22 primary, is pledging to make prosecuting wage theft a top priority.
Florence, who formerly led the Manhattan DA’s Construction Fraud Task Force, says she wants the office to go after “crimes of power, not crimes of poverty.”
“Crimes of power involve things like wage theft and health and safety violations in workplaces,” she tells LaborPress. “It means housing fraud—landlords who harass and steal from tenants. It means domestic violence and sexual assault. It means police who abuse their power.”
To accomplish that, she says, she would create bureaus to handle labor, housing, and environmental crimes. The Labor Crimes Bureau, her platform states, would have a staff of 25 lawyers, analysts, and community liaisons, many bilingual, and would investigate offenses including wage theft, health and safety violations, payroll-tax fraud, and sexual assault in the workplace.
She alleges that the laws against those crimes were under-enforced under incumbent Cyrus Vance Jr., who announced March 12, that he would not seek re-election. Prosecutors in general, she contends, often treat wage theft as a regulatory violation or a “bad business practice” that can be dealt with by civil fines.
“It’s vitally important that we call things what they are. Wage theft is theft,” she says. “I’m the only one in this race who’s really done these cases and built them from the ground up, because I understand that when you have wage theft, you have five other crimes. You have unemployment tax fraud, you have workers’ compensation insurance fraud, you have payroll tax fraud in different ways, you often have other types of tax fraud—and often health and safety violations.”
Not surprisingly, Florence’s strongest support has come from labor unions, particularly the building trades. More than 15 unions have endorsed her, including the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York; the District Council of Carpenters; various Bricklayers, Ironworkers, and Laborers locals and district councils; Teamsters Joint Council 16; and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181.
Since she left the Manhattan DA’s office early last year, says Carpenters executive director Eddie McWilliams, “there haven’t been any real investigations or prosecutions of criminal contractors.”
The focus on corporate crime doesn’t mean she’d ignore street crime. “It’s never OK to say that crime gets to proliferate,” Florence says. “But it needs to be actually addressed and solve the problems for people, treat people individually.”
Street heroin users, she says, typically get arrested, go to court, are processed, get an addition to their criminal record, are sentenced to three days in jail or a fine, and are then released, repeating the pattern the next time they’re arrested.
“That’s not solving the problem,” she says. “But the answer, of course, unlike some of my opponents in the race, is not to simply say, ‘it’s decriminalized and we’re no longer going to enforce these crimes.’ What we need to be doing is actually asking the whys.”
For example, she says, once when she had a case of a man arrested for jumping over a subway turnstile, she asked him why, and he said it was because his employer hadn’t paid him in three weeks. And rather than just cycling opioid addicts through the criminal-justice system, she says, they should have viable options to get treatment, counseling, or methadone maintenance.
“We need to redefine safety,” she says. “When you’re home, it’s not solely about being safe from a burglary. It’s about being safe from a landlord harassing you out of your home because of construction, or cheating on getting a tax abatement or getting more rent than they should under rent stabilization.”
The major labor cases she worked on included getting Harco Construction convicted of manslaughter in the death of Carlos Moncayo, who was buried alive in an accident in 2015, and a plea bargain in which AGL Industries, a Queens steel contractor, agreed to pay back $6 million it had cheated 500 workers out of from 2013 to 2017. In 2010, she won a conviction against Testwell Laboratories for falsifying strength tests for concrete on jobs that included Yankee Stadium and the Second Avenue subway.
That was one of the first construction-fraud cases she handled. She recalls that her supervisors thought the culprit was one inspector who’d served time in prison — but the probe uncovered a system of fraud entrenched in the industry.
The contractors weren’t doing mix-design testing — evaluating the strength of different formulations of concrete — “at all,” she says. “They were faking it on a software system. They were creating random numbers with a random-number generator.”
One problem in prosecuting wage theft, Florence says, is that it is not explicitly illegal under state law. Last year, she and Assemblymember Catalina Cruz (D-Queens) cowrote a bill that would have added wages to the crime of grand larceny, so that stealing more than $1,000 would be a felony. The measure was introduced by Cruz, but the Legislature did not take any action.
Several local prosecutors around the country have made prosecuting wage theft a priority, though. In Minneapolis, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has brought numerous felony charges against employers over the past 10 years. Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, elected DA in 2017, has established a labor-crimes unit, as has José Garza in Austin, Texas, who took office in January.
The Economic Policy Institute and the Brooklyn-based Center for Popular Democracy have both estimated that the amount of money workers lose to wage theft significantly exceeds the $6 billion the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report program estimated was stolen from victims of larceny-thefts reported in 2018.
“When companies incorporate fraud into a business model, they’re able to get contracts that they really shouldn’t be getting,” Florence says. “They’re lowering their bids on the backs of workers. And it not only affects those workers who are being underpaid and wages stolen from, it affects everyone, because other workers are deprived of those jobs, especially if they’re part of a union, because they’re demanding a living wage commensurate with their skills.”