With the aim of keeping small businesses in their storefronts and making the city’s streets safer, Manhattan District Attorney candidate Diana Florence is unveiling her proposal to create a Small Business Community Task Force if she’s elected to the office.
The task force, Florence said, would build relationships with stakeholders, offer a direct line to the DA’s office and have four major areas of investigation: commercial tenant harassment, corruption in city agency enforcement, safety commercial corridors and Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprise (MWBE) fraud. By utilizing the office’s prosecutorial powers and resources, Florence hopes to protect small businesses as they try to rebound from a pandemic that has caused thousands of the city’s businesses and restaurants to shutter.
“A vibrant small business community makes our streets safer. And for the Manhattan DA, that’s part of their mandate,” Florence told Our Town in a recent interview. “We recognize that the reason that we live in New York City is not to shop at chain stores or eat at chain restaurants. We live here and we raise our kids here because of the unique character of our communities. We want to make sure people can come here and thrive.”
Florence, who launched her campaign in August, worked in the DA’s office for 25 years and served under the current DA, Cy Vance, who recently announced he would not seek another term. Florence’s tenure at the prosecutor’s office ended in January 2020 after allegations she withheld evidence. Upon announcing her campaign, she told The City she did make a mistake by failing to turn over a recording of an informant, and that when she learned of the error she took responsibility. She is now of eight candidates vying for the Democratic Party nomination.
Florence had been leading the Construction Fraud Task Force at the time of her departure. She said that experience has deeply influenced the way she would like the small business task force to operate.
“That was a model I created in order to not be reactive,” said Florence, adding that often the DA’s office has waited to be tipped off to fraud and other crimes instead of proactively rooting it out. Florence pointed to a 2010 case in which the DA’s office prosecuted a concrete-testing company that falsified safety results at the World Trade Center Second Avenue subway and Yankee Stadium, as well as a score of other city landmarks, saying the fraud had existed for at least ten years by the time it was discovered.
“It was by accident that we had found that out – but it didn’t have to be that way,” she said. “If we’d actually been more proactive about engaging in the industry, we would have learned about the corners that were being cut that were hurting New Yorkers. We would have learned about it from workers, we would have learned about it from community members, we would have been aware of it well before it ever came across our desk.”
That’s what Florence hopes to do with the business task force. She said the only way to find out about problems impacting these businesses – whether it be drag racing affecting business at a café in Washington Heights or a code enforcer on the Upper East Side abusing their authority – is by building relationships in these neighborhoods.
To that end, in addition to personnel from the Financial Fraud Bureau and Community Partnership Unit staffing the task force, Florence said she would include voices from the local business community and stakeholders throughout Manhattan as an advisory task force, including small business owners, business associations, Manhattan BIDs, community organizations, individuals, elected officials, community boards.
Florence said she also wants the task force to be a resource for business owners who are the victims of a crime, or be able to point them to the appropriate services when the issue doesn’t cross the line of criminality. For example, Florence said the task force could be a place to go for business owners whose commercial landlord is trying to harass them out of their storefront.
“That can be very expensive, and having to litigate that when it’s criminal – when the conduct in any other context would just be considered criminal – could be the difference between, you know about a business opening and closing,” said Florence.
By being a resource in to small businesses, Florence said she hopes to “democratize access.”
“We want people to be able to walk into our office and tell us what’s going on,” she said. “When we’re allowing the powerful to get a different level of justice, and different access to services and justice than everyone else, then we’re indirectly destroying our city.”
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“The reason that we live in New York City is not to shop at chain stores or eat at chain restaurants. We live here and we raise our kids here because of the unique character of our communities.” DA candidate Diana Florence