It did not take long for the attack on Representative Lee Zeldin during a campaign event to become the latest flash point in the political fight over New York’s bail laws.
Hours after the attack last week, Mr. Zeldin, the Republican candidate for governor of New York whose criticism over the Democrat-led changes to the bail statute has been a key issue in his campaign, said on Twitter that he expected the man arrested in the attack, David Jakubonis, to go free.
He then spoke at length when his prediction came true, emphasizing in news conferences and television appearances how Mr. Jakubonis’s release without bail exemplified the issues with the bail law.
But almost immediately, the involvement of Mr. Zeldin’s political allies prompted questions about the incident. Many Democrats seized on the relationship between the candidate and the Monroe County district attorney, Sandra Doorley, who as recently as this week was listed on Mr. Zeldin’s website as a campaign co-chair. They noted that the sheriff who filed the charge against Mr. Jakubonis, Todd K. Baxter of Monroe County, was also a vocal opponent of the bail law.
And finally, they wondered why Mr. Jakubonis had been charged with a second-degree attempted assault, a charge that is not bail-eligible, virtually guaranteeing that he would be released as Mr. Zeldin had predicted.
“I have no idea why a prosecutor would not charge the more serious offense,” said Charles D. Lavine, a Democrat who serves as the chair of the Assembly’s judiciary committee and is a former criminal defense lawyer. “Here’s a situation where someone attacks an elected official with a weapon. Could it have been — as some people are suggesting — that the charge was drafted in such a way as to allow Zeldin to complain about the bail laws in the state of New York? That I don’t know.”
State Assemblyman Demond Meeks, a Rochester Democrat, went even further, saying he was surprised at the “lighter” charge, given Ms. Doorley’s reputation as an “aggressive” prosecutor, and said that the affair was “definitely a political ploy.”
No evidence has emerged to indicate that the charge was chosen to ensure Mr. Jakubonis’s release, serving to amplify Mr. Zeldin’s campaign message. Several criminal lawyers from Monroe County say the charge was fitting given the particulars of the attack on July 21.
And in an interview, the investigating officer at the sheriff’s office who filed the charge, Jeffrey Branagan, said that there had been no input from the district attorney’s office, other than to tell him that the charge was not eligible for bail.
A spokesman for the sheriff’s office, Sergeant Mike Zamiara, said Tuesday that the sheriff’s office was “aware of some controversy surrounding this case.”
He insisted, however, that the “sheriff’s office does not have a dog in this fight and we don’t want to be in it. There was no attempt to influence anything here.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Zeldin’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The episode began at a campaign stop near Rochester on Thursday, when a man, identified by the police as Mr. Jakubonis, approached Mr. Zeldin as he was giving a speech. In video of the encounter, Mr. Jakubonis appeared to put his left arm on the candidate’s shoulder, then move his right hand, in which he was gripping a plastic pointed key chain shaped like a cat’s head, in the direction of Mr. Zeldin’s chest , saying “You’re done,” several times.
Mr. Zeldin appeared to hold him off easily, and the man was quickly tackled to the ground, bringing the candidate along with him. Mr. Jakubonis was charged by Sheriff Baxter’s office later that evening; Mr. Zeldin was unharmed.
Sheriff Baxter has been outspoken in his opposition to the changes to the state’s bail law, which went into effect in early 2020 and have since been twice amended. Democrats passed the changes, which have prevented people from being held in jail for relatively minor crimes. (More serious crimes, including violent crimes, remain bail-eligible.)
The law’s opponents have said the changes have led to increased crime, but data has not shown that to be the case, and researchers say that, given that the law coincides with the onset of the pandemic, it will be years before its full effect can be determined. But with some categories of crime rising, more people have been charged, released and rearrested, providing ammunition for the law’s critics.
In November 2019, Sheriff Baxter wrote an opinion piece calling on the state to reverse the statute before it went into effect and contending that “the public will be shocked at the negative impact this law will have on the safety of our communities.” And the day after Mr. Jakubonis’s attack, the sheriff announced on Twitter that he had cleared his calendar to discuss “fixing” criminal justice reforms with any state legislator who was interested.
Mr. Branagan said that he had not spoken to the sheriff before determining the charge to be filed against Mr. Jakubonis.
He said that he had driven to the scene of the attack and had interviewed Mr. Zeldin as well as some of his staffers about what had happened. He had not previously spoken to Mr. Zeldin, a congressman representing Suffolk County on Long Island, and said he had not known who the candidate was.
After completing his investigation, Mr. Branagan made three calls to the district attorney’s office. The first two were to Perry Duckles, a deputy to Ms. Doorley, whom Mr. Branagan informed that he planned to file a charge of attempted assault in the second degree.
At the time of their second call, Mr. Duckles had just been informed that two police officers had been shot in Rochester. So I asked Mr. Branagan to direct further conversations about the case to Matthew Schwartz, the chief of the district attorney’s major felony unit.
During a conversation with Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Branagan confirmed with Mr. Schwartz that the charge was not bail-eligible.
Mr. Branagan said that it was not unusual in Monroe County for the sheriff’s office to file such charges without a prosecutor present, and lawyers who practice in criminal court there agreed.
Still, the district attorney’s ties to Mr. Zeldin have come under scrutiny in Mr. Jakubonis’s case. Calli Marianetti, a spokeswoman for Ms. Doorley, said that the district attorney was not personally involved in any conversations about the charge against Mr. Jakubonis and, as of Friday, she had decided to recuse herself from the case. (Mr. Zeldin, on Monday, claimed that Ms. Doorley had recused herself in an “instant decision” after the attack, according to the Albany Times Union.)
Ms. Doorley, Mr. Duckles and Mr. Schwartz were not made available for comment.
Ms. Marianetti added that Ms. Doorley had stopped advising Mr. Zeldin’s campaign in the spring. She said that because there had never been any paperwork formalizing Ms. Doorley’s role in her, there had been no “official withdrawal” from the campaign. In an emailed statement later on Thursday, Ms. Doorley’s office said it had informed Mr. Zeldin of her decision to not be involved in his campaign on April 28.
Defense attorneys and former prosecutors who practice in Monroe County said that the attempted assault charge was fitting given the specifics of Mr. Jakubonis’s attack on Mr. Zeldin, and that they saw nothing overtly suspicious about the circumstances in which it was filed.
Jill Paperno, who worked as a public defender in Monroe County for 35 years before leaving for private practice in the spring, said that the charge of attempted assault made sense given that the pointed key chain Mr. Jakubonis had been holding did not look capable of causing the “serious physical injury” that would be required to charge a higher degree of assault. (In New York, serious physical injury means that a substantial risk of death is created, or the possibility of disfigurement or impairment of a bodily organ.)
Donald M. Thompson, a partner at the firm of Easton Thompson Kasperek Shiffrin in Rochester and a criminal defense lawyer, agreed that the charge accurately reflected the allegations, that it was not particularly lenient and that it was not unusual for the two agencies to discuss the charge beforehand.
Asked if it could have been coordinated to the benefit of Mr. Zeldin, Mr. Thompson was contemplative.
“As a political consideration, could that have happened?” he said. “I think we can’t rule it out. Is there any evidence of that? Not that I’m aware of. But certainly people who are so inclined in that direction could make that argument. Because we don’t get to pull back the curtain, you can’t say, that’s why it happened or it isn’t why it happened.”
Mr. Jakubonis has since been federally charged with assaulting a member of Congress using a dangerous weapon. He has been held in federal custody since Saturday; a detention hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.