The Manhattan district attorney’s office shocked a state judge in 2011 when it recommended that the financier Jeffrey Epstein be given the lowest possible sex offender status despite accusations that he had sexually abused dozens of girls.
The judge refused, and the district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., later reversed his stance, saying his assistant had made a mistake.
Now several women say that the Epstein case was not an isolated incident, contending that Mr. Vance showed leniency toward another well-connected sex offender.
In 2016, Mr. Vance’s office agreed to a plea deal with Robert A. Hadden, a gynecologist who had been accused of sexual abuse by 19 patients, that allowed him to avoid prison time. The office then went against the recommendation of a state panel and sought the lowest sex offender status for the doctor, which a judge granted.
Some of Mr. Hadden’s accusers are renewing calls for an investigation into how the Manhattan district attorney’s office handles sex crimes. They are citing revelations about Mr. Epstein, who killed himself at a Manhattan federal jail in August while being held on sex-trafficking charges, as evidence of what they contend might be a systemic problem at the office.
“It is not a one-off,” said Marissa Hoechstetter, who accused the gynecologist of sexual abuse in a lawsuit. “There’s a pattern of behavior.”
Since the criminal case against Mr. Hadden was resolved, Ms. Hoechstetter and 25 other women have joined a lawsuit in state court against Mr. Hadden, Columbia University and its affiliated hospitals. A lawyer representing several of them, Anthony T. DiPietro, said Mr. Vance’s “allegiance is not to the people of New York.”
Mr. Vance said neither Mr. Hadden nor Mr. Epstein had received special treatment because of their wealth or their well-connected lawyers. He said his sex crimes unit had taken many tough-to-win sex crimes cases to trial against wealthy people and was not afraid to do so.
“The criticism focuses upon several cases, but that doesn’t reflect the body of the prosecution’s work,” Mr. Vance said. He added: “I think it is inaccurate to suggest that our office is easy on men of privilege because we have charged, with very serious misconduct, many men of privilege.”
Though Mr. Vance said he was not personally involved in the plea negotiations with Mr. Hadden, he defended his office’s decision because it guaranteed that Mr. Hadden received a felony conviction and surrendered his medical license.
Mr. Vance’s chief assistant, Karen Friedman Agnifilo, who supervised the Hadden case, said the plea negotiations were handled correctly.
“It’s not like we did not have a complete victory,” Ms. Friedman Agnifilo said. “The only thing we’re talking about here is if there should have been some other punishment.”
After the #MeToo movement prompted a global reckoning on sexual harassment and assault, Mr. Vance was criticized for declining to prosecute the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in 2015 on charges that he groped an Italian model.
The episode tarnished his reputation among women’s rights groups and advocates for sexual assault victims, even though Mr. Vance had previously won their praise for spending $38 million in forfeiture funds to reduce the nationwide backlog of untested rape kits.
Mr. Vance’s office eventually brought charges against Mr. Weinstein in May 2018 based on complaints from two other women, becoming the only prosecutor in the country to do so.
His office has also become more aggressive in prosecuting other sex crimes. In 2012, the year that Mr. Hadden was arrested, the Manhattan district attorney’s office prosecuted 59 percent of the sex crimes it had investigated, according to data from the office. That figure increased to 93 percent in 2018.
‘I trusted him’
The investigation of Mr. Hadden, a gynecologist with Columbia University and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, began in June 2012 when a patient told the police that during an exam, he had licked her vagina and touched her nipples.
Many of the accusers had been his patients for years. Some said in interviews that at first Mr. Hadden seemed unassuming, with a gentle demeanor and a comforting bedside manner.
He kept photos of his son and daughter on his desk.
“There was nothing about him that was alarming,” said one of the six women Mr. Hadden was charged with abusing, who was pregnant when she was his patient in 2012. She asked that her name not be disclosed.
The woman, identified in the indictment as Victim No. 6, said the abuse started with Mr. Hadden asking questions like, “How do you orgasm?” He asked about her husband’s penis size and made unsolicited suggestions about sexual positions she might find pleasurable.
During one visit, he forcefully pulled her pants and underwear down and grabbed and cupped her buttocks, hips and vagina, according to court records.
On her last visit, he conducted an internal exam by inserting his fingers into her vagina without gloves, according to the woman and court records. A nurse was not in the exam room. The woman never returned and for a time kept what had happened to herself.
“I didn’t think about reporting him,” she said. “It would have been me against the world, him and his 30-year practice.”
A second woman, described in court papers as Victim No. 5, said in an interview and told investigators that he rubbed her clitoris after removing his gloves during an exam in 2011.
“I trusted him,” the woman said. “It was hard to believe that I was unable to detect a predator standing beside me.”
Ms. Hoechstetter made similar allegations to prosecutors, but her complaint was not added to the criminal case. The Manhattan district attorney’s office told her that her claims — which amounted to a misdemeanor — were too old to prosecute.
She said that in 2012, as she lay in his exam room with her feet propped in stirrups, he put his tongue on her vagina. Wiping tears from her eyes, she recounted feeling the hairs on his face against her.
A no-jail deal
In June 2014, Mr. Hadden, now 61, was indicted on charges involving the six women, including five counts of a criminal sexual act, two counts of forcible touching and two counts of sexual abuse.
At the doctor’s first court appearance, the lead prosecutor, Laura Millendorf, said that 13 other women had accused him of similar misconduct, dating to the 1990s, but that their cases were too old to prosecute. Most of them were pregnant when they were abused, she said.
Ms. Millendorf offered the gynecologist a deal, court records showed: He could plead guilty to the most serious charge — criminal sexual act in the third degree — and six related offenses and get four years in prison. If not, the prosecutor said, the office would seek a lengthier sentence.
Mr. Hadden hired Isabelle A. Kirshner, a skilled defense lawyer who has known Mr. Vance since they were both assistants in the district attorney’s office in the early 1990s. She considers Mr. Vance a friend and has also donated to his campaign.
Over the next year and a half, Ms. Kirshner reached a plea bargain with two of Ms. Millendorf’s superiors that allowed Mr. Hadden to avoid prison, people familiar with the discussions said.
Ms. Millendorf, who declined to be interviewed, wanted to take the case to trial and disagreed with the plea agreement, these people said.
Ms. Kirshner said she tried to poke holes in the prosecution’s case by gathering information on Mr. Hadden’s accusers that might have raised doubts about their credibility.
Some of the women, she said, continued to go to Mr. Hadden after the alleged abuse and made their allegations only after others had come forward. She said that in one instance, a nurse contradicted a woman’s account.
The defense lawyer told Ms. Millendorf’s superiors — Jennifer Gaffney and Ms. Friedman-Agnifilo — that some of the accusers had financial difficulties and were also suing him in state court, a detail she had planned to use at trial to suggest that they had “a financial interest in the outcome of the case.”
Ms. Kirshner said she never turned to Mr. Vance for help with the Hadden case, and Mr. Vance said he did not speak with her about it. Ms. Friedman-Agnifilo, Mr. Vance’s deputy, said she told Mr. Vance that Ms. Kirshner had reached out to her.
Ms. Friedman-Agnifilo said prosecutors were troubled by the involvement of some of the accusers in the lawsuit. In addition, she said that while prosecutors believed the women were being truthful, there were aspects of the evidence that would be used to attack their credibility.
For instance, she said, the women who were pregnant at the time of the assaults could not see what Mr. Hadden was doing, because their views were obstructed, a fact the defense would exploit to undermine their testimony.
“The case had serious proof issues,” Ms. Friedman-Agnifilo said. “It was not a slam-dunk case.”
She said the two priorities for prosecutors were to make sure Mr. Hadden pleaded guilty to a felony and lost his medical license. “It was only in the context of being a doctor that he had the opportunity to commit those crimes,” she said.
In the end, Mr. Hadden gave up his license and pleaded guilty to a single felony count of criminal sexual act in the third degree, and one misdemeanor count of forcible touching.
In return, Mr. Vance’s office agreed not to seek a prison sentence, dropped the remaining charges and promised not to pursue any new sexual abuse allegations.
Prosecutors also agreed to allow Mr. Hadden’s sex-offender status to be reduced to Level 1, which meant his name would not be on an online list of offenders and he would no longer be considered a sex offender after 20 years.
That position ignored the recommendation a state panel, the Board of Examiners of Sex Offenders, which had determined that Mr. Hadden had a moderate risk of reoffending and should be classified as a Level 2 sex offender. Level 2 sex offenders are listed online and required to register for life.
Ms. Kirshner said she had no regrets. “I think my job is to represent my client and get the best possible resolution,” she said. “I wish I could have done better.”
Several of Mr. Hadden’s accusers, however, said they were deeply disappointed with the outcome, which several news outlets, including the New York Post and Buzzfeed, have written about.
“If you don’t feel comfortable bringing to trial a case with dozens of people, I don’t know what you would bring to trial,” Ms. Hoechstetter said.
Victim No. 5 was more blunt. “He got a slap on the wrist,” she said.