By Tom Waring
Why does Michael Untermeyer believe he is the best candidate for district attorney?
“I have the best experience and ideas and the most integrity,” he said. “The criminal justice system is dysfunctional. We need big change. There is an opportunity to make a great change in the priorities of the office.”
Untermeyer is one of seven Democrats running in the May 16 primary. The others are Joe Khan, Teresa Carr Deni, Rich Negrin, Lawrence Krasner, Tariq El-Shabazz and Jack O’Neill. The Republican candidate is Beth Grossman.
District Attorney Seth Williams, a Democrat, previously said he would not seek a third term. He was indicted on corruption charges on Tuesday.
This is Untermeyer’s fourth run for office. In 2007, he challenged then-Sheriff John Green in the Democratic primary, taking more than 63,000 votes.
In 2009, he was the Republican nominee against Williams.
In 2011, he was a Republican candidate for an at-large City Council seat.
Untermeyer joined the current race in January, before Williams bowed out. His theme this year is “Committed, Experienced and Not for Sale.”
“All the times I’ve run, I’ve run as a reformer,” he said.
A Rittenhouse Square resident, Untermeyer has been a Philadelphia assistant district attorney, a state senior deputy attorney general, a hearing examiner for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, a real estate developer and a volunteer during the mortgage foreclosure crisis in trying to keep homeowners in their houses.
As an assistant district attorney, his focus was family violence.
In the attorney general’s office, he tackled white-collar crime and drug dealing. Untermeyer pledged to investigate fraud and theft by big companies. He noted that the district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles sued Uber for, among other things, allegedly overcharging customers. The suit was settled for $25 million.
“We don’t investigate and prosecute white-collar crime in Philadelphia,” Untermeyer said.
As district attorney, he would go after major drug dealers and organizations while directing lower-level users to a program similar to Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD).
In office, he’d monitor the office’s civil forfeiture unit, arguing it is subject to abuse. He pointed to attempts to seize homes in Somerton and West Philadelphia after the children of the homeowners were allegedly found in possession of small amounts of drugs.
“You can do something about that on day one as district attorney,” he said.
Also, he’d strengthen the conviction integrity unit.
“It has to be beefed up,” he said.
Untermeyer mentioned the case of Anthony Wright, convicted in the 1991 rape and murder of a 77-year-old Nicetown neighbor. DNA evidence later pointed to another man, but Williams decided to retry the case. Wright was acquitted and freed last year after 25 years in prison.
As DA, Untermeyer would assign a deputy to be a liaison to work with, among others, the Innocence Project.
“There are many other Anthony Wrights out there,” Untermeyer said.
Untermeyer wears a pin that reads, “Zero Tolerance. Illegal Handguns.” He favors mandatory minimum sentences for the first offense for straw purchasers of guns.
Untermeyer, who turned in 4,269 nominating petitions, has a campaign office near 2nd and Lombard streets and has already loaned his campaign $550,000. He’s working with The Campaign Group, a highly regarded firm. He is refusing to take campaign donations from defense attorneys doing business with the district attorney’s office and will refuse gifts in office, which is what Williams is charged with doing.
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the city Democratic Party boss, has told him the primary will be open, with no endorsement. On the campaign trail, he has been to ward and civic association meetings and spoken to labor unions.
“This is a seven-day-a-week commitment,” he said.
So far, Untermeyer has released plans on criminal justice reform and white-collar prosecution.
Soon, he will release a plan on protecting the elderly from crime. He’ll establish a hotline “with a human being answering.”
Untermeyer wants assistant district attorneys to go to neighborhood meetings, and for community leaders to have their cell phone numbers.
“I want it to become a community-based district attorney’s office,” he said.
Untermeyer wants bail reform. Courts should keep in custody those who are flight risks or a danger to the community.
Otherwise, he’d release suspects awaiting trial with conditions such as wearing an ankle monitor, checking in with the courts in person or over the phone, going into drug treatment, finding a job or taking job training classes.
“I’ve been consistent with my platform from day one,” he said. “I want to be an advocate for fairness and public safety.” ••