Former Brooklyn ADA Barbara Underwood honored by DA Alumni Association
DA Eric Gonzalez and former ADA Sue-Ellen Bienenfeld also honored
Barbara Underwood made history this year when she became the first woman to be Attorney General in New York state, but despite her prolific career she hasn’t forgotten about Brooklyn where she worked as a district attorney early in her career.
Underwood was one of three honorees of the Kings County District Attorney Alumni Association during a biennial cocktail reception that was held at the Water Club in Manhattan on Wednesday.
“She started in Brooklyn,” said fellow honoree Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez. “She was the chief of our appeals unit from 1982 to 1989. We had her first.
“As we know she’s a brilliant woman, an excellent lawyer [and] she has argued more than 20 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court. She’s an extraordinary attorney who is leading a bunch of other AGs across this country in very important work.”
Former Assistant District Attorney Sue-Ellen Bienenfeld, chief of the Grand Jury bureau, who died earlier this year, and Gonzalez were the other honorees.
“Look around, these are the people most responsible for the Brooklyn DA’s Office becoming the most progressive, most forward thinking and most reform minded office in the U.S.,” said Michael Farkas, who helped to organize the event with Jeff Kern. “Reform was born in Brooklyn and it is thriving in Brooklyn and that is our legacy. Be proud of it.”
To open the event, Jeff Kern spoke a bit about the honorees, including Bienenfeld, but he let Lauren Mack talk about her at length and present her family with a plaque from the NYPD and flowers.
“She took care of the people in her division, she always looked after them,” Mack said of Bienenfeld. “She knew their families, their issues, their personal lives. She was more than a boss to them, she was a friend. She was no doubt one of the smartest people in the office and the quickest responder in a time of crisis.”
Kern then introduced Gonzalez, who didn’t know he was being honored. “Eric was in the class of 1995 and never left the office,” said Kern. “He started out as a lonely assistant and now he owns the job. Eric is a true son of Brooklyn, he is the first Latino elected DA in New York state. Eric is proof beyond all doubt that humility, hard work, loyalty and being a plain good guy does pay off.”
In his speech, Gonzalez reminded the alumni association that he cannot keep his assistant DAs forever and urged them to help young ADAs advance in their careers.
“As the alumni association we need to do more to stay connected with each other, and that we help mentor the younger assistant DA’s in the office who would like to join private practice, who would like to get other positions in government,” Gonzalez said. “An alumni association gets better by helping each other grow professionally.”
After Gonzalez introduced Underwood, she talked about how she went from a tenured law professor at Yale University to the Brooklyn DA’s Office. She explained how she actually started out as a Manhattan DA for a semester before she went back to Yale until Liz Holtzman became the Brooklyn DA in 1982.
“When Liz Holtzman became the Brooklyn DA, I came back for what I thought would be another brief stint, but I ended up staying for eight years and it helped me to become the person that I am today. It was in Manhattan, Brooklyn and later Queens that I discovered the special satisfaction of working to run a responsible prosecutor’s office that takes seriously the obligation to seek justice and not necessarily convictions.”
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