Newly Appointed U.S. Prosecutors Inherit Major Cases
Posted January 4, 2018 11:17 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — The two interim U.S. attorneys who will assume office in New York City on Friday will inherit major cases and pending decisions that seem likely to define the focus of their work over the next few years and could begin to shape their legacies.
Geoffrey S. Berman, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan who will lead the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, will almost immediately oversee a string of high-profile public corruption trials, including the trial in two weeks of Joseph Percoco, a close friend and former top adviser to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Percoco has pleaded not guilty.
The office will also be retrying two of New York’s once most powerful politicians — Sheldon Silver, a Democrat and the former speaker of the New York Assembly; and Dean G. Skelos, a Republican and the former state Senate majority leader. Both men were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms, but their convictions were overturned on appeal. The convictions were the capstone of the anti-corruption campaign led by Preet Bharara, the longtime U.S. attorney in Manhattan who was fired by the Trump administration in March.
In Brooklyn, one of the most important decisions the new U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Richard P. Donoghue, will have to make is whether to charge New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo with civil rights violations in connection with the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island on 2014.
After a local grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, the federal government began an investigation of the case that remains unresolved and has been hampered by infighting between prosecutors in Brooklyn and in the Justice Department in Washington.
Donoghue, a former Eastern District prosecutor, will also oversee the sprawling and complex prosecution of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo. The case is scheduled for trial in April, but may be delayed into the fall.
In selecting Donoghue for the Eastern District post, which also has jurisdiction over federal crimes on Long Island, Attorney General Jeff Sessions referred to Donoghue’s experience prosecuting members of the street gang MS-13, which has spread terror in many Long Island immigrant communities.
The serial prosecutions of the gang have also become a hot-button political issue and Donoghue, who lived on Long Island for several years and started his career in the Eastern District’s office there, will have to grapple with the way that the cases have become a kind of referendum on Long Island’s struggles with illegal immigration.
“Every MS-13 member in Long Island should know, Richard Donoghue will use all the tools at his disposal to get criminals off our streets,” Sessions said Wednesday.
Donoghue may well take a special interest in another ongoing case — that of Thomas J. Spota, the former Suffolk County district attorney who was charged in October with covering up a bizarre act of police brutality committed by the county’s former police chief. He has pleaded not guilty.
It is typical for new U.S. attorneys to assume responsibility for cases that are underway when they arrive, but there are still critical decisions that must be made early on, said Daniel C. Richman, a former Southern District prosecutor who now teaches law at Columbia University.
“The offices do indeed tick along, with cases already indicted and many in the pipeline,” Richman said. “That said, critical decisional points regularly pop up and get escalated up the hierarchy, and on these, the influence of a new U.S. attorney may be decisive.”
Berman, for example, faces a critical decision in the case of Sayfullo Saipov, the man charged with driving a pickup truck down a crowded bike path in Manhattan, killing eight people and leaving others seriously injured. Some of the charges against Saipov carry the death penalty, and Berman’s office will have to make a recommendation to Sessions, who has the final decision, on whether the government should seek capital punishment. Saipov has pleaded not guilty.
The Southern District is also prosecuting other accused terrorists, including three men charged with plotting to carry out bombings and shootings in the city’s subways and other sites, and a Brooklyn man accused of detonating a homemade pipe bomb inside a crowded subway tunnel in Manhattan last month.
David E. Patton, who heads the Federal Defenders Office in New York, which represents roughly half the defendants prosecuted by the two U.S. attorneys’ offices, said he hoped both men would bring their influence to bear on sentencing policies.
“There’s been a real bipartisan consensus in the past few years that federal sentences and prison rates have gotten out of control, especially through the use of mandatory minimum sentencing statutes which prosecutors can charge or not entirely at their discretion,” Patton said. “I hope they’ll work to solve the problem of over-incarceration rather than contribute to it.”
Berman takes over the Southern District office from Joon H. Kim, who has served as acting U.S. attorney since Bharara’s firing in March and is leaving the office. In Brooklyn, Donoghue will take over from Bridget M. Rohde, who will remain as his deputy.
Among the cases Berman will also supervise is a prosecution of an alleged college basketball corruption scandal, in which in which the authorities said assistant coaches, a former shoe company executive and others conspired to pay high school players in exchange for various commitments. The office is also overseeing a grand jury investigation into Fox News’ sexual harassment payouts and has said it will retry Norman Seabrook, former head of New York City’s correction officers’ union, whose trial in November ended in a mistrial after the jury failed to reach a verdict.
In a potentially high profile investigation in Brooklyn, prosecutors have subpoenaed the bank records of various companies and entities associated with the family business of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, The New York Times reported last month. Though it remains unclear what records have been sought and why, The Times said, the office is looking into the Kushner businesses’ use of a program known as EB-5, which offers visas to overseas investors in exchange for $500,000 investments in real estate projects.