Voters who decide in November whether to re-elect President Obama or replace him with Republican challenger Mitt Romney also might determine the fate of the most powerful man in D.C. politics.
Ronald C. Machen Jr. never ran for office, but his aggressiveness as U.S. attorney for the District has ousted two council members from city hall and turned up the heat on anyone within reach of the tainted money that floated around Vincent C. Gray’s successful mayoral campaign in 2010. Although some new presidents retain a batch of U.S. attorneys, the coveted appointments typically are dictated by the winds of national politics.
“The expectation is if Gov. Romney becomes President Romney, he’ll replace all the U.S. attorneys. Because that’s what presidents do,” said Paul Butler, a Georgetown law professor and former prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice.
Conversely, analysts say, Mr. Machen, whom Mr. Obama tapped to lead the District’s office in December 2009, is on the shortlist of federal prosecutors qualified for a promotion to the upper echelons of the Justice Department if the president wins a second term and reorganizes his top law enforcement offices.
Mr. Machen, a former partner at the WilmerHale law firm who played football at Stanford University, leads the largest of the 93 U.S. attorney’s offices in the nation and its territories. Because of the District’s quasi-federal status, the office has an annual operating budget of about $70 million and roughly 300 assistant attorneys equipped to handle both federal crimes and local prosecutions that normally would fall to a state- or county-level district attorney, office spokesman Matt Jones said.
Mr. Jones, who declined to discuss potential postelection changes, said more than half of the office’s assistant U.S. attorneys are assigned to local prosecutions.
U.S. attorneys are given wide latitude in the types of cases they prosecute, and the dual caseload affords the top D.C. prosecutor a broad spectrum of cases to pursue. During the George W. Bush administration, U.S. Attorney Roscoe C. Howard Jr. said he wanted to “beef up” the District Court side of the District’s office to attract higher-profile cases, including terrorism cases and cases with international effect, in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
During the current administration, Mr. Machen’s office has taken on a range of high-profile matters, such as the unsuccessful prosecution of baseball pitcher Roger Clemens on charges that he lied to Congress and the convictions of five D.C. men involved a series of shootings in 2010 that killed five city youths, including three teenagers on South Capitol Street.
Mr. Machen quickly made local corruption a top priority after a trickle of scandal from city hall tarnished the local government’s reputation and prompted oversight hearings and sweeping reforms. The well-worn path from the John A. Wilson Building to the U.S. District Courthouse may have stained city politics, but Mr. Machen’s crew has rewritten the narrative on how federal prosecutors handle local corruption in the nation’s capital.
“This is not a city in which we’ve had effective and aggressive public-corruption prosecutions in the past,” Mr. Butler said, citing prosecutors’ inability to obtain verdicts on many of the charges that resulted from “mayor for life” Marion Barry’s high-profile drug arrest in 1990.
Although the top prosecutor sets the tone for the office, analysts say, it is unlikely that a new president – a Republican in this instance if Mr. Romney wins – would select a U.S. attorney who wants to quash investigations into majority-Democratic city officials and their associates. It is typically the line assistants – career assistant attorneys who are not political appointees – who do the heavy lifting in each investigation.
“There’s so much momentum from the work being done at the line attorney level,” said Stephen Vladeck, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law. “That’s why the politics are not always partisan in that respect. Is it worth exerting yourself to stop the already moving boulder?”
Mr. Machen’s office is eight for eight in securing guilty pleas from city politicians and their associates in the city’s highest-profile corruption cases since the start of the year. After a civil case by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, the prosecutor’s office charged council member Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, in January with stealing public funds intended for youth sports programs. Thomas resigned his council seat and is serving a three-year prison term.
Six months later, Mr. Machen’s office took down council Chairman Kwame R. Brown on felony bank fraud and misdemeanor campaign finance charges, but a long-running probe into financial irregularities during the 2010 Gray campaign has yet to reach its zenith.
While many D.C. politicians frequently took a wait-and-see approach to their colleagues’ legal troubles, Mr. Machenand FBI investigators lambasted the ousted leaders’ “sense of entitlement.”
Mr. Machen presents a no-nonsense demeanor. Moments after Brown pleaded guilty to charges in the federal and D.C. Superior courts, the U.S. attorney said, “The people of the District of Columbia deserve better from their elected officials.”
Although the fiercely contested presidential race will last several more weeks, turnover among U.S. attorneys is at least five months away, said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, who teaches at the George Washington University Law School and once worked as an assistant U.S. attorney. The president is not inaugurated until January, after which federal prosecutors are expected to tender their resignations and wait for word from the White House.
When Mr. Obama took office in 2009, he retained U.S. attorneys in Maryland, North Carolina and the Chicago area. All three eventually led public corruption probes aimed, respectively, at Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson, former Sen. John Edwards and former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.
Mr. Obama’s decision allowed the U.S. attorneys – Rod J. Rosenstein, George Holding and Patrick J. Fitzgerald – to see the investigations to fruition, although with mixed results. Whether Mr. Machen stays or another appointee takes the helm as the District’s top prosecutor, the boss will play a role in shaping the city’s political scene.
“The higher-ups will be part of the discussions because the office doesn’t want to be embarrassed,” Ms. Cheh said. “If the U.S. attorney does not want to go forward with the case, who can make the prosecutor? Nobody. Nobody.”