Two Sioux Falls police officers were patrolling on a below-freezing South Dakota night in February 2004 when they saw a middle-aged man acting suspiciously at a group of storage sheds. Upon questioning by the officers, a scuffle ensued. Shots were fired.
No one was killed. But the high-profile local incident helped propel the career of a young prosecutor.
Brendan Johnson, then a deputy state’s attorney in the Minnehaha County state’s attorney’s office – and now the U.S. Attorney for South Dakota – helped successfully prosecute John S. Lewis, who received two life sentences without parole and 145 years in state prison for the attempted murders of officers Michael Iverson and Scott Reitmeier.
Johnson, the son of South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson (D), was not yet 30 years old.
State prosecutors interviewed by Main Justice said the murder case was an important turning point for Johnson, who worked in the state’s attorney’s office from 2003 to 2005. Dave Nelson, the Minnehaha County state’s attorney from 1988 to 2008, said Johnson did a “real nice job” on the case.
“I really do remember working with that case and how impressed I was with him,” Nelson told Main Justice.
In a recent interview in Washington with Main Justice, Johnson cited the case as one of his most challenging prosecutions. But as a state prosecutor, Johnson said he also worked on difficult domestic violence cases, which will continue to be a major focus of the 28-attorney U.S. Attorney’s office that he took over last October.
“It’s very rewarding to be dealing with important issues ranging from national security — which is a priority even in rural states like South Dakota — to Indian country issues, to violence against women and children,” Johnson said.
Long Days and Long Drives
Now, Johnson’s work often takes him across a district that covers 77,000 square miles – almost nine times the size of New Jersey. He frequently travels from his home in Sioux Falls to one of his state’s nine American Indian reservations, or to the U.S. Attorney’s office branches in Pierre, Rapid City and Aberdeen.
Rapid City, the farthest outpost from the South Dakota U.S. Attorney’s main office, is almost five and a half hours away from the Sioux Falls headquarters. Last week, Johnson drove two hours to Oacoma, S.D., for part of a listening conference he arranged between his office and state tribal leaders. But he’s also driven more than five hours to visit the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
“In order to do that in a state of South Dakota’s size, on days when I’m on the road, I usually leave at 4, 4:30 in the morning, drive to one of the offices or Indian country and get back later in the evening,” Johnson said.
Johnson, 34 years old, said prosecuting cases from the state’s Indian country is a “significant portion” of his office’s work. American Indians make up only about 10 percent of South Dakota’s population, but account for about half of the state’s federal cases, according to Johnson. The U.S. Attorney’s office prosecutes almost all Indian country felonies.
The U.S. Attorney said he and his office’s Assistant U.S. Attorneys regularly meet with tribal leaders across the state to forge stronger ties. As chairman of the American Indian issues subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, Johnson is a leading voice in the Justice Department’s increased efforts to fight crime in Indian country.
“You have to earn the trust of the people you’re working with so that when they have a tip, when they know information about the investigation, they’re comfortable contacting me or somebody else in the office and letting us know what is going on,” Johnson said. “You’re not going to get that information unless you build the relationships first and earn people’s trust.”
As an appointee of a Democratic administration, Johnson has tried to build up trust in a state that voted 53 percent for Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008, with 45 percent supporting now-President Barack Obama.
A partner at Johnson, Heidepriem & Abdallah in Sioux Falls from 2005 to 2009, Johnson said he reached out to Republican leaders in his state — including former Gov. William Janklow – when he was seeking the U.S. Attorney nomination. Janklow, who also served as the state’s attorney general from 1974 to 1978, said in a recommendation letter that Johnson was “marvelously talented and respected.”
“I know you take a little heat. But if you look at the kid’s resume, he’s accomplished a lot,” said Russ Janklow, William’s son and a former law partner of Johnson’s.
Johnson said he believes South Dakota Republicans and Democrats know his commitment to the law.
“I think one of the reasons why they were comfortable with me is to me, there is a line that prosecutors shouldn’t cross when it comes to politics,” Johnson said. “And as a prosecutor, I think folks would say I always played it straight, wasn’t involved in politics when I was prosecuting cases for the county. I think they felt that I did some good things as a prosecutor.”
To avoid any appearance of impropriety, his father decided to have all applications received for South Dakota U.S. Attorney submitted directly to the White House without preference, according to Johnson.
But a conservative South Dakota political blog said it is “impossible to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
“Unless we now have adopted the monarchy that our forefathers eschewed so long ago, and endorse the naked building of political dynasties. Because that’s the only way this can be justified,” said the South Dakota War College blog when Johnson was nominated for U.S. Attorney in July 2009.
It isn’t unheard of for U.S. Attorney candidates to have familial or close personal ties to a senator from their state.
In 2001 then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) recommended his son, Strom Thurmond Jr., for the South Carolina U.S. Attorney post, which the son held for three years. Last year, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) recommended his live-in girlfriend, Melodee Hanes, to be the Montana U.S. Attorney. But she withdrew from consideration, and Helena attorney Michael Cotter won Senate confirmation last year.
Both the Thurmond and Baucus recommendations were controversial. Johnson’s was not.
“My father and I really don’t have the type of relationship where that would be an issue,” Johnson said. “I think we both have a pretty clear understanding that he has his job to do, which I respect and is an important job. But it’s separate and distinct from what I’m doing.”
A future in politics?
Michael Card, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota, said a prominent South Dakotan like Johnson could have a future in politics, perhaps running for Congress one day.
“Even if he’s not thinking of it, others are thinking of him,” Card said.
Johnson, however, demurs when asked whether he might one day run for public office. “My only focus is serving South Dakota as the U.S. Attorney.”
Johnson said his conversations with his father are generally more personal than political. about his four children, which include two young boys and two older kids adopted from Ethiopia about two and a half years ago.
His wife of seven years, Jana, encouraged the U.S. Attorney to read a book called, “There is No Me Without You,” which was about an Ethiopian orphanage. After reading the book, they decided to contact the author, Melissa Greene, and ask her about adopting older children from the orphanage.
Johnson and his wife adopted a girl first and then, two months later, they decided to adopt a boy.
“Once their English got a little better, we discovered they didn’t get along particularly well and so this idea that they were going to become brother and sister wasn’t something they were particularly excited about,” he said. “But they are incredible kids. They are a wonderful addition to our family.”