Not so long ago, United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz of Massachusetts was being mentioned as a possible U.S. senator or governor. These days, she is in a much less flattering spotlight.
Ortiz, confirmed in 2009, is the first woman and first Latina to be the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts. Her prosecution of notorious mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, among other cases, heaped attention on her (see Main Justice’s report in November.) She was The Boston Globe’s “Bostonian of the Year” for 2011.
Then came the shocking suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who was being pursued by Ortiz’s office for illegally downloading a trove of academic documents from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Far from dying down, the furor over the death of the 26-year-old computer prodigy seems to have intensified, with some members of the House Judiciary Committee accusing her of fashioning a “ridiculous and trumped up case” and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform wanting her to explain herself on Capitol Hill, something she is expected to do soon.
Now there is criticism of a more basic sort, with Lawyers Weekly and WBUR, the National Public Radio outlet in Boston, reporting that their joint investigation has found “other prosecutions that parallel the Swartz case and that Ortiz’s critics say raise similar concerns about her hands-off leadership style, overzealousness, judgment and use of discretion at the grand jury and trial levels.”
“My concern with Carmen is that she is letting the assistants run her as opposed to her running the assistants,” said Tracy Miner, who chairs the white-collar defense group at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo in Boston, was quoted as saying in the report.
Her critics have cited what they say is a high number of Rule 29 motions for acquittal granted by judges against her prosecutors, and other harsh judicial rebukes of her office’s performance.
To be sure, Ortiz has her share of defenders, and she has defended herself. She expressed deep personal regret over the death of Swartz but emphasized that she thought her office had acted professionally in every way. What’s more, she said, her office had made it clear that Swartz would not have faced a draconian sentence (see Main Justice’s report).
“Michael Sullivan, who preceded Ortiz as U.S. attorney, said criticism about her leadership style does not match up with the Ortiz who worked under him as an assistant for eight years,” the Lawyers Weekly-WBUR report said. “Carmen Ortiz is no shrinking violet,” said Sullivan, who now practices in Boston. “I think she can stand up to the best of them in that office … but I’m just not close enough to the office to opine whether or not that is happening.”
As for the criticism leveled by Miner, Ortiz dismissed it as “a bit preposterous.” And she told Lawyers Weekly and WBUR that the sampling of cases in which her office lost Rule 29 motions was too small to be telling.
John Pucci, an AUSA from 1984 to 1994 and a member of the selection committee that recommended Ortiz for the post, told Lawyers Weekly and WBUR that Ortiz has to expect criticism: “She sought the position. She sought the power. And with it comes the responsibility.”