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.”
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The New Jersey U.S. Attorney was sworn in today before 400 people including Attorney General Eric Holder and state dignitaries, the NBC New York Web site reported.
Some of the notable New Jerseyans, who were in attendance according to the news Web site, include:
-Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who administered the oath.
-Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)
-Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)
-Gov. Jon Corzine.
-Gov.-elect Chris Christie, who was the George W. Bush U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.
-Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who served as New Jersey U.S. Attorney under President George H.W. Bush.
-New Jersey FBI Director Weysan Dun.
Holder said Fishman will be one of his top advisers, according to NBC New York. In October, the Attorney General tapped Fishman to be on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, a body that serves as the voice of the U.S. Attorneys at Justice Department headquarters in Washington.
“I will rely on a man I trust,” Holder said at the ceremony, according to the news Web site.
Fishman officially took the helm of the U.S. Attorney’s office in October, shortly after he won Senate confirmation. He replaced acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra, who is under investigation by the DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility.
OPR is probing Marra over remarks he made this summer that could have aided Christie’s campaign for governor. The comments were about a July sting, which netted more than 40 defendants. Corzine and Christie both used investigation to show their anti-corruption credentials during the heated race for governor.
Fishman said he would make sure his office is fair and ethical. He added that his office would also fight gang crime and terrorism, according to the NBC news Web site.
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Attorney General Eric Holder is slated to attend the swearing-in ceremony for the New Jersey U.S. Attorney on Monday, the Justice Department announced today.
Paul Fishman officially took the helm of the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s Office on Oct. 14. The Senate confirmed him on Oct. 7. Later that month, Holder tapped Fishman to be on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, a body that serves as the voice of the U.S. Attorneys at DOJ headquarters in Washington.
Fishman replaced Ralph Marra, who served as acting U.S. Attorney after Republican Chris Christie stepped down to mount a successful run for governor.
The Attorney General has attended five U.S. Attorney investitures thus far. He was at the swearing-in ceremonies for Timothy Heaphy in the Western District of Virginia, Neil MacBride in the Eastern District of Virginia, Preet Bharara in the Southern District of New York, B. Todd Jones in Minnesota and Joyce Vance in the Northern District of Alabama.
Read our previous article here about the warm glow U.S. Attorneys get when the AG shows up at their investitures.
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Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General David Ogden were slated to attend the investiture of Eastern District of Virginia U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride on Friday. But unavoidable circumstances kept one official home and made another late.
Ogden, who was supposed to give remarks at the ceremony, was unable to attend due to illness, Eastern District First Assistant U.S. Attorney Dana Boente told about 100 Justice Department officials, judges, family members and friends gathered at the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse in Alexandria, Va.
Holder made it, but he arrived late because he was coming from a funeral.
“I know most of you came to hear the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, but it is 2:13 and I’m up,” said MacBride, after some reshuffling in the program brought him up to the podium to deliver his remarks.
Then, as if on cue, the Attorney General came into the courtroom as MacBride discussed what he’s learned from Holder, who once worked with MacBride in the District of Columbia U.S. Attorney’s office.
Holder, a former D.C. U.S. Attorney, said MacBride is a friend, who has “intelligence, diligence and integrity.”
“Wherever he has served, he has served well and with distinction,” said Holder, who has named MacBride to the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys. “I know this because I hired Neil.”
Eastern District Court Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr. recalled being a reference for MacBride, a former Eastern District Court clerk. Morgan said he was reluctant to give up MacBride to Holder.
“I started to wonder if the whole, unvarnished truth would be the best option,” Morgan said at the ceremony. He added: “I soon discovered truth was the only option because I was being examined by the head of the office, Eric Holder.”
MacBride, who is the first clerk from the Eastern District to become U.S. Attorney, recalled one of his more embarrassing days in Morgan’s courtroom 17 years ago.
As a clerk, he had to start court proceedings by saying, “All rise. Oyez, oyez, oyez, all manner of persons having any matter to present before … judges in the United States District Court in and for the Eastern District of Virginia may at present appear and they shall be heard. God save the United States and this honorable court. Court is now in session, please be seated.”
But the last time he was in the Alexandria courthouse, MacBride forgot his notes and was only able to get out “All rise. Oyez, oyez, oyez.” before his mind went blank, he recalled. To keep things moving, he then said, “Sit down and be quiet.”
“The pressure is really off for me,” MacBride said during his remarks today. “I can’t go downhill from there.”
MacBride, who was confirmed in September, said he will focus on fighting terrorism and protecting national security as U.S. Attorney.
Although the EDVA lost out to the Southern District of New York in internal DOJ jockeying for the Khalid Shaikh Mohammed trial, MacBride said he was honored to have prosecutors from the Eastern District assist their counterparts in Manhattan in the prosecution of the alleged 9/11 attacks mastermind and four other suspected terrorists in New York.
“I will work hard everyday to continue the tremendous legacy of the Eastern District of Virginia in every way I can,” MacBride said.
Holder has now attended four U.S. Attorney investitures including ceremonies for Joyce Vance in the Northern District of Alabama, Preet Bharara in the SDNY, and B. Todd Jones in Minnesota.