It was big news last week in Providence, R.I., when agents of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration teamed up with Rhode Island state police to seize 145 pounds of cocaine and more than $1 million in cash while arresting three men believed to be linked to Mexican drug lords.
It wasn’t just big news to the people of Providence. It was big news to Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha, who sits on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys. “We were unaware of this investigation,” Jim Martin, spokesman for Neronha, told the Providence Journal. “These are the types of cases we certainly would want to prioritize.”
But federal prosecutors were conspicuously absent last Thursday, when DEA agents joined state and local police and state Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin in announcing the arrests after a five-month investigation. For now, at least, it appears that the case will be prosecuted in state rather than federal court, and that puzzles some people.
“It tastes like a federal case; it smells like a federal case, given the quantity and the allegations of international and multi-state transportation of both cocaine and cash,” George J. West, a defense lawyer who works in state and federal courts, told the Journal. “These are common factors in federal cases.”
Regardless of which court system the cases lands in, it would seem that someone has some explaining to do. Whenever the Justice Department announces arrests after a long, complicated investigation, it emphasizes the wonderful teamwork within DOJ and between the DOJ and state and local agencies.
Anthony Pettigrew, spokesman for the DEA in Boston, told the newspaper his agency decided to take the case through state court based on “who was working on it at the time.” In any event, the unawareness of the U.S. Attorney’s office seems doubly surprising, given that Rhode Island is so small that everyone in government and politics is supposed to know everyone else’s business. That’s one stereotype about the state. At least, it was.