U.S. attorney leading inquiry of ex-D.C. mayor Gray to step down

U.S. attorney leading inquiry of ex-D.C. mayor Gray to step down

By Spencer S. Hsu, Keith L. Alexander and Mike DeBonis, Washington Post, March 16 at 1:55 PM

U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. announced Monday he will step down April 1 and return to private practice, ending his tenure as the longest-serving chief federal prosecutor for the District of Columbia in nearly four decades.

The Justice Department named Machen’s top assistant, Vincent H. Cohen Jr., as acting U.S. attorney.

In a written statement, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder warmly praised Machen’s “consummate judgment” and outstanding results in violent crime, national security and public corruption prosecutions.

Machen’s five-year tenure has been defined largely by his office’s prosecution of corruption cases involving District politics. But the top target, former mayor Vincent C. Gray, has not been charged after a years-long investigation that has led to multiple convictions against former campaign aides.

Ronald Machen, center, is seen in 2013 during an event in Northeast Washington. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)

Machen has stood before television cameras, insisting that Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign was corrupt, and prosecutors publicly accused Gray of knowledge of the wrongdoing.

Unless Gray is charged in the next two weeks, Machen will leave office with the case unresolved.

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), said without answers in the Gray probe, Machen’s legacy “will be forever marred.”

“It’s one thing to have somebody under investigation and pursue matters diligently, but it’s quite another, I think, to allow a cloud like that to exist for years,” said Cheh, who is also a professor of criminal and constitutional law at George Washington University.

“We looked for his office for some sort of clarity,” she said. “And all we got were unproven allegations, no charges.”

Machen made no mention of the Gray investigation in his announcement, but has told associates in the office — the largest U.S. attorney’s office in the country with more than 300 attorneys — that the inquiry is bigger than any single person. Colleagues said they expected little disruption in the case because Cohen has served as Machen’s point-person in coordinating the investigation.

Robert S. Bennett, Gray’s attorney, declined to comment on Machen’s resignation or the status of the campaign investigation. But he said Monday that he believes the probe should be ended without charges against the mayor.

“I am hopeful that this investigation will finally be closed because the mayor is innocent of all allegations of wrongdoing,” Bennett said.

Machen’s resignation is to take effect at a portentous time in the Gray investigation — exactly one year after Gray was defeated for re-election in a Democratic primary, days after Machen’s office announced a central figure in the case, businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson, would plead guilty to conspiracy charges. Prosecutors alleged that Thompson pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into an unreported “shadow campaign” with Gray’s knowledge.

At that time, Machen saying he expected Thompson’s plea to lay bare more about corruption in the mayor’s 2010 campaign and many others. “I promise you, we are not going away,” he said at the time.

Gray’s supporters blamed the Thompson charges as being primarily responsible for the former mayor’s April 1, 2014 loss to rival Muriel E. Bowser, who went on the claim the mayoralty.

In September, Machen’s deputies offered Gray a plea deal through Bennett, who refused the deal. But there have been no outward developments in the investigation since; several figures who have already pleaded guilty to crimes, including Thompson, have had their sentencings repeatedly delayed.

Machen’s move coincides with Holder’s expected departure this week, pending Senate confirmation of his successor, attorney general nominee Loretta B. Lynch. Associates said Machen’s decision was unrelated. Indeed, as early as 2012, Machen has denied rumors that he had expressed interest in returning to private practice.

“Ron has never been deterred by a difficult challenge, nor slowed in his pursuit of a safer, stronger Washington,” said Holder, a longtime mentor who was the District’s U.S. attorney who first hired Machen into the office in 1997. “I see in him now the exceptional qualities that I saw in him then: unassailable integrity, relentless determination, and a passion for law and justice.

Machen, 45, was nominated by President Obama and sworn in in February 2010. He surprised some by staying on for a second term. By April, Machen will have served longer as U.S. attorney in the District than anyone since 1979, when Earl J. Silbert, one of the original prosecutors of the Watergate scandal, stepped down.

Machen played wide receiver as a walk-on at Stanford University. Upon graduation, he contemplated going on scholarship to the University of Michigan’s law school. But his father told him not to settle for the prestigious Big Ten university, and he went to Harvard instead.

Machen worked from 1997 to 2001 as a federal prosecutor in the District, the only federal office that prosecutes local as well as federal crimes. He joined and made partner at the law firm now called WilmerHale, donating more than $4,000 to Obama’s campaigns and helping vet potential vice presidential candidates in 2008.

“After more than five years as United States Attorney, it is time for me to step down,” Machen said in a statement released after he met with senior staff earlier Monday. “I am proud of the work we have done together to achieve justice in the courthouse and to build bonds of trust with the community that we serve.”

Machen’s office pointed to national security and public corruption convictions as its top successes, as well as prosecutions of scores of violent offenders and recovery of $2 billion from financial firms in the wake of the 2009 economic downturn.

Examples in federal court include the conviction of four Blackwater Worldwide guards last fall in the Sept., 2017, shootings that left 31 unarmed Iraqis dead or wounded in Baghdad’s Nisour Square; of Julian Zapata Espinoza, the Mexican drug cartel commander who pleaded guilty in 2013 to ordering an ambush that killed U.S. immigration agent Jaime Zapata in Mexico two years earlier.

But controversy followed the office’s handling of some sensitive cases, including the prosecution of Donald Sachtleben, a former FBI bomb technician and contractor who in 2013 admitted leaking information about a disrupted terrorist bomb plot to the Associated Press.

Also in federal court, a case is pending against Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected ringleader of the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Among Machen’s most high-profile cases in U.S. Superior Court was the 2010 trial and conviction of Ingmar Guandique in the death of federal intern Chandra Levy. That case is being heard on appeal.

Machen also oversaw the convictions of the five men charged with the 2010 South Capitol Street shootings that left four people dead and six others injured. Six men were convicted in those shootings.

Most recently, he oversaw the plea deal of Modern Orthodox rabbi Barry Freundel who pleaded guilty to 52 counts of voyeurism last month. Freundel was charged with secretly videotaping dozens of nude women as they prepared for a ritual bath.

Machen’s office has also led community outreach and youth engagement initiatives, and launched units to address cold cases, potential wrongful convictions and cyber-crimes.

The Conviction Integrity Unit was a response to past mistakes — a string of uncovered DNA exonerations, most of them uncovered by the Public Defender Service, involving flawed FBI forensic work in decades-old cases. Machen’s office also has recently grappled with what it called mistakes by the District’s DNA lab, and moved to clean up cases tainted by an FBI agent working with a D.C. police narcotics task force who allegedly tampered with evidence.

In 2010, Machen created a cold case unit within the department, tasking some of his most senior homicide prosecutors to work on cases that were more than eight years old. The unit has solved 20 cases.

Kevin Wrege, Esq.

Founder & President

Pulse Issues & Advocacy LLC

Office: 202-625-1787

Mobile: 202-253-4929

4410 Massachusetts Ave., NW, #150

Washington, DC 20016

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