President Donald Trump’s purge of Barack Obama’s political appointees has claimed the top federal law enforcement official in Los Angeles, potentially shaking up how prosecutions of high-profile environmental crimes, a leading practice area for the local office, are handled.
Eileen Decker stepped down from her post as U.S. attorney for the Central District of California on March 10, one of 46 U.S. attorneys across the country that were asked to resign by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. While a mass layoff of a previous administration’s top prosecutors is not uncommon, the abrupt nature of Trump’s decision to fire the lot took some observers by surprise. Even though wholesale policy changes at the Justice Department might take some time to implement across the country, some veteran U.S. attorneys in Los Angeles said the Central District’s environmental crimes division could suffer under an administration that wants to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget 31 percent.
“The environmental crimes section’s work has been one of the hallmarks of the Central District U.S. Attorney’s Office,” said Robert Dugdale, a partner at Century City’s Kendall Brill & Kelly, who spent almost 19 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in the district and experienced several presidential transitions. “I imagine if there are cuts to the EPA, it will curtail that agency’s ability to investigate environmental crime, which hampers the ability for prosecutors in the office to bring related cases.”
U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president, and administrations install prosecutors of their choosing to head the Justice Department’s regional offices.
The L.A. job – along with three others in California – will ultimately be filled after a vetting and nomination process. However, without a Republican official holding statewide office in California, it is unclear who will lead the search for Decker’s replacement.
As the process plays out, Sandra Brown, a 26-year office veteran, is serving as acting U.S. attorney for the Central District. While there is some flexibility in how acting U.S. attorneys approach the job, the larger strategic decision about what types of cases to pursue will likely wait until a Trump appointee takes over, according to L.A.-based Arent Fox Partner Terree Bowers, a Republican who served as interim U.S. attorney for the Central District, bridging the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton presidential administrations between 1992 and 1994.
“There’s probably not going to be any major changes made under the interim U.S. attorney,” Bowers said. “Their job is to maintain the status quo and they’re probably reluctant to do anything dramatic like reorganizing the office.”
Bowers added that all cases being prosecuted or investigated would likely continue to move forward, but policy and enforcement priority shifts would likely start to flow in soon from Justice officials in Washington. Those changes would impact the types of cases L.A. federal prosecutors focus on.
“There will be pronouncements from the Department of Justice saying, we’re going to emphasize one thing or another,” Bowers said. “Once President Trump appoints the U.S. attorney for the Central District, they will really begin to implement this locally.”
While there’s no official list of enforcement priorities circulating yet, most analysts agreed that Trump’s policy changes would probably include fewer cases targeting companies, even if there is no explicit edict to cut back on such prosecutions.
Brian Hennigan, a founding partner at Hueston Hennigan downtown, spent six years in the Central District U.S. Attorney’s Office. He said this shift would be accomplished subtly by playing up the importance of combating certain crimes.
“I expect that there will be more of a focus on crimes of violence, terrorism, and immigration issues,” Hennigan said. “If the office spends time on these, it will necessarily draw resources away from other areas, like white-collar and financial crimes.”
That might pose a problem for the federal defense bar – there’s far more money in defending corporate clients than in defending gang members and terrorists.
Adherence to mandated priorities is reinforced through budget allocations and how prosecutors and FBI agents are assigned, Hennigan added. The FBI also falls under the purview of the Justice Department.
“The different U.S. attorney offices are evaluated by how well they pursue these priorities,” he said. “When money comes in, it goes to those who are bringing the kinds of cases the department wants.”
There will also likely be some fallout from budget cuts at other agencies, such as the EPA, which occasionally feed information to U.S. attorney offices that gets developed into cases.
But perhaps the most difficult thing to overcome for the Central District U.S. Attorney’s Office – and for whoever winds up leading it – might be the haphazard nature of the Trump administration so far, according to Matt Umhofer, a partner at West L.A.’s Spertus Landes & Umhofer, and another former assistant U.S. attorney.
“Unpredictability seems to be a hallmark of this administration,” Umhofer said. “And whoever takes over is going to have to grapple with the unpredictability, which could make it very difficult to do the job.”
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