Peter Strasser started his tenure as a US attorney in New Orleans with a threatening warning about the criminal element.
“Winter is coming,” said the region’s chief state attorney at his swearing-in ceremony.
If so, this would be the shortest winter to remember in the eastern district of Louisiana, where much of Strasser’s two and a half year tenure has been spent in a pandemic that has halted trials in the Camp Street courthouse.
Nonetheless, in Strasser’s view, violent criminals and scammers have caught their share of frostbite.
“The bottom line is we’ve got people accountable for their crimes,” he said last week in his 17th-floor office above Poydras Street while his Australian Terrier X was walking the carpet.
Strasser, 66, packs up. He officially leaves office on Sunday and is forced to resign from President Joe Biden’s administration as part of a house cleaning by Justice Department leaders who stepped in under former President Donald Trump.
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Such purges are common when the White House changes parties. Former US attorney Kenneth Polite, an Obama-appointed man, left in a similar, if more abrupt, manner.
The Trump administration has been slow to fill many of the jobs created by the purge. Candidates must go through a Senate confirmation process. Strasser did not take office until September 2018, also because US Senator John Kennedy’s first recommendation for the job at the White House was unsuccessful.
Strasser claims his office sparked an “astounding number” of charges afterwards – until March 2020, when the trials were closed and the grand jury went home for four months.
“The only thing that really hurt us is the grand jury,” he said, estimating the 30% decrease in law enforcement during the pandemic.
Strasser said his office had large juries twice a week before the lockdown. They have returned to weekly meetings although “sometimes that is canceled” because there is no quorum, he said.
He pointed to some meaty law enforcement actions during his tenure, including an ongoing investigation into vehicle slammers and local lawyers who allegedly conspired to stage accidents in large rigs for high insurance payouts.
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This case has brought indictments against more than 30 defendants and about half of them have confessed guilt. Strasser said he expected the investigation to produce even more charges.
Strasser also highlighted corruption allegations his office made in 2019 against former St. Tammany Township Sheriff Jack Strain in connection with an inmate layoff program. That same year, Strasser’s office sued former Jefferson councilor Chris Roberts for tax evasion and fraud. Roberts died months later of an apparent suicide.
Strasser worked as a public prosecutor in the same office for 18 years from 1984 to 2002 before serving as legal advisor for foreign countries in the Ministry of Justice for 11 years.
“It is truly the honor of a professional career to lead the office in which you served,” he said of the position.
Strasser once led the prosecution for white collar and organized crime in New Orleans. As a US attorney, he said he had a special focus on fraud and had praised the prosecutors in the office.
“You’re not doing this for the money. They do it for job satisfaction. They do it because they want to make a difference, ”he said. “Basically, my job was to be a coach.”
In this case, defender Claude Kelly argued that his calling to the game was dated.
Kelly said he was looking forward to a change in administration and said the US Attorney’s Office under Strasser “missed this entire era of bipartisan criminal justice reform and social awakening.”
Kelly referred to the First Step Act, the bipartisan measure Trump signed in 2018 that reformed federal criminal laws and other federal measures to reduce relapse and prison sentences.
Under the law, Kelly said, “Our district has received over 200 compassionate release requests. Unfortunately, this US attorney’s office has systematically spoken out against each and every one of them, regardless of their merit. “
This was not the case in other federal districts, he said.
“I hope the new administration will conduct a thorough and careful review of the Office’s current policies, practices and culture, making a conscious effort to prioritize fair and effective justice rather than maximize punishment,” said Kelly.
Strasser declined to comment on Kelly’s criticism.
Strasser, a former captain in the U.S. Navy’s JAG Corps, said he had carried out marching orders that included tightening management.
He said he learned in the interview process that the New Orleans office of 60 prosecutors has been “a driving force for many years”, although he would not elaborate on it.
Still, he admitted that he had been marginalized on several occasions due to conflicts arising from his previous private practice role as a partner in the law firm Chaffe McCall.
In fact, during his tenure, Strasser was expelled from by far the largest case in the district: the alleged criminal conspiracy involving the former founder of First NBC Bank, Ashton Ryan, and other executives and customers of the collapsed bank. Your trial is pending.
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Chaffe McCall represented contractor Jeffrey Dunlap, a key player in this case. Strasser, who had spent five years with the company, put other cases on hold, despite downplaying the impact of the setbacks.
“I’ve been reused by a lot,” he said. “In the end it really didn’t matter. The bottom line is that the right atmosphere should be created for people to thrive and prosper. “
The next U.S. attorney in New Orleans will be the fifth, including presidential and preliminary candidates, as Jim Letten stepped down in December 2012 after serving under the presidents of both major parties for an unusually long eleven years.
The popular Latvian, known for his political corruption, was the longest-serving U.S. attorney in the country at the time, until his tenure ended in a scandal that included online postings from his top MPs.
Dana Boente, a Justice Department official, spent most of the next year in office before Polite held office under President Obama for three and a half years.
A district attorney in the office, Duane Evans, served as the U.S. interim attorney for 18 months before Strasser took office and resumed that role starting Monday, the office said on Friday.
Evans’ name is one of several that have already been announced as possible candidates for the permanent position under Biden.
Strasser said he is still thinking about his next steps, which include more travel abroad and “something new and different”.
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