It was 2010, and the Justice Department’s prestigious Public Integrity Section was still recovering from a costly debacle over the withholding of exculpatory evidence in a case against Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.
The crisis prompted then-Attorney General Eric Holder, in a remarkable move, to ask a judge to overturn all convictions against the Republican lawmaker.
Seeking a new leader for the unit, the Justice Department turned to a war crimes prosecutor in The Hague who had cut his teeth in New York prosecuting state and federal crimes, including the brutal beating of a Haitian immigrant by police. Jack Smith told The Associated Press in an interview that year that he had read the Stevens case and couldn’t resist the opportunity to step up and lead the section.
“I had a dream job and had no desire to leave it, but opportunities like this don’t come around very often,” Smith said. “I left my dream job for a better one.”
Now Smith has a new job that, while not necessarily a dream job, nevertheless puts him at the center of two of the Justice Department’s most significant investigations in years. As a newly appointed special counsel, Smith will oversee investigations into the retention of classified documents at former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, as well as aspects of an investigation into efforts to nullify the 2020 election won by Democrat Joe Biden.
The investigations have obvious policy implications as they involve a former president and current White House hopeful – indeed Attorney General Merrick Garland cited Trump’s entry into the race this week, as well as Biden’s stated intent. to run again, as the reasons he acted now in nominating Smith. Friday.
Smith will likely need to act quickly to ensure his work is completed before the home stretch of the 2024 presidential election, given the Justice Department’s historic interest in avoiding any action that could be seen as interfering with the result of a race.
Colleagues who have worked with Smith describe him as a hardworking, fast and passionate worker, a prosecutor who operates without political conviction and is relentless in his affairs. He displays a similar style off the court, where he is a competitive athlete who has competed in triathlons all over the world.
“He’s an exquisite lawyer and an exquisite prosecutor,” said Lanny Breuer, who headed the Justice Department’s criminal division, which includes the public integrity section, at the time Smith was hired for the job. “It is not political at all. He’s right in the middle.
The Harvard-educated Smith spent his formative years in New York, where his cases included pursuing police officers involved in the broomstick sodomy of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. While in New York, he spent a weekend sleeping in the hallway of a building so he could intercept a victim who was afraid to testify in a domestic violence case. The woman ended up speaking out after what Smith called a “long, long speech.”
After a stint as a war crimes prosecutor, he joined the Department of Justice to lead the public integrity section. During his tenure, the section pursued significant, but difficult, prosecutions of prominent public figures from both political parties.
Prosecutors entered a public bribery conviction against former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican, but the case was later overturned by the Supreme Court. The section also prosecuted former Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, but a jury acquitted him on one count and blocked on others and the Justice Department declined to try him on new.
Although both of these cases were ultimately unsuccessful, the Section successfully filed lawsuits against a number of state officials accused of defrauding taxpayers as well as military personnel who defrauded the military. There were also high profile victories for the section.
Smith, for example, was leading the unit when Arizona Congressman Rick Renzi was found guilty of bribery, a verdict that was left in place by the Supreme Court – although Trump pardoned the Republican before quitting. its functions. Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was indicted in 2015 on corruption charges and then sent to prison.
As leader, he also showed a willingness to step aside when evidence was insufficient, ending without charge some long-running investigations into political figures. He told the AP in the same 2010 interview that “you have to be able to admit that if it’s not there, it’s not there.”
In 2015, Smith became a federal prosecutor in Nashville and later served as acting head of that office before moving into private practice and most recently as chief prosecutor for the special court in The Hague to investigate crimes. of war in Kosovo.
Alan Tieger, a fellow war crimes prosecutor who worked with Smith, described him as “both a guy steeped in old-fashioned ideals but relentless, driven and brilliant”. He said Smith “brings that whole skill set.”
“You never see Jack hanging out a day,” Tieger said. “He’s full on every day.”
Yet even in a high-profile business career, Trump’s investigations are likely to come under close scrutiny, his actions dissected by the public not only through a legal lens, but also for their political impact.
He will be responsible for assessing whether Trump or someone else should be prosecuted. His rulings are to be given such deference that, under regulations, if the Justice Department were to overrule any investigative step or major decision Smith wishes to make, it would have to notify Congress at the end of investigation.
In a statement Friday, Smith pledged to conduct the investigations “independently and in the best traditions of the Department of Justice.”
“The pace of investigations will not stop or falter under my watch,” he said. “I will exercise independent judgment and move the investigations forward quickly and thoroughly, whatever outcome the facts and the law dictate.”
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