Interim U.S. attorney Schneider: More resources needed

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the amount of the annual budget of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Matthew Schneider, the newly appointed interim U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, has an ambitious agenda that includes beefing up his team of prosecutors and building bridges with local police and community leaders to fight violent crime and illegal immigration.

Schneider, who was sworn in Jan. 4, told The Detroit News that he plans to ask the U.S. Department of Justice for more money to expand his staff.

“This office can use more resources, I can tell you that,” he said. “In reaching out to the people in this office, I know that that’s critically important. More people doesn’t always solve the problem, but it can be incredibly helpful to us. If we have more people, that means we’ll be able to address issues quicker and maybe more effectively.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has 117 federal prosecutors and 100 support staffers. The office’s yearly budget is $25 million, according to the department.

As he assumes his new job, Schneider, 44, becomes the third person to lead federal prosecutions in southeast Michigan in the past year. Barbara McQuade resigned last March at the request of President Donald Trump; Daniel Lemisch served as acting U.S. attorney until Schneider’s appointment by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Schneider, a Michigan native, is named to the post for 120 days and then has to get the backing of the federal judges in Michigan’s Eastern District or be nominated by Trump for Senate confirmation.

The new U.S. attorney indicated his priorities will be in line with those of the Trump administration, which has launched a controversial crackdown on illegal immigration, including the arrest last year of 1,400 Iraqi nationals, many of them from Metro Detroit.

“I know that Attorney General Sessions has indicated that they want to increase the number of federal prosecutors and he wants them increased for violent crimes and immigration offenses ... illegal immigration offenses. Well, we have both in this district,” Schneider said. “We have violent crimes and illegal immigration and so of course I’ll be working with the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., to see whether or not additional resources can come to Michigan.”

Other areas of focus, Schneider said, will include fighting gang activity and terrorism and prosecuting violations of federal civil rights laws.

A former federal prosecutor, Schneider was the top deputy to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, leading the office’s active caseload and a 500-member staff. Before that, he was lead counsel for Gov. Rick Snyder during Detroit’s bankruptcy.

He was a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District from 2003-11, handling anti-terrorism prosecutions plus cases involving public corruption, organized crime, and street and motorcycle gangs.

Schneider previously was general counsel and chief of staff for the Michigan Supreme Court and assistant general counsel in the White House budget office under President George W. Bush during his first term.

Schneider graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 2000 and from Michigan State University in 1996.

In one of his first acts after being appointed, Schneider phoned Detroit Police Chief James Craig to discuss ways federal prosecutors and local law enforcement can work together.

“Because our focus is crimes and gangs contacting Chief Craig was critically important,” Schneider said. “I was involved in the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy case. I was the lead counsel representing the state of Michigan and the governor, and what I saw there was we had to turn the corner and rebuild the city. ... We turned the corner financially and we’re moving in the right direction.”

“Now we have to keep working with our local partners to make sure our streets are safe,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I reached out to Chief Craig. He’s done a great job. Mayor (Mike) Duggan has done a great job with Operation Green Light,” which provides police with high-definition, real-time video from about 240 city businesses.

Schneider also reached out to Metro Detroit’s Arab-American and Muslim communities in his first hours on the job.

On Jan. 4, he attended a meeting with members of BRIDGES (Building Respect In Diverse Groups to Enhance Sensitivity), a partnership between federal law enforcement agencies and leaders of Metro Detroit’s Arab-American and Middle Eastern communities.

“This is a big chunk of the population in this region, so I want people to know this office ... we represent all citizens and all violations of federal law should be considered regardless of what your background is,” Schneider said. “We’re just looking at the law and law enforcement. That’s why we’re trying to stretch across some other boundaries.”

Craig said he looks forward to meeting with the new U.S. attorney as soon as next week, saying he was instrumental in helping the department investigate threats against Detroit police officers when Schneider worked in Schuette’s office.

“You must have a great working relationship,” Craig said. “We talk about keeping guns out of the hands of violent criminal and how we respond together is critical. I’m absolutely sure (Schneider) is going to want to focus on that.”

McQuade called Schneider’s calls to Craig and the others “a great sign that he’s going to be an effective leader.”

“It’s important to work with all the partners in law enforcement and the community,” she said.

McQuade, now a professor at the UM law school, said Schneider’s previous work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office should help him handle the demands of his new role.

“He will be drinking from a fire hose for the first few months or so, but I think his experience will serve him well,” she said. “He understands the mission of the office. He knows the people and I think that he will jump in and be able to start the ground running.”

Schneider faced immediate controversy when Sessions announced the day of his appointment that he was rescinding a policy that discouraged federal prosecutors from cracking down on marijuana sales in states where the drug is legal for medical or recreational use.

Sessions’ action sparked a backlash from Michigan political leaders, with state House Speaker Tom Leonard saying the attorney general “needs to back off.”

In a statement this week, Schneider said marijuana prosecution will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

“This office will review marijuana cases in terms of where those cases fit within our priorities and our limited federal resources,” he said.

Others in the legal community who have worked with Schneider described him as a dedicated, serious-minded prosecutor.

Retired U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen, who oversaw the Detroit bankruptcy case, said Schneider has the “highest level of integrity and fairness of mind (and) great ability and judgment.”

“I hope Matt is going to be nominated (for the permanent job),” he said.

Local attorney Keith Corbett, a former federal prosecutor, said Schneider is well-respected among colleagues and that his experience with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies will “go a long way” in helping him do his job.

Corbett said Schneider is a “real scholar (and) someone who cares about legal issues.”

Doug Bernstein, who was involved in Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings as an attorney, said Schneider was “very solid” as the state’s lead lawyer in the case, which was resolved through a “grand bargain” that combined $816 million in private and state funding.

“He helped facilitate a very difficult process,” Bernstein said. “The grand bargain had lots of moving parts.”

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