Anxiety grows over U.S. attorney's likely departure

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade helped convict ex-Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. She will likely be replaced by Donald Trump.

The likely departure of Detroit’s top federal prosecutor has drawn worries from members of Metro Detroit’s Arab-American community who fear the change in guard could leave them without one of their allies.

U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade, the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, is expected to be replaced next year per tradition by President-elect Donald Trump after he is sworn into office in January.

McQuade has been praised for her work in the post, from her aggressive approach to high-profile public corruption cases to her attempts to build bridges with Metro Detroit’s minority and immigrant communities who have fallen victim to civil rights violations.

She notably stood with members of Metro Detroit’s Arab-American and Muslim communities in 2014 and called for a congressional hearing into a report that ranked cities, including Dearborn at No. 2, by their number of suspected terrorists.

Because of actions like that, her likely departure has brought concerns from within those communities that she will be replaced by someone operating under a different agenda.

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said his concerns over a new U.S. attorney leading the Detroit office do not stem from a Republican-versus-Democratic perspective.

“My concern is a Trump appointee. The Trump administration seems to be a real departure from the traditional Republican party,” Walid said. “This individual is bringing a white nationalist to his transition team. Who knows who he will select.

“Our concerns are from a level of extremely rigorous targeting and prosecution of the Muslim community.”

Trump has pledged to deport immigrants and that has consequences for Latinos and other minorities in the region, Walid said.

“We don’t have a lot of hope in the Trump administration,” Walid said.

Winning convictions

It’s tradition for a newly elected president to replace each of the 93 U.S. attorneys who serve in districts across the United States, especially when the commander in chief is from a different political party than the previous administration.

McQuade declined an interview with The Detroit News, saying only: “All I can say is it is customary for U.S. presidents to nominate and replace U.S. attorneys across the nation.”

Michigan has two U.S. district attorneys. McQuade, a Detroit native, was appointed by President Barack Obama in January 2010, while Patrick Miles Jr. was appointed by Obama in 2012 to serve as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan. Miles declined comment for this story.

During her career, McQuade and her team tackled public corruption on a wide scale, with her biggest collar capturing national attention: the conviction of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on public corruption charges.

The six-month trial involved almost 100 witnesses, more than 400 exhibits and 15 days of jury deliberation. Kilpatrick is serving a 28-year sentence.

McQuade’s office won a conviction against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an al-Qaida operative, for attempting to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. He pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence.

Her team of attorneys also won the conviction of former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway on mortgage fraud charges as well as convictions of former employees for stealing trade secrets from Detroit automakers.

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade helped convict ex-Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. She will likely be replaced by Donald Trump.

Political process

Peter Henning, a constitutional law professor at Wayne State University and friend of McQuade, said it’s possible for her to stay for a few months past the Jan. 20 Inauguration Day as the new president and his team search for a replacement.

“It’s not automatic in the sense she is terminated on Jan. 20, but the tradition is the U.S. attorneys tender their resignation by that day,” Henning said. “Some will do it before if they’ve made other arrangements.”

Picking a new U.S. attorney is a political process, Henning said, in which the president checks with local party leaders in Michigan for recommendations. The usual routine is for the president to ask the two U.S. senators in each state to set up a committee and process candidates before making a recommendation to the president.

But because Michigan’s two senators are Democrats, Henning said it’s not clear how the process will go. Likely candidates are those with law enforcement experience and former assistant U.S. attorneys, he said.

“These are prized positions, so the Republicans want to reward one of their own with the position. It’s important for law enforcement and to carry out the president’s priorities,” Henning said.

Matt Williams, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said both of Michigan’s senators will be involved.

“Sen. Stabenow will be working with Sen. (Gary) Peters to put together a bipartisan process for recommending candidates to fill these vacancies after President-elect Trump takes office,” Williams said.

Saul Green, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan who served from 1994 to 2001 after appointment by President Bill Clinton, said he understands what McQuade might be going through.

Green was out of a job after President George W. Bush was declared the winner of the 2000 election. But that confirmation did not come until December with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bush vs. Gore.

“Mine was strange and difficult and until SCOTUS ruled, no one knew who the president would be,” Green said. “If there is a chance to stay on, I would have. The period of not knowing was the worst.”

The process of selecting a new U.S. attorney is time consuming, Green said. In his case, the process took four months.

“There will be a lot of applicants. From the interviews, normally several names are put forward to the president. That can go on for months,” Green said.

High esteem

McQuade was an assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit for 12 years. She served as deputy chief of the National Security Unit, where she prosecuted cases involving terrorism financing, foreign agents, export violations and threats.

McQuade also practiced law at Butzel Long in Detroit and clerked for U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman in Detroit.

Friedman said McQuade is the best U.S. attorney in Detroit in the last 28 years.

“Not only because I personally like her but because she has done a phenomenal job. She has been places no one else has in terms of prosecutions like public corruption cases. The indictment of public officials. It’s never happened before and she cares about the community,” Friedman said. “She has done the tough cases that improve everyone’s life and mine included.”

When McQuade leaves office, she could attempt to return to the U.S. Attorney’s Office as an assistant, venture back into private practice or select a new legal path.

McQuade declined to answer questions on her future.