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President Biden nominates Ison, Totten for Michigan U.S. attorney jobs

Robert Snell Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

President Joe Biden has nominated Dawn Ison to be the U.S. attorney in Michigan's Eastern District, which would make her the first Black female picked for the job of chief federal law enforcement officer in Metro Detroit.

Dawn Ison

In the Grand Rapids-based Western District, Biden has chosen Mark Totten, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's current chief legal counsel and the 2014 Democratic nominee for attorney general. The governor called Totten "invaluable" and one of her closest advisers.

Their nominations, announced by the White House Friday night, will be sent to the U.S. Senate, where they will submit answers on questionnaires about their education, legal careers, bar memberships, awards, published articles and statements, political affiliations, major cases and litigation, sources of income, net worth, potential conflicts of interest and pro bono work. They will be scheduled for hearings before the Judiciary Committee.

U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township applauded the nominations. Stabenow expressed confidence in the nominees, calling Ison "highly qualified" and Totten "a highly respected attorney." Stabenow and Peters fielded applications recommending candidates to be the next U.S. attorneys in Detroit and Grand Rapids.

“Dawn Ison and Mark Totten are exceptional attorneys who represent the best of Michigan, and I’m pleased the Biden administration announced their nominations today," Peters said in a Friday statement. "I’m confident these dedicated public servants will represent our state and country honorably as they make decisions that directly impact the lives of Michiganders.”

Ison, 57, of Farmington Hills emerged as one of two finalists for the Eastern District after serving as an assistant U.S. attorney for more than 19 years during a career that has touched on notable cases involving large-scale drug dealers, election integrity and  public corruption.

She worked earlier in her career as a defense attorney, an unconventional background trait for a federal prosecutor that is part of what made her an attractive candidate to Biden.

Ison was among a diverse field of current and former federal prosecutors who signaled interest in becoming the next U.S. attorney in Detroit and replacing Matthew Schneider, who resigned in January after President Donald Trump lost his reelection bid.

A review board of lawyers is believed to have earlier narrowed the field to Ison and Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Chutkow, the office's criminal division chief who rose to prominence while helping prosecute former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Acting U.S. Attorney Saima Mohsin, the first female, immigrant, Muslim U.S. attorney in American history, did not pursue the nomination. 

Mark  Totten is pictured in 2014 when he was running as the Democratic nominee for state attorney general.

The Eastern District of Michigan covers a wide geographic area, spanning 34 counties and serving 6.5 million people across the eastern half of the Lower Peninsula. A team of approximately 120 federal prosecutors oversee civil and criminal cases in Detroit, Flint and Bay City.

Former U.S. Attorney Barb McQuade, who was selected for that position by the Obama administration, hailed the nomination on Twitter Friday, tweeting: “Congratulations to Dawn Ison, nominee to be next U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Great choice! Bravo!" McQuade was the first woman to serve in that position.

The court has handled more than 4,100 new case filings in the last year, the third-busiest caseload behind courts in Ohio in a region that also includes Kentucky and Tennessee. In recent years, the district based in Detroit is notable for prosecuting the largest number of local corruption cases in the country.

Defense lawyers in Detroit welcomed the nomination of a veteran federal prosecutor from Detroit in Ison, a graduate of Wayne State Law School and Spelman College.

“I like Dawn, I’ve known her for years and get along with her,” Detroit defense lawyer Mike Rataj said. “I have my job and she has hers. I’m confident she’ll do a good job as the U.S. attorney.”

Ison’s nomination is well-deserved, Detroit defense lawyer Todd Russell Perkins said.

“Beyond being an adept, skilled and scrupulous attorney who has worked in all facets of the law, she is a mother, a wife and someone who knows and loves this community,” Perkins wrote in a text to The Detroit News. “She has earned the privilege of serving our community in this capacity. She 'walks with kings (and queens) and has never lost the common touch.’”

In recent weeks, Ison has helped secure the conviction of a key figure in the public corruption case against Taylor Mayor Rick Sollars. Downriver real estate entrepreneur Shady Awad pleaded guilty Oct. 22, admitting he bribed Sollars with more than $53,000 in cash, appliances, home renovations and gambling money in Las Vegas.

Black Mafia Family drug kingpin Demetrius "Big Meech" on the cover of The JUICE Magazine, which he co-owned.

One of her most notable cases is the prosecution of Black Mafia Family drug lord Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory. 

Flenory, 53, has drawn support from celebrities, politicians and the broader public while serving a 30-year sentence for running one of the largest drug trafficking and money laundering rings in Detroit history. Ison has fought to keep Flenory in prison, arguing he remains a danger to the community and does not suffer from COVID-19 risk factors.

In one court filing, she exhibited a blunt toughness, writing that the drug baron had a “feigned commitment to positively impact Detroit.”

“Flenory would do nothing to destroy the street credibility he continues to enjoy to this day,” Ison wrote. “Rather, he would, as he does now, do everything he could to further promote it.”

Defense lawyer Wade Fink, who previously represented Flenory, wrote in a text message to The News. "Incoming U.S. Attorney Ison and I have very different views on criminal justice. However, I admire anyone who dedicates their life to public service, and I’m certain she will give the citizens of this district quality leadership."

Some former colleagues praised Ison as an experienced, thoughtful prosecutor well-versed in complex federal investigations.

“She is tough, but fair, and would serve as a strong leader of that office — an office that is filled with talented lawyers who have a track record of doing some of the most significant federal criminal investigations in the country,” said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Gabel, a partner with the Jones Day law firm in Detroit. “I expect she will add to that track record during her tenure.”

The news came as part of the Biden administration nominating its first set of U.S. marshals, including the first Black man to serve as the U.S. marshal in Minnesota, along with a slate of other historic firsts for U.S. attorney posts across the nation.

The nomination of Eddie Frizell to be the U.S. marshal in the District of Minnesota comes months after two sheriff’s deputies shot and killed a Black man in Minneapolis while assigned to a Marshals Service fugitive task force, sparking controversy about how the Justice Department was implementing its policy on body-worn cameras.

Biden has now nominated 37 people to serve as U.S. attorneys, positions that have been filled for months by acting U.S. attorneys.

Totten, 47, of Kalamazoo has served as Whitmer's chief legal counsel since she took office in January 2019. He had previously been an associate professor at Michigan State University's College of Law and an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice.

He gained the spotlight during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing legal guidance on how the governor's unilateral executive orders aimed at combating the spread of the virus would be enforced across Michigan. On Oct. 2, 2020, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Whitmer had violated her constitutional authority by continuing to issue orders on COVID-19 without the approval of state lawmakers.

Totten "oversaw a team of terrific attorneys who worked together to get big things done and make sure all the little things get done right, too," Whitmer said Friday. 

"As a former prosecutor, I cannot imagine a more qualified leader to serve as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan — the place that Mark calls home," said Whitmer, a one-time Ingham County prosecutor. "Me and everyone in the executive office and across state government will miss Mark’s wisdom and memos, wit and  leadership, sage counsel and unbeatable instincts.” 

Totten was the Democratic nominee for Michigan attorney general in 2014, losing to Republican Bill Schuette by 8 percentage points. At the time, Totten said he hoped to pursue cases against predatory lenders and lobby for consumer protection laws.

He is a fourth-generation Michigan resident with family roots in Mason and Macomb counties. He was raised in Kalamazoo by his mother, a single-parent and first-grade teacher who taught in the public schools for more than 30 years, according to a statement from his past attorney general campaign.

Totten attended Kalamazoo Public Schools and graduated from Yale University with his law degree.

Associated Press contributed.