WASHINGTON (TBEN) — The year 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 had led then-Attorney General Eric Holder to ask a judge, in a remarkable fashion, to quash all convictions against the Republican legislature.
Looking for 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 the police. Jack Smith told The The Bharat Express News in an interview that year that he had read about the Stevens case and couldn’t resist the chance to step in and head the section.
“I had a dream job and I didn’t feel like giving it up, but opportunities like this don’t come along very often,” said Smith. “I left the dream job for a better one.”
Now Smith has a new position that, if not necessarily a dream job, nevertheless puts him at the center of two of the most important Justice Department investigations in years. As newly appointed special counsel, Smith will oversee investigations into the preservation of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate, and aspects of an investigation into efforts to overthrow the 2020 election, won by Democrat Joe Biden.
The investigations have clear political implications as they involve a former president and current White House hopeful — indeed, Attorney General Merrick Garland mentioned Trump’s entry into the race this week, along with Biden’s stated intention to re-enter, as reasons why he acted now to appoint Smith on Friday.
Smith will likely need to act quickly to ensure his work is completed before the home game of the 2024 presidential election, given the Justice Department’s historic interest in avoiding actions that could be perceived as interfering in the outcome of a race .
Colleagues who have worked with Smith describe him as hard-working, fast-acting and passionate, a prosecutor who operates free of political affiliation and who is ruthless in his cases. He displays a similar style off the track, where he is a competitive athlete who has competed in triathlons around the world.
“He’s an excellent attorney and an excellent prosecutor,” said Lanny Breuer, who led the Justice Department’s criminal justice division, which included the public integrity section, at the time Smith was hired for the job. He’s not political at all. He’s right in the middle.”
Harvard-educated Smith spent his formative years in New York, where his cases included prosecuting police officers involved in the broomstick sodomy of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. While in New York, he once slept in the hallway of an apartment building for a weekend so he could intercept a victim who was afraid to testify in a domestic violence case. The woman eventually took the stand after what Smith said was a “long, long conversation.”
After a stint as a war crimes prosecutor, he returned to the Justice Department to head the public integrity section. During his tenure, the section continued significant, but challenging, prosecutions against prominent public figures from both political parties.
Prosecutors scored a public conviction for corruption against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, but the case was later overturned by the Supreme Court. The section also prosecuted former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, but a jury acquitted him on one count and deadlocked on others, and the Justice Department declined to try him again.
Although those two cases ultimately fell short, the section brought successful cases against a number of state officials accused of defrauding taxpayers and military personnel who defrauded the military. There were also high-profile victories for the section.
For example, Smith led the unit when Arizona Congressman Rick Renzi was convicted of corruption, a verdict upheld by the Supreme Court — though Trump pardoned the Republican before he left office. Former New York State Speaker Sheldon Silver was indicted on corruption charges in 2015 and was later sent to prison.
As chief, he also showed a willingness to walk away from cases if the evidence was insufficient, closing a number of long-running investigations into political figures without charge. He told the TBEN 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 chief of that office before moving into private practice and, more recently, as Chief Prosecutor for the Hague District Court charged with investigating war crimes in Kosovo.
Alan Tieger, a fellow war crimes prosecutor and colleague of Smith’s, described him as “both a man imbued with old-fashioned ideals, but who is ruthless and driven and brilliant.” He said Smith “brings out that whole range of skills.”
“You never see Jack dragging through a day,” Tieger said. “He’s full every day.”
But even in a career of high-profile cases, the Trump investigations are likely to be closely watched, with 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 to prosecute Trump or anyone else, and if the Justice Department were to reject a particular key investigative move or decision by Smith, it would have to notify Congress at the conclusion of the investigation.
In a statement Friday, Smith pledged to conduct the investigations “independently and in the best traditions of the Justice Department.”
“The pace of investigations will not stop or slow down under my watch,” he said. “I will make an independent judgment and proceed with the investigations expeditiously and thoroughly, regardless of the outcome that the facts and the law dictate.”
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