D.C.'s U.S. attorney: One foot in court, one in the streets

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010

Then-U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder sat on the sofa of his fifth-floor office 13 years ago and listened to the young lawyer tell him what needed to change: Prosecutors spent too much time in their offices and the courthouse, and not enough time in the community.

Ronald C. Machen told his future boss in a job interview that they needed to have a regular presence throughout the District by attending community forums, meetings in church basements, youth summits and the like. Waiting until a crime is committed, Holder recalled Machen telling him, was too late to develop relationships.

"He had such fully formed ideas," said Holder, now the country's attorney general. "He knew that it wasn't enough to just show up at a crime scene, but to be there to explain what the office was about in non-stressful times. He had a vision then, and now his time has come."

Machen, 40, has returned to the U.S. attorney's office as its chief after being sworn in as the District's top prosecutor in February.

The District's U.S. attorney job is one of the most coveted in federal law enforcement. As the city's top law enforcement official, the U.S. attorney overseas the largest federal prosecutor's office in the nation, with about 340 lawyers handling local and federal criminal cases.

Most U.S. attorneys handle only federal cases. In the District, the office handles local crimes as well. It also gets some of the country's highest-profile cases because of its status as the nation's capital. Machen's staff, for example, is handling the prosecution of Blackwater security guards accused of shooting civilians in Iraq as well as the investigation into whether star pitcher Roger Clemens lied to Congress about steroid use.

Each year, the office handles about 20,000 local cases in Superior Court and about 475 in federal court.

Machen was recommended for the job by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who submitted his name to President Obama. Obama nominated him, and the Senate confirmed him.

Machen has long admired Obama -- since his days at Harvard Law School, where Obama already was a "legend," Machen said. In 2003, Machen was one of the first people to donate to Obama's U.S. Senate campaign, long before he emerged on the national political stage.

Versatile prosecutor

For four years as an assistant U.S. attorney, from 1997 to 2001, Machen worked on a variety of criminal cases, including homicide, fraud and conspiracy. "He was a very aggressive and dogged prosecutor," said Glenn Kirschner, head of the homicide unit for the office and Machen's former supervisor.

Then in summer 2001, Machen left the U.S. attorney's office to build criminal defense experience. He took a job with the firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, specializing in white-collar criminal defense cases involving corporate clients.

Norton says his versatility -- experience with cases involving Fortune 500 companies and inner-city crime -- impressed her. "He has to be able to relate to the community, because you cannot deal with crime in a community if people feel estranged from the U.S. attorney here," Norton said.

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