U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia G. Zachary Terwilliger is moving to a private white-collar defense firm starting Jan. 15, a few days before Democrat Joe Biden is set to be sworn in as the next president of the United States.
U.S. attorneys are political appointees who are usually replaced by an incoming administration.
As he prepared to leave office, the Republican prosecutor touted his record on violent crime and thanked partners in law enforcement while avoiding the controversies of an administration still claiming falsely to have won the election.
But in an exit interview, he did not shy away from conservative policies, criticizing some sentence reductions and calling for tougher immigration enforcement and more trials during the coronavirus pandemic.
He is joining the Washington, D.C., office of the Texas-based Vinson & Elkins as a partner; a former criminal chief for the office, Michael S. Dry, is also with the firm. Raj Parekh, the first assistant U.S. attorney, will take over after Terwilliger’s departure until a new U.S. attorney is named.
Terwilliger’s 2½ years in office included trials of a former CIA officer spying for China, MS-13 members who killed two young teens, and a former doctor who performed unnecessary hysterectomies on women. Left unresolved are cases against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, two Islamic State fighters accused of involvement in the deaths of American hostages, and former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn’s business partner Bijan Rafiekian.
Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who recommended Terwilliger for the U.S. attorney job, said in a joint statement that he had “done critical work these past few years in the position.” Terwilliger was confirmed in 2018.
In discussing his departure, Terwilliger touted an increase in criminal defendants charged on his watch, from 924 in 2017 to 1,029 in 2018 to 1,091 in 2019. But the last year of his term was overshadowed by the pandemic, which shuttered courtrooms and hampered investigations. Jury trials in the district are currently suspended as coronavirus cases again rise in Virginia, but Terwilliger argued that more could have been held earlier in the pandemic.
He said he was surprised that the federal public defender’s office did not join him to push the court on that point: “Frankly, I just would have thought that those individuals would have been much more forward-leaning and said . . . there’s inherent risks in my job.”
Geremy Kamens, chief public defender in Alexandria, said Terwilliger “reflects the culture of collegiality and working together when there’s common ground.” But he said: “We haven’t always agreed about covid-19. We’re a small office and can’t afford for our employees to get sick and not be able to do our jobs.”
Terwilliger, the son of a deputy attorney general, has a close personal and professional relationship with former attorney general William P. Barr and worked with him on the federal response to civic unrest across the country after the death of George Floyd. He declined to comment on the decision to aggressively clear protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington before President Trump participated in a photo op at a nearby church in June.
Terwilliger also would not comment on Barr’s criticism of federal prosecutors and his intervention in cases involving friends of the president, saying only that “it was an honor to serve” under both him and his predecessor, Jeff Sessions.
“Zach has been a strong and articulate law enforcement leader in Virginia,” Barr said in a statement. “He was of great help to the department this past summer in addressing civil unrest around the country and I have no doubt he will be successful in his future endeavors.”
Terwilliger also declined to weigh in on Trump’s pardon of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, whom the president called a “victim” of a “witch hunt.” A member of Terwilliger’s office was on the team that prosecuted Manafort in Alexandria.
“It’s our system that allows the president to exercise his pardon power,” he said.
In the past, Terwilliger has praised Barr’s “decisive leadership” during the summer protests for racial justice. He also credited Barr with helping bring the Islamic State hostage case and securing the first terrorism charges against an alleged MS-13 leader.
He said he didn’t fault the president for calling the gang’s members “animals,” because “many MS-13 members commit animalistic behavior.” While acknowledging that in many parts of the country the gang has minimal presence, he argued that its foothold in Northern Virginia could be combated with stronger immigration enforcement: “There are individuals who should be off the streets.”
Federal prosecutions of people who committed crimes after illegally reentering the country rose during Terwilliger’s tenure, with one judge warning his office that she saw them as a waste of time. Most involve drunken driving, assault or public intoxication.
Terwilliger said he is “somebody who believes in the concept of White privilege” and is aware of the advantages and opportunities he was given in life.
But, he added, “I think you can push that narrative too far. . . . I mean, there’s also people I’ve prosecuted who had 15, 16, 17 chances at the state level.”
He said his office has taken some cases because state court was, in his view, too lenient.
And he called the reduction of sentences over the past few years through post-conviction litigation “pretty astounding,” including some compassionate-release decisions by judges that he sees as an “inappropriate” way to cut sentences they didn’t like.
The chief judge for the district declined to comment.
Terwilliger says he “would never rule out” running for office one day but questions whether there’s a “path to victory” in a state Biden won by 10 points.
“It seems as though Virginia is getting bluer and bluer,” he said. “I’m hoping I can have success in the private sector.”