Barbara McQuade, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, has had a full plate in 2014. From prosecuting high profile corruption cases at city hall, fighting violent crime in partnership with local law enforcement groups and guaranteeing environmental justice for urban communities to nailing down health care fraudsters masking as medical doctors. In this interview with Michigan Chronicle editor Bankole Thompson, McQuade talks about her priorities this year, including closing the book on corruption at Detroit City Hall, pending investigation into Wayne County government, federal oversight of police departments in the wake of Ferguson, medical marijuana and federal enforcement, the gay marriage battle in Michigan, her impressions about Eric Holder’s successor and more. Excerpts follow.
MICHIGAN CHRONICLE: What would you like to see your office do in 2015 that you think was missing in 2014?
BARBARA MCQUADE: Some of our work is reactive, and we will respond appropriately to cases as they arise, but we also like to be proactive to prevent crime and improve community trust. We will continue to prioritize violent crime, public corruption, fraud and civil rights. Some of the projects we plan to work on proactively include (1) continuing to work to reduce violence committed by and against young people through the Detroit Youth Violence Prevention Initiative; (2) improving the likelihood of success for citizens returning to the community from prison; (3) addressing heroin and prescription drug trafficking and abuse; (4) improving environmental justice for urban communities, and (5) improving cyber security through increased awareness. We will also get out into the community to listen to residents so that we can provide the services that they need.
MC: What is your reaction to Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and other places where police conduct with citizens has led to tragic deaths?
BM: These cases are all tragic and remind us that we have work to do to improve police and community interactions. Some positive change has come from these tragedies, including training for local police departments in bias awareness and an increased interest in body cameras which protect innocent citizens and police officers. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has participated in several discussion forums which demonstrate the need to continue to work on improving mutual understanding. Police officers have difficult and important jobs and I deeply respect those who wear the badge, but the police cannot be effective unless they have the trust of the community they serve.
MC: In the wake of Ferguson, some have called for strong federal oversight of certain police departments. What is your view?
BM: Federal oversight is an important tool to protect against police misconduct. Like the consent judgments we had with the Detroit Police Department here, federal oversight can ensure that police are not engaging in patterns and practices of unconstitutional policing. While you can never eliminate all possible misconduct by every officer, federal oversight can help reduce department-wide misconduct.
MC: With Attorney General Eric Holder set to leave office, what does that mean for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Michigan?
BM: We have worked closely with Attorney General Holder in the Eastern District of Michigan, and he has visited Detroit several times as Attorney General. I have had the privilege of serving on his Attorney General’s Advisory Committee and appreciate the significant steps he has taken to improve fairness in the criminal justice system, such as reducing the crack-powder cocaine disparity, reducing mass incarceration by directing prosecutors to seek lengthy mandatory-minimum sentences in fewer cases, and seeking clemency for non-violent offenders serving long prison terms, among other things.
I think that the nominee to replace him, Loretta Lynch, who is currently the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, will be a different but equally effective Attorney General. She is a career prosecutor who is very tough but also committed to fairness. I have worked closely with Loretta on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, which she chaired, and I have been very impressed with her intellect, diplomacy and problem-solving skills. I expect her to be a strong and effective Attorney General and we will invite her to Detroit as soon as she is confirmed.
MC: You prosecuted major health care fraud cases. Will that stem the tide of this type of criminal activity in the region?
BM: We have seen a reduction in health care fraud of $600 million in our region, so our enforcement efforts are making a difference. I hope that every time a doctor or pharmacist sees a case in which a health care provider receives a long prison sentence for fraud, he thinks twice about stealing from our health care system.
MC: What is your take on the question of medical marijuana and its impact on enforcement?
BM: At the federal level, where we focus on major drug trafficking organizations, the medical marijuana law have not impacted our work much. Because Michigan law severely limits the quantity of medical marijuana that a patient or caregiver may possess, we typically do not encounter any conflicts with federal enforcement. From time to time, a defendant tries to use the medical marijuana law as a pretext for a trafficking operation, but they have not been successful because these operations typically greatly exceed the legal limits under Michigan law.
MC: How do federal prosecutors make the distinction between a marijuana operation and a legal marijuana dispensary?
BM: DOJ policy generally leaves the regulation of dispensaries to the states. Federal prosecution is usually limited to seven areas:
1. Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
2. Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
3. Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
4. Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
5. Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana;
6. Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
7. Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
8. Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.
MC: Have you closed the books on corruption investigation at Detroit City Hall?
BM: Yes, the investigation of the Kilpatrick administration is over. We have some sentencing hearings relating to pension fund defendants remaining, but I think citizens can turn the page and move on.
MC: With a new regime in Wayne County under Warren Evans, should we expect charges from the Robert Ficano administration?
BM: Five individuals from the Ficano administration were convicted in federal prosecutions. I can’t comment on pending investigations.
MC: How do you reconcile the perception of crime in Detroit being high and the reduction of crime itself?
BM: The good news is that crime went down in Detroit this year — carjacking went down by 32 percent and we had the fewest homicides since 1967. The bad news is that crime is still intolerably high and for every victim, violent crime is a tragedy. We continue to focus on reducing violent crime through enforcement and prevention because public safety is so essential to the high quality of life that all of our residents deserve.
MC: Both factions in the gay marriage debate in Michigan say they are upholding the law. What side are you on?
BM: Our office and the federal government do not have a role in the Michigan case, so I do not want to speak to the case itself, which is between private litigants and the State of Michigan, but personally, I think that every person has a right to marry the person they love regardless of gender. I hope and believe that, whether by court order or legislation, Michigan will recognize marriage equality soon.