2009-09-24 / Front Page

Islander confirmed as U.S. attorney for Rhode Island

By Phil Zahodiakin

Peter Neronha Peter Neronha The U.S. Senate last week confi rmed a fourth-generation Jamestowner, Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha, as the next U.S. attorney for the state of Rhode Island.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed had recommended Neronha to President Obama, who nominated him on Aug. 1. Shortly after his Sept. 16 approval by the Senate, Neronha took the oath of office – marking the latest milestone in what has been a distinguished career.

Neronha was not specifically drawn to the legal profession in his youth. Rather, he says, “It was clear during my [North Kingstown] high school years that my skills weren’t leading me toward a career in math or science, so it seemed that it would have to be something in the humanities, and the law was an interesting possibility. When I went to [Boston College], I paid more attention to the idea because they had a law school there, and I felt I had the analytical abilities a lawyer needs, and the thought of going into court and trying cases appealed to me.”

Neronha is married and has two children: Zachary, 12, and Joshua, 9. During his youth, he said, he wasn’t “pressured” to excel in school, but neither was he left to his own devices.

“My parents placed a major emphasis on hard work and integrity,” he said. “My mother [Veronika] emigrated to the U.S. after World War II, and I have this memory of my mother and I reading together when I was a young child, so my mother, to some extent, was learning the English language as I was learning it.”

Neronha’s father, Monte, went to Rogers High School, then to Korea. He returned after the war and started working on the Jamestown ferry.

“What my father really instilled in me was his work ethic, and he set a very good example for integrity,” Neronha said. “I really admire my father for that.”

‘A week I will never forget’

When he started Boston College Law School, public service was in the back of Neronha’s mind. He knew he wanted to try cases, but his intention wasn’t necessarily to become a prosecutor – with plenty of student loans to pay off after his 1989 graduation, he knew he’d need to get a job quickly. He was hired by the Boston firm of Goodwin Proctor, LLP, and worked there for seven years.

“We represented large corporate clients, mainly in their defense,” he said. “There were 400 attorneys there when I started – they have 800 now – so it was the first- or second-largest firm in Boston. It was a challenging place to work. Their standards are very high, and you learn to set those standards for yourself, so you work very, very hard. I didn’t have any social life at all.”

In fact, Neronha said, he met his wife, Shelly Johnson, while he was being treated at New England Medical Center, where she was a resident.

When he learned of an opening in the office of the R.I. state attorney general, he decided to apply.

“I love Rhode Island and Jamestown, and my parents are here,” he said. “Shelly had finished her residency and she was working at Tufts Medical Center, but she was looking to start her own practice. I knew I wanted to come back here and I knew I wanted to be a prosecutor. So, I brought Shelly to Jamestown and persuaded her that it was a great place to live.”

In 1996, Neronha was offered the job as special assistant attorney general in the state AG’s office. The “special” in the job title simply meant that he was a junior assistant AG, which he remained until his promotion to assistant AG in 2001.

During his years at the state AG’s office, Neronha prosecuted a wide range of cases, but three, in particular, stand out among his memories.

One was the 1996 grounding of the “North Cape” barge and its tugboat on Moonstone Beach, which resulted in a huge oil spill and 250 square miles of environmental devastation. The spill was the first since the 1990 enactment of the Oil Pollution Act, which was inspired by the “Exxon Valdez” oil spill.

The new law broadened federal enforcement authority in response to spills, and “we prosecuted that case jointly with [multiple federal agencies],” Neronha said, adding, “We imposed a very large fine and we made sure a lot of it went towards remediation.”

A second case he singled out involved the Lincoln town administrator, who, after a year-long investigation and subsequent trial, was convicted of accepting bribes. The third prosecution Neronha noted involved a severely disabled young man who was sexually abused by his case worker – a trial whose timing was awful, too.

“The mother was my lead witness because the young man was too disabled to testify,” Neronha said. “We had scheduled her to testify on a Tuesday, and, as we started that day of the trial, the World Trade Center towers were hit. It was a truly surreal week because I was focused on a horrific case while the whole world was glued to their television sets for the latest news about a horrific disaster. The defendant pleaded guilty after I crossexamined him, and that was a week I will never forget. The case really affected me on a personal level.”

‘They are all important’

Neronha, who joined the U.S. attorney’s office as an assistant U.S. attorney in 2002, looks back at his years at the state office – and their prosecutors – respectfully.

“Over there, the volume of work is so heavy, you’re handling many, many cases at once. So, the challenge is juggling everything and still being effective,” he said.

As the U.S. attorney, Neronha said he won’t have any particular priority in case selection.

“We have prosecuted public corruption, significant white collar crime, gang cases, firearms cases and mortgage fraud. But I don’t think any one type of case is more important [than] another. I don’t think public corruption is more important than gun-toting criminals striking fear in South [Providence] residents. I don’t think drug cases are more important than environmental crimes,” he said. “They are all important. And as long as we have the resources to do them all, we should be doing them all – and we certainly have the resources here.”

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