Jamestown resident discusses his role as U.S. attorney
After working for one of Boston’s largest law firms for seven years, Neronha went to work in the Rhode Island attorney general’s offi ce in 1996. He took a job in the U.S. attorney’s office in 2002.
In 2009, Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse recommended Neronha to President Barack Obama for an appointment to the job of U.S. attorney for the Rhode Island District. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and took office on Sept. 19, 2009.
Q: What made you decide to make the move from working at a law firm to becoming a prosecutor?
A: The firm I was at was a large Boston law firm. It had about 400 lawyers, and now it’s even bigger than that. I was doing a lot of commercial litigation, which didn’t involve being in court very much. What I really wanted to do was to be in a courtroom, and to do some public service. But to be perfectly frank, what I really wanted to do was to try my skills as a trial lawyer.
The transition from private practice was really born out of a desire to do more courtroom work. Once I started doing it I really liked it. I liked being able to do what I considered the right thing, for the right reasons.
Are you appointed by the president for a certain term, or do you serve at his pleasure?
I am appointed to a four-year term, but I serve at his pleasure. I was appointed in September 2009 for a four-year term, but should President Obama or his successor, whenever that comes, decide that he would like to replace me with somebody else, then it will be time for me to go.
What have you been working on in your role as U.S. attorney?
When I think about what my job is, I look at it from two perspectives. I’ve been privileged to serve on the attorney general’s advisory committee which meets in Washington every six weeks or so. There are 12 or 13 of us who serve in that capacity around the country.
There are 93 U.S. attorneys total. I’m nearing the end of a two-year term. It’s been a great opportunity for me to meet with the attorney general on a regular basis and be part of advising him on some of the issues facing the Department of Justice, everything from civil rights to how we’re handling cocaine. That’s been a big issue, powder versus crack cocaine and the disparity in sentences. The national policy issues have been a great part of the job.
The other part of it is focusing on what’s been going on in the district of Rhode Island. My day-today role is really broken into two things. The one thing is making decisions on some of the more impactful decisions in the office, everything from the North Providence corruption case, to the Google case, just to name a couple.
The other part is some of the outreach we’re doing. Some of that is reaching out to the Muslim-American community both as a civil rights and as a homeland security effort. I have also been doing some work with the folks coming out of the prisons and trying to keep them from going back in. I think that everyone who has been a prosecutor, and I’ve been one for a long time, realizes that we can’t simply prosecute our way out of the crime problem, and what we have to do with at least some of these folks is to turn them around at some point.
So a good chunk of what I’ve been doing over the last couple of years is working with state and local folks, the state Department of Corrections, the attorney general and others, to work on some of these reentry efforts. I think they’ve been going pretty well.
What are some of the toughest cases you have handled during your time in office?
The pending case that we have involving David Main, who was murdered while making a bank deposit in Woonsocket a little over a year ago. We’re in a little bit of a dispute with the governor right now about whether we can get custody of the [murder suspect].
The medical marijuana issue that I’ve been involved with has posed a challenge for me and other U.S. attorneys across the country. None of us wants to go after sick patients or their individual caregivers, but we collectively have a problem with large commercial growers. That’s been a subject that’s generated a lot of emotion, and understandably so. At the end of the day, my job is to do what the law says and to use my discretion in what I think is the appropriate way.
What are the biggest problems facing Rhode Island from a law enforcement perspective?
If you’re in Providence, violent crime is an issue. It’s essentially young people who have nothing better to do. They don’t have jobs, they’re not getting educated. They’re not fighting over anything in particular, they just have a problem with each other, and they’re shooting each other. That’s a real problem, not only for them obviously, because they’re killing each other and you certainly don’t want that to happen, but in terms of Providence, which is the economic engine of the state, it’s not good to have violence going on in the streets.
In terms of the state generally speaking, corruption is an issue and we’ve spent a lot of time on those cases. White-collar crime, mortgage fraud and things like that, is something that we’ve spent a lot of time on.
The focus on national security. In Rhode Island sometimes we feel like we’re a long way, literally, from Ground Zero. There are things that go on here that we have to be vigilant about. The FBI is very good about staying on top of it. I get briefed on it weekly. National security is the reason my phone is on 24/7 and on the nightstand. Because you just don’t ever know when and where something can happen. History has taught us that you don’t have to be in New York or Washington. National security falls on U.S. attorneys across the country, along with the FBI. We spend a lot of time on it.
You have worked under both Democratic and Republican administrations. What role does party politics play in your job?
I don’t have a political affiliation. I’ve always felt that as a prosecutor it’s [better] not to make political contributions, and not to be affiliated. It doesn’t mean I haven’t voted in primaries, I have. But I haven’t made political contributions to anybody.
I think that it’s good to have that distance because from the public’s perspective, they need to know that…it’s not a political thing. You’re analyzing the facts, you’re analyzing the law, and calling it the way it ought to be called regardless of politics. It helps public confi- dence if I’m not making political contributions or affiliated with one political party.
Is the job what you thought it would be?
Some of it has, and some of it hasn’t. Certainly the legal part of it, in terms of looking at cases and deciding whether they should be charged, whether we have enough evidence, has been something that has come relatively easy for me. I’ve been doing it for a long time.
Things like managing an office, managing a budget, and even more importantly, taking on these new challenges like going out and meeting with the Muslim community in Rhode Island, which is fairly large, and trying to understand their concerns, and working in this area of prisoner re-entry, and advising the attorney general. Those are things I didn’t know anything about, so I didn’t know what to expect.
I have found all that work to be incredibly rewarding. There is so much variety to the job. Anything can happen and often does. That’s what holds my interest in it. It’s a fun job, it’s a privilege to do it, and it certainly keeps me on my toes.