Federal prosecutor speaks
U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha spoke last week at a breakfast meeting of the Jamestown Chamber of Commerce. Neronha, a lifelong Jamestown resident, was appointed by President Barack Obama in September 2009.
Neronha attended the Jamestown schools and North Kingstown High. In order to save money for college, he worked for the rec department, cutting grass, collecting trash and cleaning restrooms at Fort Getty. He earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Boston College.
Following college, Neronha went to work for Goodwin Proctor, a firm in Boston that employs more than 700 attorneys. He then spent seven years in the Rhode Island attorney general’s office before becoming an assistant U.S. attorney in 2002. Seven years later, Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse recommended Neronha to Obama to be appointed U.S. attorney for Rhode Island.
According to Neronha, the first U.S. attorneys were appointed in 1789. Rhode Island, he told a crowd of about 25 at the Narragansett Café, didn’t have a U.S. attorney until a year later because it had not yet ratified the U.S. Constitution.
There are a total of 93 United States attorneys, with one in each New England state. (Bigger states are broken up into districts.) Their job is to prosecute all violations of federal law. The U.S. attorneys report to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Neronha said it’s important for him to remain politically unaffiliated so there is no perception of bias. For that reason, he doesn’t vote in primary elections, which would require him to declare for a political party.
National security is far and away the biggest issue that the United States attorney faces, he says. Neronha meets at least on a quarterly basis with the FBI to assess current threats. Along with FBI personnel, agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms must come to the U.S. attorney’s office to obtain warrants. Of the 25 or so FBI agents in Rhode Island, Neronha says about one-third of them are involved in national security cases, which includes counterterrorism and counterintelligence. He mentioned the Naval War College in Newport as a potential target for terrorists.
Neronha said the rest of his cases involve public corruption, white-collar crime and organized crime. He expressed surprise at the admiration directed toward former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, who went to jail for corruption. Neronha said Cianci demanded payoffs to get projects approved and should not be looked at as a hero.
Other prosecutions that Neronha cited were the three North Providence council members who required payoffs in order to get a shopping center approved; former Deputy House Speaker John Mc- Cauley, who was prosecuted for tax fraud; and Joseph Caramadre, who is going to stand trial for bilking dying people in an illegal investment scheme.
Caramadre has pleaded guilty in the case.
Another win for Neronha was a settlement with Google. He was able to come to a resolution with the Fortune 500 company over advertising practices. According to the case, questionable Canadian pharmacies were allowed to advertise prescription drugs in violation of federal law. The settlement resulted in a $500 million forfeiture by the Internet giant, with $230 million coming to the Ocean State.
Neronha has also made a case for furthering gun control. He advised people to think twice before confrontation with a stranger because with the proliferation of guns in certain areas, it should be assumed that the other person is armed. As a first step, Neronha recommended that mental-health information be sent to the FBI firearms database as a step toward increasing the awareness of mental health issues.
Neronha was also adamant about closing the gun-show loophole that allows people to purchase weapons at gun shows without any background checks.
“The idea that it can’t happen here is an illusion,” he said.
With those words, Neronha brought home the fact that in the wake of the Newtown school shootings, no community is safe from violence. He made a case for a well-trained professional police department because those officers are often called to a crime scene long before SWAT teams arrive.
Despite the legalization of marijuana in several states, Neronha intends to enforce federal law in regards to the drug. While he acknowledges that medicinal marijuana is now legal in Rhode Island, his office was instrumental in reducing the number of plants that could be legally grown. After he raised concerns in a letter to the governor, the state legislature reduced the allowable number of mature plants grown at proposed dispensaries from 10,000 to 100.
In the wake of the financial meltdown of 2009, few cases have been brought against major financial institutions by the Justice Department. Neronha has called those banks “too big to fail,” saying that successful prosecutions of Bank of America, for example, could have a dire effect on the nation’s economy. Neronha noted that such cases are difficult to prove and take a long time to build.
However, nobody is safe from prosecution. “In Rhode Island, nobody gets a pass if we can prove it,” he said.
As an example, Neronha pointed to the 38 Studios fiasco where the state provided a $75 million loan guarantee to a start-up video game company led by former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. The firm defaulted on the loan, leaving the state holding the bag. Neronha said that while there were some bad decisions made, none of them were considered fraud by federal law. He said that a person in his position could not be swayed by public opinion because of the adverse effect that prosecution has on people’s lives, whether they are convicted or not.
“If you let the mob mentality dictate your policy,” he said, “you’re probably the wrong man for the job.”