As always, there is an overabundance of news this week. But as I sit here at my laptop to write my weekly note to you, my mind is on something that happened ten years ago today. On August 13, 2009, I was sworn in as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. It was surreal then, and still shocks and humbles me now.
It took some time for it to sink in. I had been confirmed with no opposition, but to me and my family, the vote was a nail-biter. On August 7, 2009, just six days prior to my first day on the job, I was sitting in my soon-to-be-former-boss Senator Chuck Schumer’s office in Room 313 of the Hart Senate Office Building. My eyes were on the Senate floor where then-Majority Leader Harry Reid was calling out various lists of nominations, not by name, but by number. Mine was 219. I waited with bated breath for what felt like three or four millennia, then in a flash: “219,” no objections raised, Reid asks that “thePresident be immediately notified of the Senate’s action,” and just like that, I’m the 76th Senate confirmed United States Attorney in the storied history of theSouthern District of New York.
Feeling a bit overwhelmed, I step into Senator Schumer’s empty personal office to call my family in New Jersey where they were watching the proceedings on C-SPAN 2. I get my dad on the line.
“Did you watch?” I ask.
I think I say something like, “It’s pretty great, huh?”
Dad says, abruptly, “Can I call you back in five minutes?” and hangs up.
I’m a touch annoyed, thinking, “I just got confirmed as SDNY’s first Indian-American U.S. Attorney, appointed by the first African-American President in the country, and my dad has some more pressing business and needs to call me back?”
I sank into one of the leather wing chairs in Schumer’s office, waiting for my phone to ring.
During those few minutes, my thoughts go to the weighty task at hand. “What have I gotten myself into? How am I going to handle this job? Am I going to live up to the expectations of this office? Am I going to do right by the mission of aplace looked to by so many people and be a leader in delivering justice to so many people?”
Finally, my phone rings. It’s Dad.
With sincere indignation, I say, “What the hell, Dad? What was so important?”
“Son,” he responds softly. “I wasn’t able to speak. I had to compose myself before I could call you back.” Then he went quiet again and handed the phone to my mom.
A decade has not dimmed my memory of how grateful and apprehensive I felt about the duty and the mission ahead of me. I was sworn in by Judge Richard Sullivan in courtroom 309. It was a tiny ceremony. By then my wife and kids had gone to Chicago for their annual trip to see her parents and the only family present was my brother (and now boss), Vinit.
Judge Sullivan held a copy of the oath in his hand and, with an American flag nearby, I raised my right hand. I was now the chief federal law enforcement officer in the financial capital of the world. I walked back from the courthouse to One St. Andrew’s Plaza, took the elevator up with my new deputy Boyd Johnson and walked into my new, very spacious office. The last time I was in that office was when I told U.S. Attorney Dave Kelley four-and-a-half years earlier that I was leaving to go work in the Senate. Closing the door behind me, Boyd and I looked out through the long wall of windows that overlooked the exit ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge and I turned to Boyd and said, “What the hell do we do now?”
As I write in my book “Doing Justice,” I returned to SDNY as U.S. Attorney after a four-and-a-half-year absence. Much was familiar. I knew the culture of theplace and its traditions. I knew most of the people – all the supervisors and judges; I knew the basics of how to investigate and try a case. At the same time, everything was different. I was now the leader of a storied institution where only recently I had been a line assistant.
I’ll admit something: I felt nervous and afraid and unworthy. I was terrified that I might not live up to the tradition of that place; that I might not ultimately measure up to the job; that I would be a disappointment to the people who had supported me.
There’s a hundred years of U.S. Attorney portraits up on the eighth-floor wall, and they all looked at me every morning when I walked past them to my office. And you know what I thought they were saying to me? “Don’t screw it up, kid.”
I’d like to think that I did not let them down. When I spoke to the office on my first day on the job, I highlighted the qualities that make it shine; the qualities that distinguish great organizations from merely good ones. I told the troops not just about the opportunity to do good, but also about the special camaraderie at SDNY:
“You’ll never laugh more at a job than you do here.”
“You’ll never be able to count on your co-workers more than you do here.”
“You’ll never generate as many good stories as you do here.”
“In this place, we root for each other; we go to bat for each other; and we support each other. And that is something special. I just spent four years in Washington. Trust me, not every place is like this.”
It remains true that I’ve never laughed harder than I did at SDNY, never relied on and rooted for my team more than I did there, and the stories from the close to eight years I spent leading that office I’ll be sharing with you in these pages and on Stay Tuned and CAFE Insider podcasts. It goes without saying, I miss the place, and I’m a bit nostalgic on this special anniversary.
Thank you for indulging my reminiscences.
STAY TUNED LIVE TOUR
Stay Tuned is going back on the road this fall, and we’re headed to three new cities: Denver, Detroit, and Atlanta.
Joining Preet on stage are trailblazers whose work has given meaning to thewords “doing justice.” We hope to see you there!
The apparent suicide of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein has revealed grave inefficiencies and lack of preparedness at the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC), the federal jail where he was detained.
On Monday, Attorney General Bill Barr announced that investigators have already uncovered “serious irregularities” at MCC, which is functioning with less than 70% of the needed correctional officers, forcing many to work mandatory overtime and sixty-to-seventy-hour workweeks. On Tuesday evening, the New York Times reported that two guards assigned to Epstein’s cell “fell asleep and failed to check on him for about three hours, then falsified records to cover up their mistake.” The role this played in Epstein’s death will most certainly be a key aspect of the FBI and Inspector General investigations.
Epstein’s suicide has also put into the spotlight the increasingly prevalent, yet often overlooked, issue of suicide in correctional facilities.
According to Justice Department data, suicide has been the leading cause of death in jails every year since 2000. It is far more common in jails than in prisons, where individuals are sent after they are convicted and sentenced. Data shows that suicide is more likely in pre-trial detention and after an average of first nine days of confinement.
Taking care of the mental health needs of the incarcerated is a complex challenge and jails and prisons are notoriously understaffed and lack adequate resources, intake methods, and staff trained to identify and treat psychiatric illnesses. The Marshall Project’s analysis of federal data shows that inmates are increasingly turning to self-harm and that untreated mental illness is contributing to violence in prisons.
Should jails and prisons be re-envisioned as psychiatric care institutions in addition to their correctional function? Let us know what you think by replying to this email or writing to us at [email protected].
THIS WEEK ON STAY TUNED
Michael Waldman is this week’s guest on Stay Tuned. He is the President of theBrennan Center for Justice, author of “The Fight to Vote” and “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” and former Director of Speechwriting and Special Assistant for Policy Coordination for President Bill Clinton. In this sneak peek at the interview, Waldman takes the temperature on the current momentum for gun reform after a spate of mass shootings:
I think that the politics of [gun control] is shifting a lot…In El Paso, you had not just amass shooting with the same weapon of war that is used in so many of these other ones, but very clearly a political terror attack linked to anti-immigrant sentiment, linked to white supremacy, and linked to a lot of the rhetoric from the President. That has really cracked through a lot of the logjam here, and I would bet that there would be some action
Don’t forget to listen to this week’s episode. It drops this Thursday, August 15th.
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THE DEATH OF JEFFREY EPSTEIN
If you haven’t already, listen to the latest episode of the CAFE Insider podcast: “The Death of Jeffrey Epstein.”
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That’s it for this week. We hope you’re enjoying CAFE Insider. Reply to this email or write to us at [email protected] with your thoughts, suggestions, and questions.
— The CAFE Team
Tamara Sepper, Carla Pierini, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, Vinay Basti, and Aaron Dalton