Tale of how a political plum went to an apolitical prosecutor

File photo

The federal courthouse in New Haven.

The path to becoming a U.S. attorney or federal judge is found on no map. It is defined in no political text. It is determined by custom, political and professional networks, and, ultimately, a measure of luck. Such is the story of John H. Durham’s selection Wednesday by President Trump as the next U.S. attorney for Connecticut.

Durham, 67, is an apolitical career prosecutor nearing the end of a long and storied career, a man entrusted by the U.S. Department of Justice under Democratic and Republican administrations to conduct special investigations — sensitive matters involving rogue FBI agents and allegations of misdeeds by the CIA.

His professional qualifications are unquestioned. But then so were many of the previous career federal prosecutors from Connecticut who sought or were considered for the job, either to be undone by an ad hoc selection committee, the whims of a senator, priorities of a White House or the better connections of a rival.

Durham will be the first presidentially appointed U.S. attorney for Connecticut coming from the ranks of past or present prosecutors in the office. Presidents have named other career prosecutors to the post, but they have come from the Southern District of New York, the legal profession’s Broadway.

“I think the stars kind of aligned here,” said one of the lawyers informally involved in Durham’s selection.

Trump is an unconventional president who arrived in the White House without much of a political infrastructure behind him, and certainly not in Connecticut. The establishment backed him once he became the GOP nominee, but there is no long list here of Republican lawyers to whom Trump owes his presidency. Nor are there Republican senators, congressmen or statewide officials in a position to push a favorite candidate.

“Nobody here was calling the shots,” said Stanley A. Twardy Jr., a former U.S. attorney whose political benefactor was Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., then a Republican. “You don’t have an establishment network in place with the Trump folks, I think.”

Instead, there was an informal network that leaned to the professional, not the political. It helped that two former U.S. attorneys are running the Department of Justice.

Sources say Kevin O’Connor, a former U.S. attorney in Connecticut who ended up as a high-ranking official in the Department of Justice during the administration of George W. Bush, played a role in both recruiting and promoting Durham.

Durham was a trusted adviser to O’Connor during his tenure as U.S. attorney, as he was to Christopher F. Droney, a Democrat.

Notwithstanding the president’s outbursts at Attorney General Jeff Sessions over failing to stop a special prosecutor’s investigation, lawyers say they believe Trump generally has deferred to the direction set by Sessions on the selection of top federal prosecutors.

And Sessions, lawyers say, has made clear his preference for former assistant U.S. attorneys to oversee federal prosecutions in the states. Like Sessions, his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, is a former U.S. attorney. One of the officials to sign off on Durham, sources say, was Rosenstein.

“In this administration, there are more and more instances of experienced career prosecutors or folks who have been prosecutors appointed to the top job,” said James Glasser, who oversaw the criminal division of the U.S. attorney’s office in New Haven before going into private practice as a partner at Wiggin & Dana. “That is very refreshing to me.”

Durham was one of seven choices announced Wednesday by the White House as selections for U.S. attorneys around the country. All are former prosecutors, and four have experience as assistant U.S. attorneys.

An appointment as U.S. attorney can be a stepping stone to careers in politics or the law, but Durham has shown little interest in any job but that of a prosecutor. He was a state prosecutor in New Haven before joining a federal organized-crime task force.

He generally has a stolid manner, a habit of showing displeasure with a look, a stare that can rest uncomfortably where it falls. There are exceptions. He was unusually animated the day that the devoutly Catholic prosecutor cross-examined a Roman Catholic priest who had asked a judge to be lenient in sentencing a Ku Klux Klan leader on weapons charges.

The priest insisted under oath that the Klan leader had reformed, an impression formed during a recent jailhouse visit. Durham pounced, thrusting at the priest a drawing and a note from the KKK leader that prison officials had intercepted in the outgoing mail around the time of the visit.

It said, “white power,” and, “kill all the n— for Santa Claus.”

The defendant was sentenced at the top end of the guidelines range.

Hugh Keefe, a prominent defense attorney, praised Durham as a tough prosecutor with common sense and compassion. Keefe said he’s always liked the fact that Durham, a graduate of Colgate and the University of Connecticut School of Law, came to the U.S. attorney’s office after prosecuting street crimes in New Haven Superior Court.

“He knows when guys are mopes,” Keefe said.

“I think a lot of us take a lot of comfort in the fact he’s experienced,” Glasser said. “He’s seen it all, that under the appropriate circumstances he would be open to listening to both sides of every story and making an appropriate prosecutorial decision.”

“He’s the combination of qualities everybody wants to a prosecutor,” said Len Boyle, the deputy chief state’s attorney and a former federal prosecutor  who worked closely with Durham. “He’s smart, he’s tenacious and his integrity is beyond question. Beyond those other qualities, his judgment is impeccable. That is something defense lawyers appreciate a great deal.”

The Trump nominee will go through the nomination process with the support of Connecticut’s two U.S. senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, even though both are Democrats who have personally clashed with the president on his favorite field of combat: Twitter.

An ad-hoc screening committee that advises the senators on appointments screened 10 potential nominees and recommended Durham, Blumenthal said. The two senators made the same recommendation to the White House, an endorsement that may or may not have helped, though by Senate rules they have the ability to block home-state confirmation hearings.

“John Durham is about as non-political, professional, clean, experienced and expert as anyone could find for that job,” said Blumenthal, who began his public career as the U.S. attorney of Connecticut. “So, the White House would have a hard time arguing with us on this.”

In fact, Durham is so divorced from politics that a long-time acquaintance involved in the informal screening process had to ask Durham if he was a Republican. It turns out he is.

Comments

comments