With Massachusetts set to see its first Republican federal prosecutor in eight years, courthouse observers are wondering who that person will be — and how that person will be selected in a Donald Trump administration.
As US attorney, Trump’s pick will have vast powers to set the federal law enforcement agenda for the region.
The US attorney works with the heads of the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, among other agencies, to prosecute crimes ranging from sex trafficking to public corruption, and the US attorney would set law enforcement priorities from Boston to Springfield.
By tradition, a sitting president or president-elect relies on a state’s most senior elected official from his party to make recommendations.
But Massachusetts’ top Republican elected official is Governor Charlie Baker, who refused to support Trump in the November election and did not vote for him. That makes it uncertain whether Trump would now rely on Baker’s advice in picking Massachusetts’ next top prosecutor.
Tim Buckley, a spokesman for Baker, said it is early in the process and that he would not speculate on what Baker’s involvement might be.
Political observers say the president-elect and his new attorney general — he has nominated Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama — could bypass Baker and rely on the advice of his ardent local supporters and Republicans who previously served as US attorneys in Massachusetts.
“Donald Trump ran a campaign where he promised it would not be the establishment running the presidency, and it would be more of a unique presidency, and that’s what I think will take place here,” said state Representative Geoff Diehl, a Republican from Whitman who cochaired Trump’s campaign in Massachusetts.
Incumbent US attorneys typically resign before their replacement is appointed, particularly when the new administration represents a different party.
US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, a Democrat who was recommended by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, has not indicated when she will resign. Trump will have the ability to name other administration representatives in Massachusetts as well, such as a new US marshal.
The new local US attorney would probably follow the agenda Trump sets at the national level. The president-elect has already said he will prioritize enforcing immigration laws and would target Muslim communities.
He has also said his administration would focus on street-level crimes such as drug dealing, and would crack down on white-collar crimes. Trump’s US attorney would have to balance that agenda with the needs of the local community.
Diehl said he could not say how the process to replace Ortiz would be carried out, or who might be interested.
He said Trump and Sessions — if he is confirmed as attorney general — would probably seek the support of Michael Sullivan, who ran the US attorney’s office during George W. Bush’s administration, and Frank L. McNamara Jr., who was appointed by Ronald Reagan and served for two years in the late 1980s.
“They’re people who could provide good insight into who would be appropriate to work in the Trump administration,” Diehl said. “Both those men have the experience and would be a good sounding board.”
McNamara also knows Sessions, who was US attorney in Alabama at the same time McNamara served in Massachusetts. And, McNamara has close ties with the Trump team; he worked for the campaign in New York on Election Day.
Sullivan said he could not speculate on the process. McNamara said he expects the process would be led by Sessions, who will solicit the input of supporters who are also familiar with the local legal landscape.
McNamara said Trump “prefers decisions made by people who are closer to the situation, rather than farther from the situation,” he said.
Courthouse observers have already identified several conservative lawyers who may be contenders for the position. They include:
■ Michael K. Loucks, an attorney with Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP, who was acting US attorney in Boston and first assistant US attorney to Sullivan a decade ago. He left the office in July 2010.
■ Roberto M. Braceras, an attorney at Goodwin Procter in Boston, and a former federal prosecutor. He was considered for the office when Sullivan was tapped to lead the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
■ Brian Kelly, an attorney with Nixon Peabody and the former head of the public corruption unit in the US attorney’s office in Boston. Kelly was on the legal team that prosecuted notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.
■ George W. Vien, an attorney with Donnelly, Conroy & Gelhaar, LLP, and a former federal prosecutor. Vien was part of the legal team that secured a death sentence in 2003 for admitted serial killer Gary Lee Sampson.
■ Zachary Hafer, a federal prosecutor in Boston, who was part of the team that prosecuted Bulger. Hafer is also seeking a new death sentence for Sampson, whose initial sentence was overturned on appeal.
■ Andrew Lelling, a federal prosecutor in Boston who specializes in financial crimes. He was part of the team that prosecuted the $1 billion TelexFree pyramid scheme.
The attorneys who were named as possible considerations were contacted for this article, but did not want to comment beyond saying they were honored by the speculation.
McNamara said the process could be lengthy. Trump, after he is inaugurated in January, will seek the official confirmation of Sessions as attorney general.
Sessions, if confirmed, will then appoint his own staff, including assistants in charge of the criminal and civil divisions of the Department of Justice, and then the US attorneys for each district.
Then, McNamara added, the final pick would have to go through his or her vetting process.
McNamara also pointed out that it is not unprecedented for a sitting president to seek the advice of someone who is not a top elected official in a respective district.
McNamara was appointed US attorney at a time when all the state’s top elected officials, including Governor Michael Dukakis, were Democrats, and he said he was recommended by local Republicans who had national ties.
However, they still knew the local legal landscape, he said.
“[Trump] is going to let Jeff Sessions make those calls, and Jeff Sessions is going to rely on people who know the process and know the local scene,” he said.