US

In New Special Counsel, a Prosecutor Schooled in Corruption Cases

When Jack Smith was appointed to lead the Justice Department’s public integrity unit in 2010, he recommended closing a series of high-profile investigations into members of Congress without charges — attracting criticism that the division had lost its nerve. He rejected that idea.

“I understand why the question is asked,” Mr. Smith said at the time. “But if I were the sort of person who could be cowed — ‘I know we should bring this case, I know the person did it, but we could lose, and that will look bad’ — I would find another line of work.”

On Friday, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland appointed Mr. Smith to a role that is almost certain to test his fortitude like few others: As special counsel, he will oversee a pair of criminal investigations involving former President Donald J. Trump, thrusting him into a political firestorm that will doubtlessly accompany the job.

Mr. Smith appears as prepared for the task as anyone could be, those who know him say: He has been prosecuting criminal cases, including politically charged corruption investigations involving public officials, for nearly 30 years.

At the start of his career, Mr. Smith was a Justice Department lawyer out of central casting, a clean-cut prosecutor from upstate New York who played well in front of juries. Now in his mid-50s — and with the grizzled mien to prove it — he will bring both the experience and patient demeanor required to deal not only with the legal challenges of scrutinizing Mr. Trump but also with the fierce partisan rancor that is sure to follow.

“Jack has a way about him of projecting calm,” said Kelly Currie, who worked with Mr. Smith in the Brooklyn federal prosecutor’s office. “People look to him for steady guidance.”

Raised in suburban Syracuse, Mr. Smith was a high-school football and baseball player who finished his undergraduate degree at the State University of New York at Oneonta before making his way to Harvard Law School, where he graduated with honors in 1994. Instead of pursuing a career in big law, he opted to work as a prosecutor — first for the Manhattan district attorney’s office and then for the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn. There, he served in a number of supervisory positions and worked on an assortment of cases.

Among the most prominent was one of a series of prosecutions of a group of New York City police officers involved in an attack on a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima in 1997. Several of the officers were ultimately convicted on federal civil rights charges and the main assailant, Justin Volpe, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Colleen Kavanagh, who worked with Mr. Smith in Brooklyn, described him as a “quintessential public servant” who was preternaturally driven to pursue big cases, the kind of man who did only two things outside of spending time with his wife, a documentary filmmaker, and their daughter: work and work out.

“There’s no mystery here,” Ms. Kavanagh said. “He’s a hardworking, smart person who knows how to move cases. That’s who he is: He comes in and gets things done.”

Ms. Kavanagh was Mr. Smith’s partner in a 2007 murder case in which a Staten Island man, Ronell Wilson, was sentenced to death for killing two New York police detectives with shots to the backs of their heads during an undercover sting operation.

Three years later, however, a federal appeals court overturned the death sentence, ruling that the prosecution had violated Mr. Wilson’s rights by telling the jury in his case that his decision not to speak on his own behalf during the penalty phase of his trial suggested that he had not shown remorse about the murders.

From 2008 to 2010, Mr. Smith worked in the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. As the investigation coordinator, he oversaw cases against foreign government officials and militia members accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

In 2010, Lanny Breuer, then the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s criminal division, recruited Mr. Smith to return to the United States to run the public integrity section, which investigates politicians and other public figures on corruption allegations.

Shortly after taking the position, Mr. Smith told The Associated Press that he saw his role as one that served people like those he grew up among in central New York.

“They pay their taxes, follow the rules and they expect their public officials to do the same,” he said.

At the time, the section was reeling from the embarrassing collapse of a criminal case against former Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, because prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence favorable to the defense. Mr. Breuer had reassigned Mr. Smith’s predecessor after the judge overseeing the Stevens case ordered an investigation into its handling.

“It was important to me we had integrity in our cases and that we were perceived as not being scared to bring tough cases,” Mr. Breuer recalled, adding: “Jack is not political at all. He is straight down the middle.” The Justice Department has described Mr. Smith as a registered political independent.

Soon after arriving at the public integrity section, he recommended that Mr. Breuer close several investigations into congressional lawmakers without lodging charges — including into Senator John Ensign of Nevada and Representatives Tom DeLay of Texas, Jerry Lewis of California, Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia and Don Young of Alaska.

Jack Smith, who supervised the Justice Department’s public integrity unit, in Washington in 2014.Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Mr. Smith said at the time that one of his first steps had been to review every open case and push for a conclusion, saying it was not fair to let inquiries linger. Mr. Breuer said then that he had wanted the new chief to help him “make the tough decision and move on” if cases were too old and the facts were not sufficient to bring charges.

As the unit under Mr. Smith went on to develop new cases, they drew mixed results.

In 2012, a jury in Alabama acquitted a slate of defendants charged in connection with what was said to be a bribery and corruption scheme involving an effort to legalize some forms of gambling there.

And later that year, the section lost a campaign finance case against John Edwards, the former Democratic senator of North Carolina and 2004 nominee for vice president. A jury acquitted Mr. Edwards on one charge and failed to reach a verdict on five others.

At the time, Melanie Sloan, then the director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that the Justice Department deserved “to get slammed” for undertaking a risky prosecution against Mr. Edwards that relied upon a novel interpretation of campaign finance laws, even as it shied away from more traditional corruption cases.

“The cases that they are deciding to prosecute, and not prosecute, reflect an incoherent strategy,” she said. “At some points, they are willing to be incredibly aggressive, like with John Edwards, and on the other hand they are overly cautious in refusing to prosecute people like John Ensign and Don Young.”

But in an interview with The New York Times in 2012, Mr. Smith noted that only a few of the unit’s recent cases had attracted national attention. He said those did not fully reflect how the unit was faring under what he portrayed as a renewed emphasis on litigating cases under his direction.

“We’re trying more cases than ever before in the section, and winning more than ever,” Mr. Smith said. “Overall, we are effectively litigating cases and going to court more, which is what people expect our section to do. We are doing cases all around the country.”

The public integrity section prevailed in other high-profile investigations. In 2013, it won a conviction of former Representative Rick Renzi, Republican of Arizona, who spent about two years in prison. The case, whose origins predated Mr. Smith’s arrival, centered on extortion, bribery and an illegal federal land swap. (Mr. Trump would later pardon Mr. Renzi among a flurry of clemency actions in January 2021, in his last hours as president.)

Mr. Smith also helped oversee the prosecution of Jeffrey A. Sterling, a former C.I.A. officer who was convicted of mishandling national security secrets and obstruction of justice. He was accused of leaking information about a purportedly botched secret operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program to a Times reporter.

Mr. Sterling was convicted in 2015 under the Espionage Act and an obstruction statute. Notably, both of those are potential charges at the center of the investigation of Mr. Trump’s handling of government documents.

The case involving Mr. Sterling, which the public integrity section shared with the office of the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, was marked by an aggressive approach to press rights. Prosecutors obtained a subpoena to force the reporter, James Risen, to testify about his sourcing, and went to an appeals court to uphold its legitimacy. (Ultimately, they did not force Mr. Risen to testify about his interactions with Mr. Sterling.)

That same year, prosecutors supervised by Mr. Smith won a corruption conviction against former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, a Republican. Along with his wife, he was found guilty of trading favors in return for $177,000 in loans, vacations and gifts from a wealthy family friend who was trying to promote his vitamin supplement business.

But the next year, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned Mr. McDonnell’s conviction in a ruling that narrowed the scope of what favors can justify corruption charges and led to convictions being overturned in several other cases.

The fact the court effectively used the case to change the law, one former colleague noted, complicates any perception that the case’s collapse reflected negatively on Mr. Smith’s approach.

Mr. Smith left the public integrity section in 2015, moving to Nashville where he held top positions at the U.S. attorney’s office for the Middle District of Tennessee. Three years later, he returned to The Hague, becoming the top prosecutor for a special court investigating war crimes committed between 1998 and 2000 during the war in Kosovo.

It is a successor to an earlier international tribunal that prosecuted war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

Colleagues there describe Mr. Smith as well-liked, with a reputation as meticulous and modest.

“You want an idealist and a brilliant independent thinker and a gutsy lawyer, then you got him,” said Alan Tieger, a senior American prosecutor at the Kosovo tribunal.

A triathlon enthusiast, Mr. Smith routinely bikes to the office, eschewing a driver or bodyguards, as is typical of some other senior officials at international courts in The Hague, according to people who know him.

But Mr. Smith recently fractured his leg after a scooter ran into him while he was cycling. Until he recovers, he will run the Trump investigations from the Netherlands, according to the Justice Department.

Mr. Breuer, recalling his experience in bringing Mr. Smith back from Europe 12 years ago, echoed Mr. Garland in describing him as the right person for the job.

“I needed someone who would bring in new blood to that section,” Mr. Breuer said. “And all roads led to Jack. He was practical, an excellent lawyer and leader, and he really moves cases along.” He added, “I’ve got to assume that some of those criteria were why they made the decision they made today.”

Marlise Simons contributed reporting from Paris.

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