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Black prosecutor confirmed in first for powerful New York district

Damian Williams, a Brooklyn-born securities fraud prosecutor who once clerked for Attorney General Merrick Garland, will be the first Black attorney to head one of the country’s most powerful and independent investigative offices.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Top lawyers around the country are offering accolades in response to the Senate's confirmation Tuesday of Damian Williams to lead the powerful Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office famously dubbed the “Sovereign District of New York.”

As the next head of the of the Southern District of New York, the 40-year old Williams, who specializes in white collar and securities fraud cases, will oversee the office’s high-profile criminal trials against Ghislaine Maxwell in November and Giuliani-linked businessman Lev Parnas in October, along with the office’s ongoing investigation into former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, himself a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1983 to 1989.

Born in Brooklyn to Jamaican parents, Williams is also first top prosecutor at the office who is Black.

Karin Portlock, who was an assistant U.S. attorney at the Southern District of New York from 2015 to 2020, told Courthouse News on Wednesday that the distinction "is long overdue.”

“Damian’s confirmation is a crucial step in advancing Black representation at the highest ranks of the justice system,” said Portlock, a Gibson Dunn Crutcher attorney who previously prosecuted fraud, racketeering and violent crimes in Manhattan federal court. “He’s an exceptional lawyer, and I couldn’t be more excited for this new era under his leadership,” she added.

President Joe Biden tapped Williams is currently co-chief of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York's Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force.

Williams previously clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and for Attorney General Merrick B. Garland when the fellow Biden appointee was on the D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

As U.S. attorney, Williams succeeds Audrey Strauss, who has led the office in an acting capacity since the abrupt resignation last year of Geoffrey Berman in the roiling final months of the Trump administration.

Strauss celebrated Williams’ confirmation Tuesday evening, calling him "a rare talent and very much one of our own."

“He will carry our values and traditions forward while leading the office to new heights,” Strauss said in a statement.

Amid prominent investigations and prosecutions of many in former President Donald Trump's inner circle, the Southern District saw four different top prosecutors in the four years of Trump's term. Berman, a Republican and onetime Trump donor, came to lead the office after Trump's angry firing of the Obama-appointed crusading attorney Preet Bharara shortly after his inauguration. In the 10 months it took the nascent administration to settle on Berman, Bharara's deputy Joon Kim served as acting U.S. attorney.

Berman soon fell into the administration's disfavor as well, however, as he consistently proved his independence from the White House with such decisions as his recusal from the prosecution of Trump’s ex-fixer Michael Cohen.

Williams would be no stranger to those cases given his nearly decade-long career in the office. In a wide array of significant securities fraud and public corruption offenses, Williams has tried more than a dozen cases to verdict — among them the conviction of former Democratic Speaker of the New York State Assembly Sheldon Silver on corruption charges for bribery and extortion.

"Having worked alongside Damian at SDNY and seen firsthand his judgment, leadership, and brilliance, I’m thrilled for the prosecutors he will lead and the public he will serve as U.S. attorney," Amanda Kramer, who spent more than 11 years as assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York with stings as a senior member of the Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force and earlier as coordinator of the Human Trafficking and Project Safe Childhood.

Williams graduated in 2002 from Harvard University, where he majored in economics and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and later earned a master's degree in international relations at Cambridge University. At Yale Law School, Williams was an editor of The Yale Law Journal. He has served on the Board of Directors of Human Rights First, the Council on African American Affairs, and Boys Speak Out.

Representative Mondaire Jones, the Black congressman for New York’s 17th congressional district, which includes Rockland County and parts of northern Westchester, praised Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s “tremendous recommendation” of Williams for the post. “We in the Southern District of New York are in good hands with my friend Damian Williams as our U.S. Attorney,” the 34-year old congressman tweeted Tuesday evening.

A week before the recommendation of Williams, the Senate confirmed two additional Black prosecutors: Breon Peace as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and Trini Ross, a former Justice Department official, to be the first Black U.S. attorney in the state's Western District. The latter office is headquartered in Buffalo, while the Eastern District has offices in Brooklyn and Long Island.

Among high-profile defendants recently prosecuted there are notorious drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, NXIVM cult leader Keith Raniere and singer R. Kelly, whom a jury convicted last month of racketeering and sex trafficking after decades of avoiding criminal responsibility for predatory behavior toward young people, mostly women, and girls.

Peace, a partner at the law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, served in the Eastern District office from 2000 to 2002 under former Attorney General Loretta Lynch when she was then-U.S. attorney for the district.

The Senate Judiciary Committee signed off on the nominations of Williams and Peace without issue but it deadlocked in an 11-11 split along party lines on Rachael Rollins, the Boston-based progressive district attorney tapped by Biden to be Massachusetts’ top federal prosecutor.

Trump loyalist Republican senators, including Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz, grandstanded the committee hearing to recite Heritage Foundation talking points attacking Rollins as “the very epitome of a Soros prosecutor” who is trying to "destroy the criminal justice system from within.”

Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey defended Rollins’ credentials and accused the Republican committee members of mistreating Rollins with exaggerated claims, directing them to the dozens of letters of support for her, including endorsements from Massachusetts Republicans and law enforcement leaders. "That sounds like rhetoric that doesn't meet reality,” Booker said.

The National Bar Association, the nation's oldest and largest national network of predominantly African American attorneys, applauded what it called the "groundbreaking appointment" of Williams and pledged "to support him in his role to carry out justice."

"The NBA has a vested interest in ensuring this nation’s laws are enforced with the fair treatment of Black people in mind, and carried out justly," the association's president Carlos Moore wrote in a statement Wednesday. "The appointment of Damian Williams as the next U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York is another pivotal step to ensure that happens."

Moore pointed to the Southern District of New York as "one of the most powerful in the nation."

"Having a capable, diligent, and thoughtful attorney like Mr. Williams at the helm should be reassuring to Black people who often feel taken advantage of by our justice system," Moore added.

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