Judge John Leonardo

Last week, Arizona got a new top prosecutor.

John Leonardo, former Superior Court Judge for Pima County, was confirmed on Friday as the United States Attorney for the District of Arizona.

Judge Leonardo had been nominated by President Barack Obama in March. The position had been open since then-U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke resigned on August 30, 2011, in the wake of the Fast & Furious gun-walking scandal. (I wrote about his resignation here.)

Some news stories on the new appointment pointed out that Judge Leonardo had dismissed an indictment brought against Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, finding it was retaliatory. Does that dismissal indicate how the new prosecutor may approach probes of the Maricopa County Sheriff? At least one news outlet suggests it does.

The Daily Star also reported on the appointment:

“U.S. Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain issued a joint statement announcing the confirmation, saying, ‘We are pleased that the Senate confirmed Judge John Leonardo to serve as U.S. Attorney.’

‘Judge Leonardo’s decade of experience on the bench and previous work in the U.S. Attorney’s Office will be strong assets as he continues his public service in this new, challenging role.’

Leonardo said in an email that the president still needs to sign his commission before he can be sworn in, which should occur next week.

‘I am very pleased and honored by the Senate confirmation … and I am looking forward to serving the people of Arizona in this new capacity.’”

So my question is: Should we at Arizona Attorney interview the newest United States Attorney for a Q&A?

We have published Q&As with a few of the recent top prosecutors—Paul Charlton and Dennis Burke.

If you do think we should interview Judge Leonardo, what questions would you like to see him answer? Post your questions in the comments below, or write to me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org.

Dennis Burke, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona

According to an announcement this morning from the office of the United States Attorney for the District of Arizona, U. S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke has resigned.

Ann Scheel will serve as Acting United States Attorney.

We covered U.S. Attorney Burke and his goals for the office back in January 2010. (He also is a former member of the Arizona Attorney Magazine Editorial Board.)

The Arizona Republic reported on the resignation, noting that it follows on the heels of the recent “Fast & Furious” gun scandal, which has engulfed the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives. Just today, other outlets reported that ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson had stepped down. The Washington Post reports he has been reassigned.

Republic columnist Laurie Roberts had one of the most intriguing—and quickest—commentaries on what she estimates occurred. (Though Arizona lawyer Faith Klepper has reminded me that lawyer Greg Patterson–who blogs as Espresso Pundit–predicted this back in June.)

Here is Dennis Burke’s resignation letter to President Obama (click to make it larger):

The full release is below. We’ll have more news on this as it become available.

Dennis K. Burke Resigns as U.S. Attorney for District of Arizona 

PHOENIX – Dennis Burke, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, has delivered his letter of resignation to President Obama.

In an email to staff, Burke said:

“The work in every corner of this office – your work – has been significant and impressive.  When I first came to this office a decade ago as a line AUSA (Assistant United States Attorney), I knew this was an excellent office and did important work.”

Burke added, “My long tenure in public service has been intensely gratifying.  It has also been intensely demanding.  For me, it is the right time to move on to pursue other aspects of my career and my life and allow the office to move ahead.

Burke was appointed U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona in 2009.  His resignation is effective immediately.

Ann Scheel will serve as Acting United States Attorney, under the Vacancies Reform Act and by virtue of her position as First Assistant.  Burke added, “I thank Ann for agreeing to assume these responsibilities until the Attorney General or the President makes an interim or permanent appointment.”

RELEASE NUMBER: 2011-194(Burke)

Note: This post was updated on April 17, 2021, to point readers to this helpful article about whatever became of MainJustice.com.

We just got news of some praiseworthy work Arizona lawyers have done. And given the fields they toil in, let’s hope it’s a precursor to more positive change.

Dennis Burke, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona

The news came out of the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona. There, eight employees were honored with national awards, given last Wednesday.

As the press release begins, “Eight employees from the Office of the United States Attorney, District of Arizona, have been selected as recipients of the 2010 Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) Director’s Awards. These eight employees represent the highest number of awardees in one year for the District of Arizona.  The awards reflect the top priorities in the District for border security, drug trafficking on Indian County and mortgage fraud.”

Honored were Assistant U.S. Attorneys Shelley Clemens, Marnie Hodahkwen, Joe Lodge, Nicole Savel, Sharon Sexton, John Tuchi, Kevin Rapp and Brian Larson.

U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke is rightly proud of his staffers’ accomplishments. These honors are coveted, and it’s great to have Arizona lawyering recognized on a national stage.

You can read the complete release below. (Editor’s note, April 17, 2021: When this news was first posted, I also pointed you to the site MainJustice.com for the complete list of honorees. But since then, that helpful page went away. For insight into what happened to it, read this article.)

It is especially noteworthy that the majority of attorneys receiving accolades are being honored for “Superior Performance in Indian Country.”

The high crime rate and lack of prosecution on Indian reservations has been a serious problem for quite awhile. In fact, few could argue with the fact that the persistence of the problem is a national embarrassment.

Just this past September, an Arizona Republic news story by Dennis Wagner examined the intractable problem of high crime and “declinations” to prosecute—usually due to a lack of evidence, which relates to “convoluted jurisdictional boundaries, insufficient funds for training, and distrust and limited communication between federal and tribal investigators.” Add to that abysmally low police staffing, and you have a problem that many would prefer to keep from the public’s eye.

Today’s newspaper provided another glimpse into the ongoing problem. It reported that half of all crimes committed on Indian land go unprosecuted.


In places where crime is more than twice the national average. Where more than one in three Native American women are raped sometime during their lives.

It boggles the mind. Can we imagine any other place in the 50 states where such a chronic situation would be allowed to exist for generations?

The story today reports that Arizona and South Dakota account for about half the cases that all federal prosecutors receive annually.

“What’s most disconcerting about these [declination] numbers is that they probably don’t even tell the full story,” said Katy Jackman, staff attorney at the National Congress of American Indians. “What they do confirm is, as we’ve known for some time, that declination rates in Indian country are a major problem.”

Some optimistic news comes out of these numbers, however. Data show that federal prosecutors in Arizona declined “only” 38 percent of the Indian land cases sent to them, whereas prosecutors in South Dakota declined to prosecute 61 percent. (It does not report whether our state is on an upward or a downward trend.)

Congratulations to the prosecutors who have worked hard to develop strategies that make our state safer. The attention that U.S. Attorney Burke and his prosecutors have given to reservation crime is a welcome sign that they are committed to addressing an epidemic that has too much become an accepted commonplace.

We’re looking forward to more positive stories about significant advances in safety and justice, especially on Indian reservations. For as all great prosecutors know, the legacy of their work’s effectiveness is cast most indelibly not in places where TV cameras reach easily. It is sealed in the trust of the most vulnerable—who until now have learned that they are largely on their own when it comes to justice.

Here is the press release.

Eight Members of Arizona’s U.S. Attorney’s Office Honored

Employees to receive prestigious Director’s Awards; reflect top priorities of District

PHOENIX—Eight employees from the Office of the United States Attorney, District of Arizona, have been selected as recipients of the 2010 Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) Director’s Awards.

These eight employees represent the highest number of awardees in one year for the District of Arizona.  The awards reflect the top priorities in the District for border security, drug trafficking on Indian County and mortgage fraud.

“Over the past 14 months, the District has focused on expanding security beyond our border back into Mexico and blocking drug trafficking from bleeding into Indian Country,” said Dennis K. Burke, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona.  “We’ve also aggressively targeted the mortgage fraudsters who aided and abetted the decimation of home values in Arizona.”

The employees received their awards from Attorney General Eric Holder at a ceremony December 8 in Washington, D.C.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Shelley Clemens, Marnie Hodahkwen, Joe Lodge, Nicole Savel, Sharon Sexton and John Tuchi will receive the award for Superior Performance in Indian Country.  This team was nominated for development of a comprehensive Indian Country Public Safety program that serves as a model for other Districts across the United States.

The team developed several successful initiatives this year, including joint federal-tribal investigations into drug distribution organizations on four different reservations across Arizona.  The effort has resulted in more than 50 indictments to date.

Kevin Rapp will receive the award for Superior Performance as an Assistant United States Attorney-Criminal.  Rapp was nominated for his excellent work in the mortgage fraud case of the U.S. v Bernadel, et al.

His work in the case resulted in the conviction of eight defendants in a nearly $10 million dollar mortgage scheme.  The lead defendant in the case received a nearly 17-year prison sentence.

The case has been used as a national model for successful mortgage fraud prosecution.  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has frequently cited the Bernadel case as an example of the successful efforts by the Department of Justice to combat mortgage fraud.

Brian Larson will also receive an award for Superior Performance as an Assistant United States Attorney-Criminal.  Brian was nominated for his outstanding work to further the mission of the first-ever Rule of Law Group in the District of Arizona and the Department of Justice on the southwest border.

Larson has coordinated and conducted training of Mexican prosecutors and investigators in Sonora as part of the “Rule of Law” outreach.  His work has been instrumental in developing cooperative law enforcement relationships with prosecutors and investigators throughout Mexico, and in coordinating prosecution of some of the most high profile drug trafficking cases in the District of Arizona.

“The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona has done more to prosecute border crimes, crimes in Indian Country and mortgage fraud than any other District in the country,” said Burke.  “These award winners exemplify that leadership and are a testament to how we lead the nation.”

The Director’s Awards are nation-wide awards through which the Attorney General honors the employees of the 93 United States Attorneys’ Offices and EOUSA, as well as other individuals, who have supported the mission of these offices and distinguished themselves through extraordinary professional achievements and excellence.

On Monday afternoon, a press release came out of the United States Attorney’s Office here in Phoenix. It announced “the formation of a Civil Rights Unit to coordinate civil rights prosecution, training and outreach in the state of Arizona.”

 (You can read the complete release below.)

My first thought was: That sounds like an excellent idea.

My second thought was: Didn’t we already have one of those?

Apparently not, and this signals an additional element in the expanded brief of the new U.S. Attorney, Dennis Burke. When we spoke with him in the fall, soon after he had been confirmed, he was very open about the rebuilding—of morale and other things—that had to be done in a post-Alberto Gonzalez Department of Justice.

New U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, Arizona Attorney magazine, Jan. 2010

When I asked him about the District of Arizona, where the focus long had lain with counterterrorism and immigration, he agreed those would continue to be central to the mission of his office. But he added significant conversation about criminal activity in Indian Country—for a number of good reasons, above and beyond the large land areas in his jurisdiction. Replacing the nation’s first Native American woman with a white male—however qualified—as United States Attorney had to sting the Obama Administration at least a tad. Over the years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office also has harmed its “reservation cred” for its declination letters, in which it declines to prosecute criminal cases there, but provides no rationale. That leaves tribal authorities with the option of pursuing the matter themselves, but with no guidance as to whether the feds thought the case was weak or if they were simply too busy. And if the tribes pursue the case, they can assess far lesser penalties if they win a conviction. Given all that, Dennis Burke has made it an important part of his activities to nurture the relationship with the tribes.

Besides Indian relations, Burke also raised civil rights as an increasing area of focus. Asked if he meant housing, or election violations, or employment, he answered “All of those.”

Was that lip service? Today’s announcement suggests the answer is No.

Call it karma or something else, but the announcement came just hours before a significant ASU Law School lecture. The title of this year’s John P. Morris Memorial Lecture (sponsored by the Black Law Student Association) was “Civil Rights in the 21st Century.” And the speaker? NAACP CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. I couldn’t attend, but I am hoping the law school taped the speech.

Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP CEO

Mr. Jealous, of course, is more than a seriously cool name. He is the youngest leader the organization’s ever had, and a Rhodes Scholar, to boot. Before his current position, he served as director of the U.S. Human Rights Program at Amnesty International. Most impressive to us ink-stained wretches, he also once worked as a newspaper reporter and editor and as Executive Director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Let’s hear it for the news! (We like all of the Amendments, but the First does come first …)

So our state was writ large with civil rights today.

Farther east, health care reform also passed out of Congress Sunday in a historic vote—or a historic miscarriage of justice, depending on whom you ask. And civil rights came up there too.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi moved mountains (and horse-traded mountain ranges) to win the Democrats and President Obama a come-from-behind victory. And she even was quoted as analogizing this health care legislation to civil rights legislation.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi signs health care legislation

Hyperbolic? Maybe. But her words came on the heels of out-of-control vitriol by health care opponents spitting on a Black legislator and shouting racist comments as he entered the historic building. That, combined with the size of the legislation and the generation-long changes it could effect, made Pelosi’s analogy less fabulous than it would have been otherwise. So a new law that has to do with insurance premiums and prescription co-pays could be enveloped in the mantle of civil-rights history.

Well, if she’s right, then it’s a civil rights victory unlike any we’ve seen before. This one, for instance, is cheered by large parts of corporate America. Perhaps many business leaders are simply happy to have the debate over and certainty in its place. But others may be pleased at the substance of the law, which aims to control medical insurance costs.

As Monday’s “Marketplace” program reported on American Public Radio, “The stock prices of health care companies showed healthy gains, one day after the House passed historic health reform. Investors apparently think the legislation will be good for the health care industry.”

They may be right—or they may be overstating it. Listen to the story at http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/03/22/pm-health-industry

So cheers to all of us: Props to the U.S. Attorney’s Office (and Dennis Burke) for creating a new division, and invoking the names of hate-crime victims Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. in the process. And cheers to all those who debated the health care issue freely—thank you, Bill of Rights, and that good old First Amendment!

[Press release follows]


PHOENIX – U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Dennis K. Burke announced today the formation of a Civil Rights Unit to coordinate civil rights prosecution, training and outreach in the state of Arizona.

The Civil Rights Unit Chief will have district-wide authority on civil rights matters. Burke named Assistant U.S. Attorney Claire Lefkowitz, of the Tucson Office, to spearhead the work of the new unit, and to coordinate efforts with federal prosecutors in the Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Yuma offices of the U.S. Attorney.

“The U.S. Department of Justice is committed to and has had an historic role in upholding the civil and constitutional rights of all individuals, including the most vulnerable members of our society,” said U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke.  “The creation of the Civil Rights Unit in Arizona ensures civil rights cases will be given top priority, whether they be the prosecution of hate crimes, or protecting the victims of human trafficking, discrimination based on disability, or civil rights abuses under color of law.”

The Unit Chief will also work in coordination with the District Law Enforcement Coordinator to develop a protocol with law enforcement agencies that investigate civil rights cases in order to ensure cooperation and effective enforcement.  Training will be conducted to inform agencies of enhanced federal statutory authority on civil rights, including the new Hate Crimes Statute 18 USC Section 249, also known as the “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act,” signed into law by President Obama in October 2009. The new law has a broader reach than preexisting hate crime statutes, and effectively criminalizes violent acts when they occur because of actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person. The statute also protects a wider class of victims of hate violence motivated by the victim’s gender, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identify. Previous law required the government prove that a hate-motivated crime be committed to prevent a victim’s participation in federally protected activities, such as voting or attending school.

“Today’s announcement by U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke establishing a Civil Rights Unit will continue to enhance the FBI’s ability to investigate Civil Rights matters,” said Special Agent in Charge Nathan T. Gray, of the FBI Phoenix Division. “The addition of a new Hate Crimes statute will provide the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office the ability to effectively address Civil Rights allegations in the State of Arizona.”

The Unit Chief will also work with a new bilingual Community Liaison to meet with consular officials with responsibility for foreign citizens living in Arizona, as well as other relevant organizations and community groups.