Biden expected to nominate first black US attorney in Manhattan

Joe Biden is expected to nominate Damian Williams as US attorney for the southern district of New York, which would make him the first African American to lead the prestigious federal prosecutors’ office in Manhattan.

Williams, 40, the current chief of the office’s securities and commodities fraud task force, was recommended for the position by Chuck Schumer. Biden has yet to make the official nomination although precedent suggests that is a formality now that Williams has the backing of the senior senator from New York.

In a statement, Schumer said Williams possessed “tremendous legal acumen, is deeply experienced in the southern district, has tried significant cases and has a strong commitment to equal justice and civil rights under the law. He is ready to take the helm to steer the southern district forward into a bright future.”

If confirmed, Williams would be the first black man to lead one of the nation’s most powerful law enforcement offices. The southern district is famed both for its independence and the prosecutorial heft that has allowed it to bring ambitious cases over the years — particularly regarding financial crime, given its oversight of Wall Street.

It was also at the forefront of investigations involving Donald Trump’s administration, including the former president’s one-time personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and the indictment of two Soviet-born businessmen who were close associates of Rudolph Giuliani — himself a former head of the southern district. 

Given his experience in financial fraud and public corruption, Williams’ presumptive nomination is already being interpreted by members of the legal establishment as a further sign that the Biden administration intends to crack down on white-collar crime after what many describe as an unusually lenient period.

“It’s been a little quiet on that front under the Trump administration. I think his appointment anticipates what everyone is expecting to see as the priorities under the Biden administration,” said Brooke Cucinella, a partner at Simpson Thacher, who previously worked with Williams at the southern district.

She described her former colleague as a brilliant legal strategist who also had a gift for connecting with juries. In their first trial, Cucinella recalled, when they were trying to convict a drug dealer who never actually handled the merchandise, Williams reminded jurors: “If you go to Kentucky Fried Chicken, you don’t expect to be served by the Colonel.”

Michael Bachner, a New York defence lawyer who has dealt with Williams in the past, described him as “extremely smart and judicious”, adding: “If he says something, you can take it to the bank.”

Williams holds degrees from Harvard, Cambridge and Yale Law School. He is entering an office that has faced unusual turbulence during the Trump era. The former president clashed repeatedly with the Department of Justice, and dismissed two previous US attorneys in Manhattan — Preet Bharara and Geoffrey Berman.

The office is currently headed by Audrey Strauss, a veteran prosecutor who also spent many years in private practice.

During his career, Williams worked on prosecutions involving Sheldon Silver, the former Democratic speaker of the New York assembly, for corruption, and Chris Collins, a former Republican congressman, for insider trading.

In addition to Williams, Schumer also recommended two other African Americans for top posts, backing Trini Ross, a longtime prosecutor and DoJ official, as US attorney for the western district of New York, which covers Buffalo and Rochester, and Breon Peace as the US attorney for the eastern district of New York, which includes Brooklyn and Queens.

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