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U.S. District Court Chief Judge John Tunheim administers the oath of office to Erica MacDonald, the new U.S. attorney for Minnesota. (Submitted image)
U.S. District Court Chief Judge John Tunheim administers the oath of office to Erica MacDonald, the new U.S. attorney for Minnesota. (Submitted image)

Security, Indian Country among U.S. attorney’s priorities

Erica MacDonald recently returned to the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office, this time as the boss, where she will have a chance to return to federal issues that are important to her.

She was a prosecutor there for eight years, then a District Court judge in Dakota County, and was appointed U.S. attorney by President Donald Trump earlier this year. She will serve on national security and American Indian affairs subcommittees within the Department of Justice.

Her top five priorities are national security, human trafficking and sexual exploitation of youth, cybercrime, Indian Country, and Project Safe Neighborhoods, otherwise known, she says, as guns, drugs, gangs/group violence.

MacDonald met with Minnesota Lawyer editor Barbara Jones. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What are your concerns about Indian Country?

A. We have jurisdiction over four Indian reservations, exclusive on Red Lake and Boise Forte and concurrent over Mille Lacs and White Earth. The challenge for the state of Minnesota and also the entire nation is narcotics trafficking that goes hand-in-hand with violent crime but also crime that is distinct by itself. We have to run dual tracks, not losing sight of the narcotics trafficking but also [domestic abuse, child sexual abuse, homicide] — crimes like that on the reservation.

Native Americans suffer from violent crime at a rate more than twice that of any other ethnic or racial population. Approximately 86 percent of women and 84 percent of men of Native American descent will suffer violence in their life. Those are deplorable statistics. I’m going to put together a unit of folks who care about this basic civil rights issue. We’re going to develop an area of expertise so we make sure we’re leaving Minneapolis and going up to the reservations. We’re going to make sure we’re doing what we can do in the jurisdictions where we can do it.

Q. How bad is the opioid situation in Minnesota?

A. It depends on where you are. When I was on the bench in Dakota County, one of our drug court judges, I would have told you that meth is still our issue. Of our criminal caseload, meth was [also] the greater driver in the terms of the number of people it affects. But depending where you are, opioids might be the greater issue. I sat down with the chairman of the Red Lake Tribe and he told me he’s declared a state of emergency in Red Lake because they are suffering overdoses at such a great rate. Most recently they were suffering one overdose death every six days. I met with [officials] in Duluth and they said in the Iron Range area opioids is their main issue.

We recognize that you can’t arrest your way out of a problem. Prevention and treatment has to come in conjunction with enforcement. You’re going to hear initiatives coming from our office that address both prevention and treatment. It’s an ongoing battle, but we can’t take our eye off it.

Q. How does the addiction get started?

A. Someone has a prescription [for drugs that have] a really high street value. What you can get for cheap, when you can’t get [opioids] any more, is heroin. We’ve seen it our drug courts, in state court, on reservations, in suburban communities. It knows no boundary. The only issue is how to stop it — how to prevent it, how to treat it and how to enforce the laws.

What I have seen in my courts is what it’s doing to kids. If you look at our filings statewide, major civil is down, major criminal is down and through the roof are CHIPS case (children in need of protection). It takes a whole community to figure it out, but the last thing we need are filled foster homes and kids being taken from their homes because their parents aren’t fit at that time to parent.

A big difference I see is that when I was on the bench I noticed that we were getting greater volume of drugs [than when I was a prosecutor] and I kept thinking, ‘Are you sure this isn’t federal?’ Then I came back to this office and I realized that we used to be a destination state. We are now a distribution state. We’re going to have to cut supply, address demand and take their money. We are going to take care of this problem. [At this point in the conversation, MacDonald slammed her fist into her palm.]

I have offers out to nine lawyers, and I want to put eight in criminal and one in civil, that would bring our complement of U.S. attorneys to 47 in criminal and 14 in civil. (The background checks are ongoing.)

Q. This discussion of being a destination state leads to the topic of human trafficking. What can you tell us about that?

A. I was a point of contact for this office back in about 2005 when we had a state and federal task force. Our mission was to raise awareness. It was hard for people to contemplate. [As a prosecutor] I had a 19-year-old girl from Eagan who was pimping out classmates from a hotel room. They were doing it to get iPods. The victims were under 16 so you don’t need to prove force, fraud or coercion. The judge said, “Is this really going on?”

Through a lot of really hard work by the Minnesota County Attorneys Association in conjunction with our office, … we’ve now gotten past the point of trying to explain that yes, this is going on, to actually being able to work cases and bring together multi-disciplinary teams to address the issues. I think we’re fourth in the nation in the number of cases prosecuted. It’s the people in Minnesota recognizing the crime and working on it together.

We’re also focused on labor trafficking, we led the nation in active labor trafficking prosecutions tied with Brooklyn and the Mariana Islands. (Statistics are based on a 2017 federal report on trafficking).

Q. If you’re prosecuting a labor trafficking case, what would you want me to tell you I had witnessed?

A. A lot of time in juvenile courts we’ll see a homeless or a runaway or truant [youth] and they are not giving up why they are in this situation. A lot of the training we do is about looking beneath the surface.

Sometimes community members notice that there’s one kid in a family that doesn’t go to the same school and they don’t see that kid on a regular basis like they would other kids. Sometimes they note disparate treatment of a child who appears to be adopted.

I would tell you to keep an eye open at any smaller business. Law enforcement agencies have tip lines you can call.

(The office has an active anti-trafficking coordination team, ACT, working with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the wage and hour division of the Department of Labor and the Department of State.)

Q. You said that the whole arena of cybercrime is important to your office. Can you elaborate on that?

A. We know what the upside of the internet is. The down side is that people can be a target. I cannot tell you the number of warrants I signed in state court on affinity fraud cases [which are the product of online “relationships”]. Additionally, elder abuse scams are devastating and appalling. We have an opportunity to protect the public within that whole range of crimes.

Because we have a number of large businesses we will always have to be vigilant and address this issue.

Q. Let’s talk about combating terrorism recruiting. Former U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger laid a lot of groundwork for this.

A. He did. Isn’t it apropos that we’re sitting here on September 11? There’s a distinct mark between 9/11 and now. National security will always be a priority of this office. Nationally, we’re in a lull period but we cannot be lulled into complacency. We have to be ready to go, we have to be nimble. One thing I think you’ll hear people talking about over the next year or two is homegrown violent extremists, we call them HVs. It could be anyone with a strong ideology and anywhere there’s a computer they have a dangerous instrument. The FBI has said that about one-third of HVs are identified by community members. I want to raise awareness that this could be a threat in any community. The FBI has a great tip line. Or contact your local law enforcement and let them know what you’ve seen.

I don’t know why we’re in a lull period, but my hat is off to Andy Luger for all that he did [in communities where terrorist recruiting occurred]. You cannot underestimate the impact that had. It’s a pleasure to stand in his footsteps. [Credit should also go] to our FBI agents and the joint task force on terrorism.

Q. Another topic you’ve said is important is community outreach. It sounds as if community outreach is part of everything in the office.

A. There are two areas we’re getting our heads around and one is elder justice. Not all those issues fall within the criminal lane. We’re going to put together a working group of criminal and civil attorneys and see where we can fit in with the discussion as we have an aging population that becomes more vulnerable. Some of the issues are state jurisdiction but [we have] the power to convene, to get together and talk about what the issues are.

The other thing that keeps me up at night is school violence … the thought of another Red Lake shooting. I’m going to see what I can do, recognizing that it takes the whole community. Getting to our students is number one. They are going to hear the trash talking first. They have to know where to take that information before it’s too late and we have to take them seriously.

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