For US attorney, another legal challenge

Bulger trial is Ortiz’s latest high-profile case

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, who took office 18 months ago, says one of her key priorities is “being public.’’ US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, who took office 18 months ago, says one of her key priorities is “being public.’’ (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)
By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / July 25, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

She is the United States attorney who barked back at former city councilor Chuck Turner, and it was her administration that convicted former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, once one of the most powerful political figures in Massachusetts.

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz took office only 18 months ago and already she has amassed a list of successes, highlighted by the new flier in her office listing notorious fugitive James “Whitey’’ Bulger as captured.

Her next goal, she says with a smirk: to crack the mysterious Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist.

“I’m still holding out hope on that one,’’ said Ortiz, tapping the wooden coffee table in her ninth-floor office in the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse, overlooking Boston Harbor.

“Knock on wood,’’ she added. “I always knock on wood.’’

Ortiz, 55, has quickly become a high-profile figure, with her short tenure in office marked by the successful prosecutions of Turner and DiMasi on corruption charges as well as the conviction of former state senator Dianne Wilkerson for bribery. And she now will be watched closely as she prosecutes Bulger on a racketeering indictment that includes accusations of 19 murders.

Ortiz said it was always part of her plan to maintain a public presence, even if she never expected it to be in such a bright spotlight.

“It’s one of my key priorities, being public, to really let the community know what we’re about,’’ she said in a recent interview. “The most important part of my job is seeing the ability to make an impact, to make an impact on the community.’’

She added, with a deep breath, “It’s gone by extremely quick, in so many different arenas.’’

The more difficult task, she and others say, is to sustain the attention on her office with the work she vowed to do when US Senator John Kerry and the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy nominated her for the post.

While keeping the core philosophies of her predecessors to prioritize terrorism and corruption, she has also made her imprint on the office, strengthening the white-collar crimes unit to prosecute more economic and health care fraud, and creating a new civil rights enforcement team.

In addition, she has worked with police officials at the local level to promote youth programs and to prosecute violent crimes, a deterrent strategy because of the tougher sentences at the federal level.

“A lot of people don’t understand the role of the US attorney and the substantial impact it has, especially at the most local level,’’ said Michael Sullivan, Ortiz’s predecessor as US attorney, for whom she worked as a prosecutor in the economic crimes unit.

“I think as part of that she’ll have to communicate herself, in terms of where she wants to move the office and where she is right now,’’ Sullivan said.

Ortiz began making headlines when she was first nominated and appointed, becoming the first female - and the first Hispanic - US attorney in Massachusetts.

A mother of two daughters, she lost her husband, Michael, to cancer in 2000. On Saturday she married Thomas Dolan, an IBM employee.

Ortiz has spent her career as a lawyer, serving for 12 years as an assistant federal prosecutor and before that as a state prosecutor. She has also worked on social rights issues, such as a US State Department program two decades ago to help reform the legal system in Guatemala.

She is at once personable and guarded, watching her words as an attorney would, while speaking with the passion of a public servant. She is the federal prosecutor who lashed out at Turner for comparing his plight to that of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, saying “Mr. Turner is no Rosa Parks, he’s a convicted felon.’’

A graduate of Adelphi University and George Washington University Law School, Ortiz says her work is defined by her humble roots in New York City’s tough Spanish Harlem.

She has instituted a diversity hiring committee. And she works to serve as a role model for women and minorities.

“I hope I’m leading an office that really represents justice for all,’’ she said.

Recently, she played a more intimate role, in Bridges, a sort of collaborative in which federal law enforcement officials and members of the Muslim-American community meet regularly to establish and maintain relations. From that collaborative, several Somali women have formed their own group and meet regularly with representatives of Ortiz’s staff.

“We’re not just about law enforcement,’’ she said. “We should be playing a role in the community; that’s part of our job.’’

Ortiz may be enjoying her recent successes, but the future holds challenges, too.

Defense lawyers continue to question whether federal prosecutors should be handling so many low-level crimes, such as drug offenses, as has been the practice. Some argue that federal resources should be dedicated to more serious issues such as fraud and white-collar crime.

Individual groups have spoken out against prosecutorial decisions, too. Just last week, tens of thousands of supporters of open and free access to information on the Internet rallied behind a Cambridge man who was indicted in federal court on computer fraud charges, saying that criminal prosecution is too severe and Ortiz was being overzealous.

And dozens of supporters of Tarek Mehanna are expected to make headlines in the coming months as they plan to protest Ortiz’s office in support of the Sudbury native, who goes to trial in October on terrorism-related charges.

Martin Weinberg, a respected local attorney, whose client Richard Vitale was the only defendant acquitted in the DiMasi trial, said it is too early in Ortiz’s tenure to determine what stamp she will leave on her office. But he said she gets high marks for the team she formed, with prosecutors who have served in the Massachusetts district for years, including James Lang, head of the criminal division, and Jack Pirozzolo, the first assistant attorney.

“Eighteen months is a start, and she is at the beginning of a start, rather than at the end of a tenure,’’ Weinberg said. “But you want to look at the history, the character identity of those she’s put in positions of authority; it is skilled prosecutors who are running the office. It’s a professional office.’’

Ortiz welcomes the scrutiny and even the criticism, saying it’s one of the reasons she has sought to stay in the public’s eye.

It’s what she promised Kerry and Kennedy, as she recounts a heartfelt conversation with the late senator in which she told him she would “make him proud.’’ She keeps a photo of Kennedy’s old Washington, D.C., office near her desk, among mementos of her accomplishments.

“He was enormously impressed by her, her life story,’’ said Eric Mogilnicki, Kennedy’s former chief of staff, who met with Ortiz recently. “She’s no stranger to the ups and downs of life, so I’m very confident she’ll be able to handle whatever the future holds for her.’’

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.