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Seth DuCharme, top acting federal prosecutor, makes fighting violence his priority

New acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme spoke to Newsday about his plans for the Eastern District of New York.  Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Seth DuCharme has spent a big part of his career as a federal prosecutor handling major terrorism cases on Long Island and Brooklyn.

But in his new role as the acting top boss for the Eastern District of New York, the 49-year-old — who is both a rifle and bow hunter and writer of poetry — says his immediate short-range plan is to deal with street crime, noting the increase in violence that has recently affected parts of the district just outside Long Island.

"I think the priorities for me closely relate to what the priorities would be of an individual living in the community,” DuCharme, a Republican, said last week during an interview with Newsday. “So, first the physical safety of yourself and your family. If you don’t have that, nothing else matters … if you don’t feel comfortable leaving your child at the bus stop or your mother at the supermarket, not much else matters."

While DuCharme declined to talk about ongoing investigations on Long Island and in New York, he gave a few hints of areas of interest.

"I don’t think the district will be disappointed by the quality or the significance of the cases that the office is working on," he said. "I do expect that we will make significant strides in areas of national security, and white-collar crime and gang crime," and some other areas.

The Eastern District of New York that DuCharme took over from predecessor Richard Donoghue in July has a population of about 8 million and was established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. It is staffed by 175 assistant U.S. attorneys in offices in Brooklyn and Central Islip who work with federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to enforce federal criminal law and to represent the government in civil actions. It covers Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

As the chief federal law enforcement official for the district, DuCharme is in charge of an office that is involved in seeking the death penalty for an alleged leader of the MS-13 street gang, Alexi Saenz, in the killings of seven people on Long Island, including two Brentwood High School teenage girls. If Saenz is convicted and executed, it would be the first federal execution involving a New York case since 1954.

DuCharme's office is also handling the sentencings of former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota for their convictions on corruption-related charges.

In the longer term, DuCharme said he sees his office concentrating on the traditional targets of the U.S. Justice Department — the “steady hand” — as he defined it: Organized entrenched gangs, financial crime, terrorism, drug dealing and political corruption.

"Financial security, combating fraud...white-collar crime," he said. "National security has always been an important practice in our district, and we will remain vigilant there, and also giving people confidence that there is integrity in our public officials.”

Raised in the rural town of Brooklyn in northeastern Connecticut, DuCharme said he got a "taste for adventure spending time in the woods" and graduated from college with honors in English literature. His first job was as a deputy U.S. marshal. He enjoys both hunting (he used to have the head of a trophy elk in his office) and writing poetry so much he has given recitals of his work.

DuCharme is a black belt in martial arts and a certified firearms instructor who taught self-defense for more than 20 years for a national women’s group devoted to rape prevention and techniques for physical protection.

He credited his parents — who operate a private school for children challenged by ordinary teaching methods — with instilling in him that the good life combines risk taking, following your own path or paths and working for the community and the public good.

After four years as a federal marshal, DuCharme went to law school at Fordham University, clerked for the late U.S. District Judge Richard Owen in the Southern District in Manhattan, worked as an associate at a white-shoe law firm, then joined the Eastern District in 2008 as an assistant U.S. attorney. There, DuCharme eventually rose to head the criminal division. 

He prosecuted and got convictions in two terrorism cases involving defendants from Long Island. In the first case, Justin Kaliebe, of Babylon and Bay Shore, was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2017 for attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist by trying to join Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The second case involved Marcus Alonso Zea, of Brentwood, an associate of Kaliebe who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2015 for attempting to support a foreign terrorist organization and obstruction of justice.

As the head of the district’s National Security and Cybercrime unit, DuCharme also was involved in the case of a third Long Islander convicted of terrorism.

Bryant Neal Vinas, of Patchogue, who became a cooperator with extensive knowledge of al-Qaida, after he had been captured in Pakistan in 2008. Vinas, who had faced up to life in prison, was eventually sentenced in 2017 to time served plus 90 days.

DuCharme made a name for himself by starting a program to divert younger terrorist recruits from long-term affiliation, through counseling and letting them be charged with lesser crimes such as fraud so they didn’t spend years in prison. So far, DuCharme believes the program has dissuaded six people from a life of terrorism in the district alone.

Before being named acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District after Donoghue left for a key job in Washington, D.C.,  DuCharme served 15 months in Washington as counsel to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, and then chief assistant to the No. 2 official in the Justice Department in the nation's capital.

His appointment from Barr has drawn criticism, with some viewing it as an attempt to insure that a reported ongoing investigation into the head of President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee is in hands sympathetic to the administration.

DuCharme vehemently rejects  that he'll let politics influence his job.

"I returned to my office with no specific directive from the department other than to serve to the best of my ability knowing full well my history of serving as a prosecutor objectively, under the rule of law and unswayed by any partisan politics.”

To combat the rise of violent crime, DuCharme said he  aims to make "modest" adjustments in the office, like assigning prosecutors to high-crime areas, involving the community's help and tackling the opioid epidemic by cracking down on drug trafficking.

“That doesn’t mean we are not going to be very vigilant and aggressive where we find [other] pockets of criminal activity,” he said referring to Long Island.

DuCharme draws praise from both his former colleagues and prominent defense attorneys who celebrated his appointment.

"He is a great choice for the office," said James Gatta, a former head of the criminal division in the Eastern District, where DuCharme spent most of his career. "He grew up in the Eastern District professionally as a prosecutor … He has a really good view of the district and its different parts.”

His courtroom adversaries also lauded him.

"I am sure Mr. DuCharme will maintain the longstanding excellence and professionalism of his office," said Anthony LaPinta, a lawyer who is counsel to the Suffolk Democratic Party and represented Kaliebe. "I am confident Mr. DuCharme will lead his office devoted by principles of fairness and justice and not by politics.”

Attorney Marc Bogatin described him as fair and approachable. "He didn't give the store away," said Bogatin, who represented Zea. "He's easy to deal with."

Steve Zissou, a lawyer who represented Vinas, said the top prosecutor "oozes honesty and integrity."

"Do we disagree? Yes," Zissou said. "But when I go to sleep, I rest comfortably knowing he’s on watch — knowing he has the safety of the people of the community on his mind.”

DuCharme said he will let one guiding principle dictate his new job.

"If I am able to take on risks on behalf of others and enjoy myself and maybe leave the community better than I found it, that would be good for me and good for society," he said.

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