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Carmen Ortiz: Triumphs, Controversies, And The Lingering Impact Of Aaron Swartz

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President Obama appointed Carmen Ortiz to the post of U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts in 2009.
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pm_ortiz_exit_interview_part_two_-swartz.mp3

Carmen Ortiz announced Wednesday that she will be retiring from her post as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. President Obama appointed Ortiz, whose tenure has been marked by both successes and controversies.

Ortiz is the first Hispanic woman appointed as a U.S. attorney. She has chalked up several well-known prosecutorial victories. These include the convictions of gangster James "Whitey" Bulger and marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Ortiz’s legacy also includes other lesser-known prosecutions, such as those involving human trafficking.

“We’ve brought a number of cases, and we’ve been successful in those cases where young women have been intimidated, have been hurt, and have been trafficked for sex, not only in Massachusetts but throughout the east coast,” Ortiz told WGBH News. “I think that we’re in a better place now to do these kinds of cases more effectively and successfully.”

Ortiz hopes her successes in these cases have deterred others from committing similar crimes, she added, stating that those who have been convicted have received “very severe sentences of 20 years, 25 years, 30 years.”

However, Ortiz’s tenure has not gone untainted by major losses, including the recent high-profile reversal by a federal appellate court of the convictions of the former head of the Massachusetts Probation Department, John O’Brien, and two aides.  

“It’s an indication of how the court wants federal prosecutors to deal with state public officials,” Ortiz said. “Certainly, the court views it as overzealous. We certainly, when we brought the case, didn’t view it as overzealous. We’re disappointed in the opinion. We looked at the evidence in the case, we saw a scheme to defraud here. There were jobs that were being given under the guise of a merit hiring system and there were documents that were being altered, and there were people that were hurt in this case.”

The controversy involving Ortiz's pursuit of computer programmer Aaron Swartz has defined her tenure as much as her prosecution of gangsters and terrorists.

Swartz faced a possible 35-year prison sentence and a $1 million fine on charges that he accessed a subscription-only database of scientific articles through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and planned to make the articles public. Swartz turned down a plea dealt that would have resulted in a felony and six months in federal prison. In January 2013, he hanged himself in his New York apartment.

"It’s an incredible tragedy that this young man took his life,” Ortiz said, noting that her office didn’t know Swartz was in such a vulnerable place at the time.

Ortiz added that she also regrets what she said is misinformation surrounding the case.

"Sometimes it’s good to blame someone else in those situations. And to blame the government, that’s a great way to point the finger,”

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Listen below for part one of WGBH News's interview with Carmen Ortiz, where she talks more about the Aaron Swartz case.

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pm_ortiz_exit_interview_part_two_-swartz.mp3

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“The way that its messaged out there, unfortunately, is that facing many years in prison caused him to take the steps that he took, when at the time that that occurred, that was not accurate,” Ortiz said.

“As I understand it, my prosecutors had been dealing with defense lawyers in that case and were talking about resolving the case to a matter of months,” she added. “The implication that this occurred because of how severe the penalties might be really weren’t swayed."

Ortiz admits that her office could have communicated better with the public about the lessons of the Swartz case. In the end, however, she blames neither herself nor prosecutor Stephen Heymann for Swartz's death. The reality, she said, is that no one is responsible.

“I think when it immediately occurred and I became aware of it and we were blamed and I was blamed initially, certainly by the family, I felt that they had just suffered a tragic loss, and sometimes it’s good to blame someone else in those situations. And to blame the government, that’s a great way to point the finger,” she said. “I just wish we had the opportunity to save him.”

While Ortiz’s legacy will be marked by both trials and triumphs, she hopes her office will rest in good hands. Ortiz expressed hope that her successor — who hasn't been appointed yet — will not dismantle the division of civil rights in her office, which investigated civil rights violations at Boston Latin School and is now focused on incidents of hate that have been occurring at a steady clip since the end of the 2016 election, according to groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  

Ortiz said that while she is generally concerned about the future of the civil rights office she established, she is very hopeful that it will survive.

“It’s an important part of the office, and we don’t know what the future will bring in terms of hate crimes, so we want to make sure that the community that we have to collaborate with feel that we can protect them, especially if they are [the] target of hate crimes,” she said.

As for advice to her successor, Ortiz emphasized the importance of getting to know people who have been in the U.S. attorney's office for a long time, listening to law enforcement, doing outreach, and working with communities.

“To understand what’s occurring in your district, you need to listen for a while,” she said.

Politics is likely not in her future, Ortiz added. For the time being, she’s going on vacation after she officially steps down in January.

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