He's the most powerful federal law enforcement official in Massachusetts, and the closest representative to the Trump administration in one of the country's most liberal states. Andrew Lelling was the president's pick to take over as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts. The Sharon resident has served more than a decade in the Justice Department's Boston office where he was lead prosecutor on drug trafficking, fraud and immigration cases — top issues for both of his bosses: Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump.
In an interview with Greater Boston’s Jim Braude, U.S. Attorney Lelling discussed his latest prosecutorial successes, as well his positions on marijuana enforcement, immigration and what it’s like to work for Attorney General Sessions. The following is a transcript of the interview edited for clarity.
Jim Braude: So, the Attorney General traveled here roughly four days ago for the announcement of a prosecution of 25 people, I think 21 of whom were undocumented. It's on the exact same day as the court ordered reunification of families separated at the border. Is it fair to say that that was not a coincidence that it was in part intended to distract from that reunification chaos?
Andrew Lelling: Oh, that was totally a coincidence. We pick the date. It's an operational decision. The agents tell us when they have enough evidence together to do the arrests we want to make, we pick the day, we invite the Attorney General and we hope he can make it.
Lelling: Is that the kind of case that the Attorney General would ordinarily travel to a jurisdiction like Massachusetts. Well it depends if you're doing a case that reflects the administration's priorities. So here you've got two things that the Attorney General cares a lot about border security, protecting the public treasury. We're able to put both those things together in this case. We invited him to come and his people decided that that was something he wanted to do.
Braude: Let me quote to you in a related kind of thing you told Commonwealth Magazine one of the things we wanted to highlight in keeping with the president's priorities was to at least bring into the public conversation. There's some fraction of the illegal immigrant population countries committing a number of other offenses. There is some fraction but from the research I've seen the fraction of people here illegally is lower than people who are born here. So aren't you conveying the wrong message when you identify a nationality suggesting essentially those kinds of people are more likely to commit crimes in your neighborhood.
Lelling: Well I think the point we're trying to make and a point the Attorney General makes a lot is that when it comes to people who are in the country illegally and who then commit other crimes were it not for being able to enter the country illegally, they couldn't commit the other crimes. And so, a stronger border means that they're not here to do that. I agree with you. The vast vast majority of immigrants to this country illegally or otherwise are not running around committing crimes. It just happens to be that with illegal immigrants the illegality of coming over the border is compounded by the crime they committed here.
Braude: Do you worry that you're sending a message that you don't appear to intend to be sending them about those people?
Lelling: I don't think we're sending that message. I agree there is that risk, but I've tried to be very careful about that. So, for example I was talking to Commonwealth Magazine we highlight the nationality of defendants were prosecuted when those defendants have entered the country illegally and we point that out because I do think it's in the public interest and certainly part of the public conversation now to highlight that when you have someone who has entered the country illegally who does some with something else illegally. If someone is in the country legally with an "L," I do not have my people point out the nationality of that person. We're a country of immigrants if you came here legally you played by the rules. Alright, well then fine. That's not relevant.
Braude: Are you comfortable getting back to the first thing I asked you, with the separation policy that the administration implemented for several months.
Lelling: The separation policy is a little out of my lane. I mean that the separation policy isn't really a separation policy. Right. So, what happens is the Attorney General implements a zero-tolerance policy on the border meaning every single person who comes over the border illegally every adult is prosecuted. A byproduct of being prosecuted is you're probably detained pending trial. A byproduct of detention is if you came over with kids the kids have to go somewhere. And so that's where that phenomenon came from. But I'm not going to opine on whether it's good or bad that's a Washington decision.
Braude: But the detention could be with your kid rather than with your kids separated.
Lelling: Well I think this problem they ran into. You can't do that. So, when we prosecute people we arrest people and they get detained. You can't be detained with your kids. I think now they're trying to change that a little bit under under public pressure. But in the normal course if you're charged with a crime you can't be - you are separated from your family no matter what your charge.
Braude: Can we move to marijuana... You said the other day and I hope I got you right. I just want to confirm, you won't immunize people, but you will say that we're not going to be prosecuting buyers and sellers of small amounts. Do I have you right there?
Lelling: Yeah, I think that's roughly right.
Braude: Were you are more precise because the attorney general is softening or because you were sick of being asked the same question and you wanted to give people as much notice as you felt they deserved?
Lelling: It's more the latter. It wasn't because of any signal out of D.C. about the Attorney General softening on this. The reason why I did it is that the July 1 deadline - the July 1 date - for the Cannabis Control Commission beginning to issue licenses to recreational dispensaries. That date had passed. And so it seemed like it was in the public interest to try and give a little bit clarity instead of being coy. I mean look you know as I've said a bunch of times you know 2000 people last year in Massachusetts didn't die from smoking a joint right they died from opioids. All my resources are targeting opioids. So why make it harder than it needs to be.
Braude: Well if that's the case one of the things the chair of the Cannabis Control Commission, Hoffman, who been here a couple times said he's concerned because no banks are buying in. So, you sell 20,000 dollars of marijuana in small amounts you've got to carry cash to either under your mattress or what. I don't even know what they do with it. Can you make the same assurance to bankers that if you collect money from a retail outlet that is selling small amounts to quote you that I'm not going to be prosecuting you either?
Lelling: I can't. The reason why I can't is that banks are heavily regulated probably by two or three different regulators. Besides anything I might do on the criminal side so I'm not going to go there. I mean you have you have Treasury you have the FDIC. Think of the Office of the Comptroller. There might be others. That's not necessarily my area of expertise. So, I've shied away from that because it's so regulated that the regulators I think need to speak to that first.
Braude: But is that on your radar?
Lelling: Is what on my radar?
Braude: The possibility of prosecuting a bank should they choose to?
Lelling: It's something we would consider all and I'll tell you why. The problem that I'm afraid of is the interstate movement of large amounts of drug proceeds. So marijuana trafficking whether done legally under state law or not can be a source of revenue for organized crime. It can be pursued illegally out of state and the drugs moved into state. It can be pursued illegally under Massachusetts law and move the money out of state.
Braude: A couple of very quick things -- you're prosecuting a bunch of state cops who were accused, in one case pled guilty, to phony overtime. The Governor has said he thinks that if convicted it's not automatic, their pension should be taken away. Would you make the same recommendation to whatever the state entity is post-conviction that their pensions be taken?
Lelling: I'm not going to comment on that. That would be a thumb on the scale. There's a state system for that. The State Retirement Board or whichever entity handles trooper pensions and that's between them and the troopers.
Braude: One last quick one. About a month ago there were reports that you're reviewing groping allegations against the son of the Governor, are you?
Lelling: I can't confirm or deny the existence of investigations. What I can say is that you know we have sole jurisdiction the feds have sole jurisdiction of what happens on airplanes in the sky, but I'm not allowed to confirm or deny.
Braude: If you decided not to proceed, we would never know?
Lelling: We as a general matter do not publicize declinations. There are some exceptions under DOJ policy. I don't know that this would meet the exception.
Braude: Your boss Jeff Sessions has been criticized relatively relentlessly by his own boss. Just pick a tweet or two here: "The Russian Witch Hunt Hoax continues" - this is June 5th - "all because Jeff Sessions didn't tell me he was going to recuse himself..." He goes on to say "and Sessions knew better than most that here was No Collusion." Then on July 25th a few days ago: "Attorney General Sessions has taken" - capitalized - " VERY weak on Hillary Clinton crimes where e-mails" etc. Does that not trickle down a criticism of your boss, does that not weaken your ability to do your job when the President of the United States is saying the Attorney General - one step above you - is weak? Doesn't know what he's doing... on and on. Does that not trouble you?
Lelling: It troubles me a little bit. I haven't seen it impact my job. I mean I interact with General Sessions on average once every six weeks or so I'm down in D.C. I see him, as soon as you know he was up here a few days ago. I think the guy is the best Attorney General in 20 years.
Lelling: Because when he says he's dedicated to the rule of law. He means it and he's consistent. I think like a lot of public figures he gets a little caricatured in the press and that happens on the right and that happens on the left, but that's a guy who really cares about what he's doing. He wants to do it right. He cares about the ethics rules and I personally I'm a huge fan. And to answer your question, I have not seen that impact what I do day to day. I haven't gotten that back from defense attorneys...
Braude: Would you prefer the President not do it?
Lelling: I'm not going to comment on what the President does.
Braude: Do you know Bob Muller?
Lelling: I don't know him personally I think I met him once.
Braude: Do you think he's conducting a witch hunt of the President of the United States?
Lelling: I'm not going to comment on any of that. To say that's out of my lane would be very much an understatement.