On Tuesday, the office of United States Attorney Joyce White Vance announced that a Birmingham man had been sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for making a pipe bomb out of an airbag canister.
James David Kircus, 55, “was working at an auto salvage business in Birmingham when he took a vehicle airbag, broke it down and reconfigured it into a dangerous weapon containing a high-powered explosive,” Vance said in a press release from her office. Kircus, who was living in a federal halfway house for federal prisoners, was near the end of a seven-year-and-three-month sentence for his guilty plea related to previously making pipe bombs and being in possession of firearms by a convicted felon.
All of this proves a couple of things: one, crime doesn’t pay; and two, no matter how busy your summer has been, the federal prosecutors in the Northern District of Alabama have probably got you beat.
In July alone, Vance’s office presided over the successful prosecutions of a raft of federal crimes touching people, businesses, government agencies and cities throughout north Alabama. For instance:
- July 10, U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn sentenced Billy Williams Jr., 41, to 262 months in prison for his role as one of the leaders of one of Birmingham’s largest heroin and cocaine trafficking rings. Williams pleaded guilty back in December to conspiracy, drug trafficking and money laundering. Convicted with 10 other co-defendants, Williams, who lived on the west side of Birmingham, was head of a network of drug traffickers.
When he was arrested in late May 2013, “Williams threw over $60,000 in cash out of the window of his 12th floor condo at City Federal,” according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “From the condo, agents recovered over $166,000 in cash and over $177,000 in jewelry and other valuables.”
- On July 16, Brandon Joseph Peake, 33, of Jasper, was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison for the armed robbery last year of Traders and Farmers Bank — pointing a pistol at one of the tellers — and making bomb threats against Walker Baptist Medical Center and bridge across Alabama Highway 69.
Peake robbed the bank the afternoon of July 5, 2013, but not before he called in a bomb threat that caused the hospital to be evacuated and a part of the highway to be closed. With a felony drug possession conviction already on his record, Peake’s sentence was lengthened because of the .40 caliber pistol he used in the robbery and the three other guns he possessed illegally after the robbery.
- On July 24, a former sales manager at Serra Nissan pleaded guilty to a conspiracy with other employees from salesmen to managers at the dealership to a scheme that included falsifying loan documents so unqualified customers could buy cars. According to Vance’s office, Abdul Islam Mughal, 48, of Trussville, and his coworkers conspired to defraud customers, Nissan North America and financial institutions, as well as to sell more cars, which translated into bonuses for the salesmen.
When he is sentenced in November, Mughal could face up to five years in federal prison for the conspiracy count and a $250,000 fine, and up to 30 years and a $1 million fine for bank fraud.
- On July 29, Joseph Shane Terry, 41, of Meridianville, Ala., was sentenced to nine years in prison for wire fraud, making false statements to the Small Business Administration, making false statements on loan applications and money laundering. Vance’s office said that Terry, the owner of Government Technical Services, schemed to defraud the government of $14 million in contract payments over six years. He had to forfeit more than $1 million to the federal government as proceeds of his illegal activity.
On that same day, Danny Ray Butler, 58, of Fosters in Tuscaloosa County pleaded guilty to three different fraud schemes aimed at financial institutions and the Small Business Administration. Butler, who owned a car dealership and grocery business, was sentenced to three years, forced to forfeit nearly $2 million and to pay millions more in restitution to the SBA, a finance company, and — in an amount to be named later by a federal judge — to a credit union.
- July 30, Vance’s office saw a Birmingham resident, Eritrean national Biniam Asghedom, 40, sentenced to 10 years for possession with intent to distribute a pound of cocaine. The judge indicated that despite the sentence, Asghedom, a major player in a larger conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine, would likely be deported back to Eritrea.
Of course, those prosecutions, impressive as they are, are not the most high profile in an office that has prosecuted former Birmingham mayor and Jefferson County Commissioner Larry Langford, among other well-known and highly placed officials. But whether white collar criminals, drug traffickers or bank robbers, they all fall under Vance’s jurisdiction, which includes the 31 counties from Shelby to the top of the state. And besides prosecuting a rogues gallery of federal crooks, Vance is taking the lead in organizing a community effort to combat the deadly reemergence of heroin.
Her appointment to the post of U.S. Attorney came in 2009 after Vance had been in the federal prosecutor’s office nearly 20 years handling criminal and appellate cases, many of some note.
“My boss used to call me his utility fielder, because I did a lot of different things,” Vance said.
“I did a lot of the OCDETF [Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Enforcement] work, but I also did arsons and explosives and I also did white collar crime.
“I did a civil rights case up in Boaz, Alabama, where there was a ring of police officers up there that were discriminating against Hispanics, as in stealing their money…and then worked on a string of church arsons in Alabama… and was of course involved in the investigation of the Eric Rudolph case, although by the time he was captured I had gone into our appellate division.”
Rudolph was the bomber who killed one and injured 111 others at Centennial Olympic Park in 1996 before bombing an abortion clinic and a lesbian bar in Atlanta the following year, and then in 1998, bombing an abortion clinic in Birmingham, critically injuring nurse Emily Lyons and killing Birmingham Police Officer Robert Sanderson, who worked off-duty as a guard at the clinic.
In an interview earlier this year, Vance talked about how the US Attorney’s office has had to shift its priorities as a result of everything from budgetary pressures to changing aspects of society in north Alabama.
“When I was a young prosecutor we had a lot of banks here and we had a fair number of Fortune 500s, and both of those have basically disappeared,” she said. Now, with Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville housing Army materiel command — including contracts for the Army — the federal prosecutor’s office has turned a great deal of attention to computer-based offenses.
“So I think that in many ways, the future of this office will be in cybercrime and that will be both government-related cyber and private-side, commercial cyber,” she said, including identity theft and fraud cases. The office also works on more cases involving organized drug trafficking in the Huntsville area, and cases involving terrorism.
“We did the first material support of terrorism case that had ever been done in Alabama out of this district, an Uzbek named Ulugbek Kodirov who overstayed his visa and at some point decided, while talking to an organized terror group in his country of origin, that what he wanted to do was obtain illegal weapons and kill the president of the United States,” Vance said.
Kodirov, 22, pleaded guilty Feb. 13, 2012, before U.S. District Judge Abdul K. Kallon to providing material support to terrorist activity, threatening to kill the president and possession of a gun.
“And so that case was, I think, very eye-opening to people who thought there was no terrorism in Alabama. Of course, we know now that’s not true,” Vance said. “We continue to have a strong focus in that area,” with the positions of three prosecutors in her office dedicated to terrorism.
Public corruption cases remain an issue in Alabama, despite obvious successful prosecutions.
“You know, like I know, that this is Birmingham, Alabama, and the primary focus of this office, one of them, is always going to be public corruption,” she said. “I hate that. I wish it wasn’t true. Early in my term as U.S. Attorney we had the trial of Larry Langford and one would have hoped that that would have been a cautionary tale for the folks by and large. But it was not.”
Cases of note included Maurice William Campbell Jr., former head of the Alabama Small Business Development Consortium, a publicly funded agency, who three years ago was charged with fraud, conspiracy and money laundering to the tune of $7.3 million dollars, which Vance called “just the most rank public corruption you can imagine as leader of a state entity.” Campbell was sentenced to 15 years and to pay restitution of more than $5 million dollars. “That’s a case we were really proud of,” Vance said. “That’s the kind of corruption that’s got to be shut down.”
In another case, Vance’s office prosecuted Gayle Cunningham, the former head of the JCCEO, for “siphoning money out of that organization to buy real estate for herself.”
Obviously proud of her record with going after crooked officials — “we maintain good trip wires and a strong commitment to prosecuting public corruption” — Vance was unsurprisingly cagey about what, if any, of such cases she’s currently investigating. Instead, she politely changed the subject to a more cordial aspect of her dealings with local officials.
“One of the things that surprises me about this job every day is how much I like my law enforcement partners. And that’s true of the feds — we love the FBI guys, we have great leadership at DEA, we work closely with ATF and the Marshal’s Service and with all the state and local guys,” she said. “And these guys work with a tight beam focus. And public corruption is everybody’s top priority from a federal standpoint. … They’re not easy cases. They’re not quick cases. But I think it’s important to know that law enforcement is vigilant.”
The government shutdown, which slowed the activities of numerous federal agencies, forced a reassessment of how the local U.S. Attorney’s Office functioned, because it significantly affected staffing levels.
“The biggest change we’ve had during my time as US Attorney has been in response to outside pressures, and that’s largely financial pressures, the pressure of sequestration,” Vance said. “At the height of sequestration we were running a vacancy rate in excess of 20 percent.” Besides losing one out of every five prosecutors, she said, “We were missing a lot of paralegals, lot of support staff. And that really forced us to reexamine the mission of the office and to focus on our priorities.
“It used to be we had the resources to do a lot of cases. And we would sort of take the cases that came in the door,” but now the conversation revolves around finding the best use of more limited personnel and other resources. “What are the most important federal priorities? What do we need to do because our state partners can’t do it? What are we uniquely situated to do?
“So I think what’s changed is that because of sequestration we’ve really had to rethink what is the job of federal prosecutors. And [Attorney] General Holder issued us strong guidance. He issued a series of memos that we call ‘Smart on Crime.’ We’ve had a lot of training and conversation in the department. Part of this is just a recognition that in an era where resources are tighter, you’ve got to reserve the space in federal prison for the people who most need to be there.”
That has fed into the operational focus on cybercrime, heroin and public corruption, as well as violent crimes that cross intrastate jurisdictional boundaries.
“My sense is that we don’t have gangs in the Bloods and Crips sense in this part of Alabama,” she said, alluding to the entrenched influence such gangs have on crime throughout large cities elsewhere in the country. “But we do have groups that have organized themselves into gangs, that function like gangs — that sometimes will have ties to a gang. So in the city of Birmingham you’ll see a number of gangs pop up. Tuscaloosa has had problems and last fall we worked with Chief [Steven D.] Anderson to go and do some intensive enforcement over there and arrested 14 of these guys who were involved in this gang-type activity and brought in close to 50 guns at that point in time that were illegally in their possession,” Vance said.
“When we look at violent crime we’re thinking primarily about crime that involves the use of firearms, that presents a danger to the community,” Vance continued. “Sometimes these are groups of criminals, for instance who organize to do a series of robberies, moving from county to county doing shoot-‘em-ups and robberies. But I don’t think violent crime has one static definition. We’re looking at sort of the most dangerous people on the streets, [at] where are the organizations that if you can remove their presence from the streets, you can make a neighborhood safer?”
Civil rights issues also remain a top priority in the federal prosecutor’s office, but the kinds of cases continue to expand.
“I did a lot of civil rights work as a criminal prosecutor, and the people that did that work in this office really valued that work and cherished that work, and we did every case,” she said. “And we still do every case on the criminal side of the house that walks in the door. Our work these days is really different.
“It seems like I used to do a couple of cross burnings a year — I would have an interracial couple and somebody would go and burn a cross — that was just really something we saw a lot of 20 years ago. I don’t know if it’s progress — I like to think it is — [but] we don’t see a lot of those cases anymore.
“Much of the civil rights work that we do is [what] we call ‘color of law’ work. It’s police excessive force, abuse of power. … I’ve done a series of cases of officers involved in sexual assault, so we engage in that work whenever we get those cases. We just make them a priority.”
But a part of her work has been to assure a variety of people of the government’s commitment to their rights, Vance said. “It’s no longer simply a matter of protecting the rights of racial minorities. It is a question of protecting [people targeted because of] national origin. We have a significant Arab Muslim community in this district. We have a lot of engagement with them. We make it clear to them that we’re here to protect their rights.
“Lot of engagement in the LGBT community, something that’s very new and very difficult because the fact that there’s no [guarantee of ] workplace employment in this state for people based on their sexual orientation makes people very hesitant, I think, to report cases where they may be assaulted because they’re gay or because they’re lesbian. And so we continue to do outreach and talk with those communities about how we can serve them.”
Vance said protecting civil rights goes even further than the term is usually used. It includes prosecutions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for instance. But it doesn’t stop there. “We do civil rights work in areas I think that would surprise most people. For instance, returning service members. One of our criminal prosecutions was under a statute called USERRA (Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act) that protects the reemployment rights of people who return from active duty. And we had a service member whose rights were violated in a criminal way, and we prosecuted that case.”
In many cases such USERRA claims are handled on the civil side and resolved without going to court. “In this case we had an employer who didn’t want to preserve the rights of this gentleman who had served his country in Afghanistan and ended up violating the law in a criminal way, and did not believe we were serious about protecting this service member’s rights. And we were quite serious about protecting them.
“So we view civil rights as an ongoing priority that is being redefined as we speak to ensure that this community is fair to everybody that’s included in it.”
Vance’s office includes a civil rights enforcement unit that’s led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey, one of the team that prosecuted the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombers. “Robert’s got a team that involves criminal, civil and appellate lawyers. … Having that multidisciplinary approach lets us do cases, I think, the right way, the most effective way,” Vance said.
Vance’s office became involved in the legal conflicts arising from Alabama’s much maligned immigration law, HB 56. The official stance of the Justice Department was to regard immigration as a matter of constitutional law.
“Much of legislation is reserved to the states and the states can do whatever they want, and the 50 states have different, and in many cases, conflicting rules,” Vance said. “That’s the American way. That works very well for us. There are some areas, though, where you can’t have that patchwork quilt of different state laws, and immigration is one of them.
“Can you imagine being a foreign company — say, Germany — trying to do business in the United States and having to deal with 50 state laws with different immigration laws? It just isn’t going to work. And so immigration is one of those areas where our founding fathers preempted and where Congress does the legislation and where the states can’t do things that are different than Congress.
“I will say outside that constitutional basis, I was not compelled by the argument that the federal government was not enforcing immigration law. Deportation statistics under this [presidential] administration are higher than they’ve ever been. In my office, as part of our violent crime strategy, we employ a statute that makes it illegal for someone who has previously been deported from this country to reenter. And we use that as part of our violent crime strategy to prosecute gang members, people with guns, people with a history of violence or other issues like that, and our rate of prosecution under that statute has been greatly in excess of what it was in the past. We saw that as a way of making the community safer. So I think actually that we’ve done a really good job of enforcing immigration laws.”
Vance noted that support for Alabama’s immigration law, which seemed strong at first, “evaporated as people realized in many ways it was a law with unintended consequences.” Sheriffs in her jurisdiction, who as elected officials would not publicly denounce the more draconian aspects of HB 56 nevertheless were asking, “‘Why don’t you go ahead and challenge the immigration law?’” she recalled.
Loving her job
All in all, Vance loves her job. She described her staff — now rebuilding after Congress restored some of her pre-sequestration funding levels — as being particularly professional and dedicated.
“I would come in on the weekend during the height of sequestration to work when we were down people, so people were working extra hard to get cases done and you would see people who knew that they were facing the risk of being furloughed from their job with no pay, and they’d be in on the weekend working overtime. So that tells you a lot.”
The office is more diverse in some ways than it was before. Although she has lost some African-American attorneys — one moved away, another became a judge — she has added attorneys who are Southeast Asian and Hispanic, and a number of female staff members.
“Something that I like about this office now is that it looks a lot more like the community it serves than it did,” she said. Birmingham’s improving national reputation is also helping to attract young lawyers to her office — “well educated, fine lawyers, deep commitment to community and an understanding of the justice system,” Vance said.
Her work as U.S. Attorney, she said, is rewarding, particularly from the perspective of being able to help people. “When General Holder first talked to his new group of US Attorneys, he said, ‘Your job is not to get statistics. It’s not to indict more cases this year than you did last year. Your job is to make the communities that you protect safer.’
“Those are great marching orders from a great boss. And that’s what I like about my job. I love this community — it’s my adopted community; I wasn’t born and raised here — but I have had four children here, my husband’s family is from Alabama and has deep roots here, and I love the feeling that we get to make this a community where my oldest kid went away to college, and wants to come back.
“The second-best part of my job — and I can’t really do it anymore because my husband’s a judge now — but for years when my kids were small, I used to tell them, ‘Well Daddy’s just a lawyer, but Mommy’s a prosecutor. Mommy puts the bad guys away.’”