Drugs, gangs, ter­ror­ists: Md.’s DA of­fice un­tir­ing

Stephen Schen­ning took over as act­ing U.S. at­tor­ney af­ter Rosen­stein

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LYNH BUI

In July, there was the in­dict­ment of the al­leged vi­o­lent gang of drug deal­ers out of West Bal­ti­more that author­i­ties say was re­spon­si­ble for 10 un­solved homi­cides.

The fol­low­ing month, there was the con­vic­tion of the Har­ford County man who ac­cepted $9,000 from for­eign com­pa­nies to help plan a ter­ror­ist at­tack on U.S. soil.

And shortly af­ter that, there was the sen­tenc­ing of the for­mer Prince Ge­orge’s ele­men­tary school vol­un­teer who got 75 years in prison for pro­duc­ing child pornog­ra­phy with stu­dents.

It’s been months since Rod J. Rosen­stein left his job as U.S. at­tor­ney for the dis­trict of Mary­land to take over as sec­ond-in­com­mand at the Jus­tice Depart­ment. But the work of the busy of­fice re­spon­si­ble for pros­e­cut­ing cor­rup­tion, fraud and vi­o­lent crimes across the state con­tin­ues.

The man now re­spon­si­ble for en­sur­ing the in­dict­ments, con­vic­tions and sen­tences keep com­ing is Stephen Schen­ning, a life­long Mary­land res­i­dent who has prac­ticed law in the state for more than 40 years.

“This is a liv­ing, breath­ing thing that keeps on go­ing,” said Schen­ning, who was named act­ing U.S. at­tor­ney for Mary­land in April. “It’s a big ship, but we’re not dead in the wa­ter be­cause we don’t have a pres­i­den­tially ap­pointed U.S. at­tor­ney.”

Se­lected to serve as first as­sis­tant U.S. at­tor­ney in 2011, Schen­ning, 70, was au­to­mat­i­cally el­e­vated to serve as act­ing U.S. at­tor­ney when Rosen­stein left in

April. With a ca­reer span­ning more than 25 years in the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Mary­land, Schen­ning has been one of the stead­i­est pres­ences in the dis­trict and one of its long­est-serv­ing prose­cu­tors.

“The fo­cus has al­ways been about the cases,” Schen­ning said. “A real im­por­tant el­e­ment of what we do is the qual­ity con­trol of the in­ves­ti­ga­tions and mak­ing sure we’re do­ing it right, do­ing it fairly and do­ing it hon­estly.”

Since Rosen­stein left the of­fice, Schen­ning said prose­cu­tors re­main con­cen­trated on fight­ing cor­rup­tion and beat­ing back vi­o­lent crime.

One ma­jor fo­cus in­cludes Bal­ti­more, where the stag­ger­ing homi­cide rate con­tin­ues to rise and rat­tle the com­mu­nity. Fed­eral law en­force­ment has fo­cused on net­ting gang con­vic­tions to shut down crim­i­nal net­works. The cases are la­bor-in­ten­sive, Schen­ning said.

Prose­cu­tors must care­fully legally jus­tify the use of wire­taps, po­ten­tial death-penalty sen­tences and the statute that al­lows fed­eral law en­force­ment to launch their long-term in­ves­ti­ga­tions against or­ga­nized crime. But Schen­ning said the work can make a big im­pact, such as the re­cent ar­rest of 12 mem­bers of the Trained To Go gang.

Schen­ning said those ar­rested in the gang, which is an off­shoot of the Black Guer­rilla Family, are sus­pected in 10 un­solved slay- ings, along with rob­beries, kid­nap­pings and as­saults as they sold drugs and de­fended their ter­ri­tory.

“We re­ally think these guys were big con­trib­u­tors to the vi­o­lence prob­lem in Bal­ti­more City,” Schen­ning said.

The of­fice has also be­come one of 12 in the coun­try to launch a new Opi­oid Fraud and Abuse De­tec­tion Unit, a Jus­tice Depart­ment pi­lot pro­gram aimed at cut­ting the num­ber of fa­tal over­doses. The unit will track the de­liv­ery and sale of pre­scrip­tion painkillers to go af­ter doc­tors, pill mills, phar­ma­cists and other med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als abus­ing their work to flood the streets with opi­oids.

Opi­oid- and heroin-re­lated deaths in Mary­land dou­bled be­tween 2010 to 2015, go­ing from about 500 fa­tal­i­ties to more than 1,000.

Closer to the Wash­ing­ton re­gion, the of­fice has added re­sources to stem MS-13 vi­o­lence in Mont­gomery, Fred­er­ick and Prince Ge­orge’s coun­ties.

While gang-re­lated homi­cides in many cases ap­pear to have some seem­ingly clear mo­tive, such as one group in­fring­ing on the ter­ri­tory of an­other, many of the MS-13 homi­cides oc­cur “for no good rea­son,” Schen­ning said.

“The thing that is most fright­en­ing of all is the com­mit­ment to vi­o­lence,” Schen­ning said of MS13 cases. “There’s no log­i­cal rea­son. They’ll kill peo­ple, and to kill is to de­fine your­self as be­ing com­mit­ted to the gang.”

Schen­ning, who was born in Bal­ti­more and now lives in Ca­tonsville, pre­vi­ously worked as a pros­e­cu­tor in the Bal­ti­more County State’s At­tor­ney’s Of­fice and the Mary­land At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice. As a pros­e­cu­tor for the U.S. at­tor­ney in Bal­ti­more, Schen­ning han­dled fraud and cor­rup­tion cases.

In one of his last cases as a line pros­e­cu­tor, Schen­ning and his col­league Martin Clark se­cured con­vic­tions against three union time­keep­ers at the Port of Bal­ti­more. Some were billing 80 hours a week of over­time on their time cards for work they weren’t do­ing, in­clud­ing claim­ing they were work­ing when they were ac­tu­ally va­ca­tion­ing in the south of France, Schen­ning said.

Schen­ning is in his sec­ond tour as the act­ing U.S. at­tor­ney in Mary­land. He pre­vi­ously served as act­ing U.S. at­tor­ney in 2001, when Lynne Battaglia re­signed for a seat on the Mary­land Court of Ap­peals.

Schen­ning said he’s a “ca­reer guy” and doesn’t have plans to make a run for the pres­i­den­tially ap­pointed po­si­tion.

“Some­one com­ing in with fresh eyes and fresh ideas to lead the of­fice in im­por­tant ways is a good thing,” Schen­ning said. “I’m look­ing for­ward to when the pres­i­dent nom­i­nates some­one and the Se­nate con­firms. I can be here to of­fer what­ever is nec­es­sary.”

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