Drugs, gangs, terrorists: Md.’s DA office untiring
Stephen Schenning took over as acting U.S. attorney after Rosenstein
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.”