On Monday, April 2, U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin, the chief federal prosecutor in the Middle District of Alabama, dropped a bombshell. Alabama Rep. Jack Williams of Vestavia Hills and longtime state lobbyist Marty Connors have been indicted on bribery charges along with the California-based owner of a string of diabetes clinics.
Bringing charges of public corruption against high-ranking state officials is part of the work of U.S. attorneys such as Franklin, the U.S. Justice Department’s number one law enforcer for Montgomery County and the 22 other counties that make up Alabama’s Middle District.
Announcing that a politician is under indictment put a spotlight on the Montgomery-based U.S. Attorney’s Office this week, but the fact is that all USAOs share a set of operational priorities handed down by the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“Our marching orders came from the same person,” Franklin said in an earlier interview, part of a series of conversations with the three U.S attorneys appointed by President Donald Trump in Alabama.
“We have basically five areas that the AG has asked us to focus on … and we’ve tried to dedicate resources to all of them,” Franklin said. Those areas include violent crime, opioid abuse, health care and financial fraud, terrorism and national security, and protecting vulnerable populations, he said.
Still, how Franklin’s U.S. Attorney’s Office is carrying out the job is determined by the needs of the district, he said. Although the Middle is the smallest of the state’s three federal districts, it is home to 1.1 million people.
The Similar Issues
Franklin, who became U.S. attorney after his Senate confirmation in September 2017, is more than familiar with his district’s needs. He began his career in the office as an assistant U.S. attorney in 1990. After 6 years he left for private practice at the Sirote and Permutt law firm, but two years later he returned to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He spent 16 years as the criminal chief for the Middle District.
Franklin said he’s concentrating some resources on problems that also plague other areas of the state: violent crime and opioid abuse.
“In my district, and particularly here in the division where we sit, which is the northern division of the district, we’ve seen an uptick in violent crime,” Franklin said, noting that Montgomery had seen an increase in murder cases. A major way they approach that is by following the mandate from Attorney General Sessions to “reinvigorate” the Project Safe Neighborhoods program, which began back in 2002.
“We target violent offenders and people who are convicted felons and found to be in possession of a firearm, and we’ve targeted the worst of the worst in that we’ve kind of identified people who have pretty serious criminal histories or are shooters in the district,” Franklin said. The PSN program brings federal, state and local law enforcement resources together, because, “There are 23 counties in the district and I can’t effectively make an imprint in each of those counties without getting those folks who are interested in their county to give us some resources to help,” he said.
The PSN program has changed over time, he said. “In 2002, when they started the PSN program, it had an accountability component to it. …The accountability component was where they started tracking the crimes that were committed in the district based on the number of prosecutions that we did associated with that program. And they were able to show, after that program was enforced for a couple of years, that they actually saw a downtick in the number of violent crimes committed in the district,” Franklin said.
“We don’t have the accountability component now, but we know the program works and I think that’s why the attorney general has asked us to reinvigorate the program. And the way we reinvigorate it is to reach out to our partners,” which can be any of several state-based law enforcement agencies, from the Bureau of Pardons and Parole to a local police department, he said.
“Like the Montgomery Police Department has two officers assigned to the ATF Task Force, and they go through their records every night looking for people who have been found to be in possession of a firearm, maybe a felon. And the circumstances under which they catch these people is usually in a car stop, or some drug trafficking investigation. And so, they’re prosecuted for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
“And it’s not just felons in possession of a firearm, it could be a drug user in possession of a firearm. It could be an illegal alien in possession of a firearm. There are a number of ways to do this. But we’ve found that having this tool in the law enforcement toolbox, you can target people who are repeat offenders, and you can take them off the streets … and you should see a decrease in violent crime.”
Another Middle District priority, as is true across the state, is what has been called an epidemic of overdose deaths related to dangerous drugs, particularly opioids such as heroin and fentanyl.
“The recent surge of opioid abuse has gotten our attention, so we’re looking at some of the doctors and pharmacists in our district to make sure that they’re complying with the law and being – how should I say it – not just passing out prescriptions like we do candy to children,” Franklin said. “So, we’ve been pretty aggressive in that area. We’ve prosecuted a couple of pill mills, a couple of doctors and pharmacists here and there for violating their oath and the law.”
Health and Finance
Franklin said his office also focuses on health care fraud. “We have a dedicated person in the office, a lawyer, who looks at potential health care fraud cases,” he said.
Financial crimes also get a share of the attention. “So we’ve targeted bank fraud; we’ve targeted people who commit wire fraud,” he said. “Keep in mind that these things kind of cross over. They don’t have a lane all of their own, so you could have a violent crime where you might have a financial institution fraud component to it … or vice versa.”
Franklin’s office also has been involved in areas that might be surprising to some. “I think the one that we have where we probably do things that the public will never hear about is in the area of terrorism and national security,” he said. Some of his staff members are “dedicated to dealing with those issues kind of behind the scenes. And so, they never get recognition for the work that they do in conducting surveillance on people that they have identified that may be a threat to our national security, or in talking strategy about whether or not a crime has been committed in that front,” he said. “You don’t hear about them unless they become public or charges are actually filed, but we have dedicated resources for that.”
Franklin said that his office works with a joint terrorism task force, which includes federal, state and local agencies. “
That joint task force “is extremely important here in this district and they do pretty good work,” he said. “And I’m happy to report I have not had the opportunity to actually bring any charges under that umbrella since I’ve been sitting in the office.”
The Most Vulnerable
Franklin said that protecting children and the elderly, “people who could be victims of child pornography or victims of elderly abuse and human trafficking,” is also a significant concern in the Middle District. “I have someone in the office who is a point of contact for each of those priorities,” he said.
At the time of this interview, Franklin’s office had recently handled what has been rare in the district thus far: a human trafficking prosecution. “We identified two gentlemen – two adults – who were using a minor … to prostitute her, to get money to support their drug habits,” Franklin said. “So these two guys had a hotel and they were just basically pimping out a minor to have sex with people who would pay for sex … . They would take the money from the minor and they would go buy drugs and they would pay for the hotel room and whatever other expenses they needed, to include using meth because they were both addicted to meth.
“It was a pretty good case – we got two guilty verdicts – one guilty verdict from the jury, and the other defendant pled guilty.”
He expects to see an increase in such cases, he said. “We don’t see a lot of it, but it’s starting to pick up because we’re starting to train law enforcement on what to look for so that they can identify those perpetrators, those kinds of crimes, and bring that to our attention,” Franklin said.
Another area of human trafficking involves what Franklin called workplace enforcement to protect people from exploitation.
“Over in east Alabama we identified a contractor who had put up several people who were in the country illegally; they stayed at a hotel room…several hotel rooms, it was almost like a compound,” he said, adding that the contractor owned the aging hotel. “The workers who were illegally here had to pay for their room and board. They had to pay for all the tools that they used on the construction sites that they were sent out on every day, …and then they were paid less than minimum wage.”
Franklin said his staff is seeking to protect children, in particular, from sexual exploitation through a program called Project Safe Childhood.
“That’s our program that we’ve used to enforce our reporting requirements for people who’ve been convicted of sexual crimes against children … and also for the possession, the distribution and receipt of child pornography,” Franklin said. “We have a lot of those cases. The difficulty with doing those cases is getting the forensics done so that we can present them to a grand jury or a jury in a timely manner. It usually takes about six months to get the forensics done. But we have one dedicated person here in the office and that’s all she does. She does child pornography cases, and she does the human trafficking cases.”
Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
Under the current justice administration, Franklin said, one change in how his office does its job relates to how federal prosecutors pursue specific charges. The goal now is to send convicted criminals to prison for the maximum amount of time possible under the circumstances of the case.
“Under the previous administration, we were given a little bit more flexibility in our charging decisions,” he said. “Under this administration we have been told to go back to what we were told prior to the previous administration – and that is, you will charge the most serious and readily provable offense … which means that the mandatory minimums which … had to be justified in a memo before they were brought (under the Obama administration Justice Department), are now back on the table.”
Now, Franklin said, “prosecutors can use their discretion in deciding whether or not it’s appropriate to charge a mandatory minimum, and whether or not it’s appropriate to use the mandatory minimum to secure a plea agreement to get to the next level of criminal activity. So, I think that’s the biggest change and it’s one that I welcome and I enjoy using to fight crime.”
Having the mandatory minimum sentence to use as leverage can make one criminal inform on another, he said. In the case of a drug trafficking prosecution, having discretion to ask for a heavier minimum sentence – without having to get cleared first – can let prosecutors lean on a suspect for more cooperation.
“The plan and the strategy has always been (that) you want to identify somebody who is trafficking in narcotics, you want to make sure you know just how heavy a dealer this person is, and then you want to find out who they’re getting their supply from – who’s supplying them. Then you want to go up and you want to find out who’s supplying him. You also want to figure out what assets they have and so you can hit them in the pocket and take the money or the assets that were developed or used during the trafficking of the narcotics,” Franklin said.
In a violent crime case, having the option to use the mandatory minimum can get a suspect to “come in and tell you who else is involved in the crime, because you can tell them that the sentence they’re facing is greater than what they really anticipated.”
Changing the Conversation
Franklin said that during his tenure, he wants to change not only the way law enforcement connects with the community it polices, but also the whole conversation about that relationship.
“I think the one thing that I would like to do differently than the people who’ve sat in this chair before me is I really want to get the community and other law enforcement agencies involved in working and solving the problems that we’re facing,” he said. “I think the biggest key has been … getting the community to buy in to what we’re doing and making sure that they understand why we do what we do, and that they help us in doing what we do.
“I would really like to change the narrative that a person who notifies law enforcement of a problem that exists in their community is labeled as a snitch and receives all those negative connotations that go along with that word. Because in some instances, especially in the terrorism context, that person will generally be viewed as a hero. And I don’t understand why that person would be viewed as a snitch in a violent crime context just because they come forward and they help law enforcement solve a murder in the community or, you know, any other kind of violent crime that goes on in a community.”
Given the exacerbated tensions between some communities and law enforcement, how will the U.S. Attorney’s Office change the conversation? Franklin said it would be about reaching out.
“We have outreach efforts,” he said. “We send people from the office to go out and talk to schools, the universities, at the high schools, some junior high schools. We have videos that we show people that talk about the dangers of opioid abuse. And then, just going out and talking to people at different locations – at churches, at community centers – and kind of just tell them what we do – because most folks don’t know – and why we do what we do.”
There’s a lot to overcome to break down barriers between law enforcement officers and communities, he acknowledged. “I think the perception of law enforcement has taken a hit here recently. And, you know, some fair. Some not so fair. But I think that because of that we have to be a little bit more transparent in what we do in making sure that the public understands what we do and why we do it,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, our job is to help protect them, and I think that they need to help us do that.”
Nick Patterson, formerly editor of Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper, leads a project looking at the influence of federal dollars, personalities, programs and policies in Alabama. The Alabama-Washington connection is a multi-billion-dollar question for Alabama, and that’s just the U.S. government dollars at play in a year in the state.