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New U.S. Attorney For Northern NY Discusses Goals, Legal Career

In early September, U.S. Attorney General William Barr designated Antoinette Bacon as the Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York. The 45-year-old who goes by Toni replaced Grant Jaquith, who resigned after three years to become a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. 

Bacon oversees an office of roughly 100 people covering an area of 30,000 square miles and 32 counties in Northern and Central New York.

Earlier this week, WAMC's Jim Levulis sat down with Bacon at the James T. Foley U.S. Courthouse in downtown Albany to discuss her work and why she chose a career in law enforcement.

Levulis: First off, why have you pursued a career in law enforcement?

Bacon: To me, it's all about making the community safer, safer for everybody, safer for children, safer for the elderly, for those who live in rural America, and those who live in the inner city, so that everyday people can walk down the street and not worry about being hit with a stray bullet and can answer their phones and not worry that it's a scammer on the other end of the line. So really, it's about making a difference in our community.

You were designated as acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York in early September. Can you take us through your career leading up to that point?

Sure. As you mentioned, I'm a career prosecutor and I started out in the Department of Justice. My first day was actually September 12, 2001. And it was a very challenging time for America, and really highlighted for me the importance of public service, of coming together as a community, as a country, and making sure that we keep America safe for everybody. And so I've been working my career through the Department of Justice prosecuting a variety of cases, in different districts around the country in different types of cases, from complex public corruption, to drugs and guns, to organized crime, to gambling cases. And to most recently, Elder Justice work.

With your first day being September 12, 2001, did that change your look at law enforcement at all, knowing that you were probably heading in looking in that day, maybe one way and these terrible events happened the day before your first day? How did that alter you or did it?

Oh, it did tremendously. I was inspired and motivated by how everyone in the community just came together. It didn't matter the color of their badge or their agency or organization. It didn't matter if they were from a big city or a small town, we united as a country. And what was also exciting to see was the community coming together to support one another, to lift up one another, to help and encourage one another. It was a time we banded together as a nation and saw a lot of good come out of something that was perhaps one of the most horrible, unspeakable tragedies in our nation's history.

Coming ahead to the present day, why did you decide to take this job here in the Northern District of New York?

The same reason I've been a prosecutor for nearly 20 years, I truly believe in making the community safe for everybody. And when I looked at the challenges that we have here in Northern New York, I, I saw that I had the ability to be to make a difference, and to be part of the change, and to help bring about peace for everybody in our community.

Since United States presidents typically make their own appointments of U.S. attorneys, and this being an election year, there is the chance that you only have about three total months in this post. Does that factor into your work at all?

If I had three days, three weeks, three months or three years, I would approach the job the exact same way. And that's every single day to do my best to make the community safer to prevent the violence that we're seeing on the streets, children being shot as they're standing outside of their homes. Elderly seniors being targeted by scammers, these vicious robo-callers who are trying to swindle them out of their life savings. Folks in rural part of our state who are being inundated with this poison methamphetamine that's coming in from Mexico, and children who are just trying to do school online being targeted by sexual predators. Every single day we have to work hard, we have to do better to try to keep people safe and make the community a great place for all.

When you were with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Ohio, you helped lead what became known as the Cuyahoga County Corruption Case, in which over the course of a nine-year investigation, if I have that correct, involved the prosecution of more than 60 public officials and business executives. The office you now run includes the capitol of New York State. Does corruption remain top of mind for you, given that the previous leaders of this state legislature here in New York were brought up on corruption charges?

Public corruption has to be a top priority. The government is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and importantly for the people. It's about public service, not self-service. Public officials should be looking to help the community to enhance the community to give people opportunities, not to look for handouts, enrich themselves and dole out jobs and contracts to their friends or to those who are willing to pay the highest amount. In other words, public corruption is absolutely unacceptable. And it's going to be one of the priorities of this office as long as I'm here.

This district also includes a number of companies which conduct international business, I think of General Electric and Schenectady, Global Foundries in Malta. Your predecessor on the job, now Judge Grant Jaquith, did handle a number of cases that involved trade secrets being stolen. As business and communication is increasingly conducted online and internationally, does that open up more doors for criminals?

Absolutely. And with COVID, and the increased amount of people teleworking, our reliance on computers, the risks are only greater. American companies invest millions of dollars in research in engineering and design. And you mentioned some larger companies, but many of these are smaller mom and pop shops. You know, most of our country's businesses are smaller businesses, and they can't afford to have what they worked their entire life for, sometimes for generations, stolen ruthlessly by China, or by other countries, so that they could get an unfair advantage, right so that they can make the products cheaper and faster without having to invest. So we absolutely have to make sure that we're educating businesses on the threats, educating employees on the threats, and working diligently to investigate and prosecute those who are trying to steal this valuable American resource.

Now to the COVID-19 pandemic. In neighboring Massachusetts the U.S. Attorney's Office is looking into COVID-19 deaths at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. Is your office looking into anything COVID-19 related?

Obviously, I can't speak on the existence or nonexistence of any ongoing investigation. But as you know, immediately before I became the acting United States Attorney, I was the national Elder Justice coordinator at the Department of Justice. And as part of that, I was thrilled to be part of Attorney General Barr announcing a nursing home initiative that focuses on the worst of the worst nursing homes, who are giving grossly substandard care to our seniors, who are not providing them adequate food, adequate medication, who have abhorrent infection control. In other words, they're taking money to give a service to those who are most in need and they're squandering it and they're not spending it on these patients. They are putting profit before patients. And that's absolutely unacceptable. Seniors should be one of the most treasured parts of our community. Think about it, they built our bridges, our roads, they educated us, they made this community what it is. And we owe it back to them to make sure that in their golden years, they are not being tortured by unscrupulous criminals.

Sticking with the theme of the COVID-19 pandemic, like many aspects of life, the legal community has sort of been upended by it. A lot of legal proceedings have been conducted virtually. In your mind and with your experience, is that something that could continue on having some legal matters held virtually in the argument of saving time, saving money?

I think there are a lot of things that we've learned from the pandemic. And I think one of them is how to be able to leverage technology in a way that still respects and balances constitutional rights. That is, first and foremost, that we are able to make sure that defendants, that victims, that the media, the community have the ability to access our proceedings and to participate fully and fairly in the proceedings. But we've also learned as a community that we can use technology in a way that still allows for that, but also keeps people safe and secure. So I look forward to working with the Chief Judge, with the federal defenders, with the private bar here, with the clerk of court to see how can we take the lessons learned during this time and use them going forward to enhance our ability to pursue justice.

Specifically to this office, your office, how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the functions of it?

I think like everyone in the community, it's affected us greatly. Right? We're very concerned for one another, as a family as friends. We're concerned for each other's children and their parents. And I want to make sure that first and foremost, everyone is safe and healthy. That being said, I have been so impressed by the amount of work that our team has been able to do despite these incredible challenges, that we've been able to still pursue violent drug gangs, that we’ve still been able to arrest child predators, that we're still able to focus on fraudsters who are taking advantage of this pandemic to enrich themselves, and to continue the great work and the great tradition of the Northern District of New York.

Now, U.S. Attorney General William Barr has said that President Trump being so vocal about the operations of the Justice Department, including voicing his criticism of the department has made his own job more difficult. I'm speaking to Attorney General William Barr there. Have you felt any pressure about which investigations to pursue in your work?

Absolutely not.

The Associated Press recently analyzed data that showed that the nation's top federal prosecutors have become less diverse under President Trump compared to his three predecessors. This recent report found that 85% of President Trump's Senate-confirmed U.S. attorneys are white men compared with 58% in President Barack Obama's eight years, 73% during President George W. Bush's two terms, and 63% under President Bill Clinton's two terms. Do those findings concern you at all?

I'm not familiar with that particular study that you've mentioned, or those particular statistics that you've mentioned, but I know that Attorney General Barr believes in hiring and promoting the best and the brightest, that he has three daughters, and he's looking for the right person for the right job at the right time. And certainly it has been an honor to be the first female United States attorney here in the Northern District of New York. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to serve in that role.

Finally, is there anything you would like the public to know about the work of your office?

I'd love the public to know that we have an office here who is committed 100% every day, to doing justice, to making the community safer, to making sure that when kids are online, they're not being lured or accosted by sexual predators, to make sure that when the phone rings you don't have to worry that it's a fraudster trying to swindle you out of your life savings, to make sure that people can go to a park without a concern of finding fentanyl needles lying around or being sprayed by bullets from a random car driving by shooting recklessly into the street. That businesses can develop new technology and not be concerned that it's going to be stolen and used overseas. And most of all that our entire community will just be a better and safer place for everybody.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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