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New U.S. Attorney for NY's Northern District feels "protective" over her home

Carla Freedman, US Attorney for New York's Northern District, at the district's office in downtown Albany.
Jim Levulis
Carla Freedman, US Attorney for New York's Northern District

Carla Freedman was sworn in as the U.S. Attorney for New York’s Northern District in October 2021, taking over for Toni Bacon, who held the role in an acting capacity for the final months of President Trump’s term and the start of President Biden’s. Freedman, who has been with the office since 2007, is the first woman confirmed by the U.S. Senate to lead the district. WAMC's Jim Levulis recently sat down with Freedman in the district’s Albany office to discuss her office’s priorities and why she pursued a law enforcement career.

Freedman: Probably like a lot of people, I was a liberal arts grad out of Syracuse. I initially went to college thinking I wanted to be an actress, but quickly discovered that that was probably not the most stable field to go into. So I graduated with a degree in political science from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. And before I graduated, it became pretty clear, there's not a lot of jobs for a poli sci major. So like a lot of poli sci majors, I thought I would go to law school. I always had an interest in the law. My paternal grandparents, both my grandmother and my grandfather were attorneys. So it was sort of in the blood. And I was always interested in criminal work, criminal defense work. So the truth is, I went to law school wanting to be a lawyer, wanting to be a trial lawyer. But what I really wanted to do was to be a public defender. I thought that that would be the most righteous thing was to help represent people who couldn't afford attorneys in criminal cases. And that was my whole intention through law school. In the third year of law school when you're interviewing for jobs, I was also interviewing, I went to law school in New York City, with the local district attorneys there, because that was also sort of a logical fit. It's just the other side. And when I had an interview with the District Attorney in Manhattan, Robert Morgenthau, who's just a legend, he began to talk to me about how important it was, there was a scandal going on at the time, involving the transit police. And it had come to light that they were making up arrests. They were mostly targeting homeless people who were sleeping on the subways and alleging that they had done chain snatches and other types of larcenies. And Mr. Morgenthau was understandably completely upset, because not only did he intend to prosecute these officers who had perjured themselves and lied, but there were hundreds, if not thousands of people who had wrongly been convicted that he wanted to find those cases and undo it. And I have to say, I always tell the story, I literally feel like there was a light bulb moment that went off at that time, where I realized if your goal is really to do justice and make sure the right outcome happens, to the extent that we can, you're better off being a prosecutor. And I have always felt that way. Even now 33 years later, of going in every day, trying to make sure that the right thing is done. You know, many of the cases, you know, they initiate first with our office, whether I was a state prosecutor with a local police officer, or now with federal agents, we can do the right thing right off the bat, which means pursuing, of course, aggressively those people that are committing the most heinous crimes, but at the same time, we are the gatekeeper and making sure that the right people are charged with the right crimes.

Levulis: To this office, you are the first woman confirmed by the US Senate to lead this particular office. Does that carry a certain significance at all for you?

Freedman: It certainly does. I am truly every day humbled and honored to be in the position of US attorney. And obviously, I'm aware that I'm the first woman confirmed to lead this office. I am proud to say that we have a number of women in my office who carry strong leadership roles. Some of them are supervisors and some of them are just attorneys leading other attorneys. So I feel I'm in the company of many great women. So I don't feel very alone, I would say because my first assistant is a woman. I have a number of team leaders who are women. And so I'm aware that I'm a woman, and I hope I set an example for others. But I'm also learning from the other women in my office all the time.

Levulis: You mentioned Syracuse you grew up in Syracuse, and you've been with the Northern District, which is a huge district covers roughly 30,000 square miles and 32 counties in New York, like you need reminding, as an Assistant US Attorney since 2007. Do you think that knowledge of the region and experience in the region benefits you in this in this role?

Freedman: It absolutely does. I'll tell you a couple of things. Some I knew before I took this job and some I've thought about since being you know confirmed and sworn in. It is a huge region. As you mentioned, I grew up in Syracuse, my dad was a professor at Syracuse University. So I've been here since I was three years old. And as we mentioned, I too am an alum of Syracuse University. So I certainly know Syracuse well. I know the surrounding areas well. As a kid growing up, I traveled, we went to the Adirondacks. So I have an innate love and knowledge, not of all 32 counties. I'm still exploring, clearly the North Country isn't a place that I, you know, spend a lot of time until now as I'm trying to get up there more often, and making a lot of trips to Albany. So part of it is just the knowledge growing up, I'm familiar with the counties, I can pronounce the names. I know how to spell Skaneateles. But the other thing that I'm aware of is I'm driving around the 32 counties, and I am doing a lot of driving. I've got this bizarre maternal feeling. It's like, this is my home, all of it. And I'm now responsible as the chief law enforcement officer of keeping the community safe, doing what we can in the communities to make lives better for people to the extent that my office can do that. And I didn't expect that. I knew that I know the area. Certainly some counties better than others began from growing up there. But this kind of protective feeling over my home. And I will say when I moved back to Syracuse, after years in New York City, it was very important to me to be home. I looked at other US Attorney offices, and I was fortunate to have offers from some of the other US Attorney offices, and it was always the job I wanted. But I wanted to come home. And this is home.

Levulis: We’ve been talking about your experience in the Justice Department. And since 2007, there's been four US presidents, seven attorney generals, not counting those serving in an acting capacity. Do those changes in administration and often with it policy changes, trickle down to the individual offices?

Freedman: Yes and no. Obviously, we take our direction from main Justice and the Attorney Generals that we've had. Each will have certain priorities that they will enforce or ask us to enforce and to prioritize. On the other hand, they give to all 93 US Attorneys the ability, because each district is different, to pick what are your priorities in your community. And so I always sort of say you just can't kind of color outside the lines or go beyond the guardrails. So there have been different enforcement actions that have trickled down that we all engage in. Some districts need to pursue it more than others because it's more an issue in their districts. But I think we have a fair amount of freedom within our districts to address what are the concerns of the people that are here.

Levulis: Moving outside your district, in neighboring Massachusetts there was a protracted and fierce debate in the US Senate over the confirmation of Suffolk County District Attorney Racheal Rollins as that state's US Attorney. She was eventually confirmed with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie breaking vote. Is it beneficial to the justice system that such appointments undergo such strong scrutiny or is the process becoming too politicized in your mind?

Freedman: Well, I'm not really one to comment on the politics of it. I am aware of what happened with Ms. Rollins. Ironically, she was in the group of nominees of US attorneys with me. And I was watching the debate in the Judiciary Committee. I was watching it to see, you know, sort of exciting to see whether I got moved out of Judiciary into the main Senate. And there was extensive debate on her record. I can only say that it in the past, this certainly seems to be a departure. That in the past, there's been I think, some deference to the senators from the different states about their recommendation as to who they would like to recommend, they don't nominate, who they are recommending to the president. And there has in the past been deference. Is political debate a good idea? Perhaps. I mean, I can certainly say that you would hope that each and every candidate who eventually gets nominated by the president and I will say having been through it myself, there's an extensive vetting process. Before President Biden formally nominates any of us, we are vetted. There's a lot of questions about your background, your goals, who you are, your ties to different organizations. And I think President Biden is clearly looking for the people that will best represent the Department of Justice and the president in their various districts. In the past, as I say, it seems as though there has just been deference given to the different candidates that each senator has recommended to the president and who the president ultimately nominates. And it has become more political, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, I can't really say. I'm sure there could be an argument made, that the more we scrutinize, the better the ultimate candidate is, but it is certainly a departure from what we've seen in the past.

Levulis: Looking back to the recent history of this office, Attorney Toni Bacon, who was in the role in an acting capacity, she mentioned that public corruption would be a top priority for this office. Before her time in New York, she helped to lead a major corruption trial in Ohio. Now, this district obviously includes the state capital of Albany and New York is no stranger to corruption or governmental wrongdoing. Does having the state legislature, the governor's office, state agencies within this district’s jurisdiction increase the amount of resources and focus on possible public corruption than say maybe the Western District of New York?

Freedman: Well, I would say first of all, every single US Attorney's Office is interested in in corruption cases, we have to be, as I say, part of our function as gatekeeper and one of those is holding public officials accountable for any type of criminal act. So long before Ms. Bacon, I mean, certainly since I arrived in the office in 2007, and I'm sure prior to my arrival, public corruption has always been a priority in this office, and as I say, likely in other offices as well. I just came from a week in Washington with 22 of the first batch of confirmed US Attorneys, including Trini Ross, who is the new US Attorney in the Western District of New York. And I know it's very important to Trini, as well, granted, the capital does not sit in her district. But nonetheless, there she is actively looking to pursue corruption cases. So are we. It's a continued tradition. Your question had to do with resources. One of the truths is that because in New York we also have the Eastern District of New York and the Southern District of New York, one with headquarters in Brooklyn, the other one in Manhattan. Again, I met those two US attorneys, wonderful people, terrific people. Breon Peace in the Eastern District and Damian Williams in the Southern District. Those offices are enormous compared to ours. And the reality is that they have far more resources. So yes, Albany sits in our district, my district, the Northern District, but in terms of resources, it's not as though the Department of Justice, nationwide resources aren't allocated based on the capital sits in your district, therefore you get more resources, it's really more a function of the population. So we do not have the resources that the Southern District and the Eastern District have. And by that, I mean, nowhere near the number of attorneys. The Southern District, for example, has in house investigators. You know, former law enforcement officials who are now working within the department, in the US Attorney's Office, that can pursue those cases. And of course, similarly, the amount of FBI agents that are sitting in Manhattan versus in Albany, you can't compare. That being said, we continue to pursue these cases with whatever resources we have. We have before, we certainly will under my administration. I have a really great relationship, we have a new Special Agent in Charge of the FBI [in Albany], Janeen DiGuiseppi. And I know this is certainly a priority for her. We meet regularly. And we will continue to pursue those cases. I have to say, having just spent a week with my New York counterparts, it was almost like your freshman year of college and meeting your freshmen roommates, that the kind of people that you know, you're going through this together for the first time. They were all fantastic people and the real theme was supporting each other and real collaboration. So I have no doubt that even with the resources that they have that exceed ours, to the extent that my office or the FBI up here needs assistance with cases that we're trying to build, I have complete faith that I'll be able to rely on my US Attorney counterparts downstate.

Levulis: So that cooperation in your mind kind of balances out the imbalance in the resources in a sense?

Freedman: I think it does. I don't know whether, you know, prior US attorneys have had the good fortune that I have in meeting, you know, at the exact same time. We were all confirmed at the same time. So there's this sort of bonding. So I feel like I'm really lucky with the relationships that we've started and the ability to share those resources. And I will say, you know, investigations start all over the place and where they ultimately end up, you know, we often make decisions about where the best place to prosecute a case is. So it may have initiated in Albany, but perhaps all the witnesses are located in Brooklyn, located in Manhattan, there's more evidence there, things that make more sense, maybe part of the case would be prosecuted here and part there. But again, the corruption cases will remain a priority for my office and every other office and we will pursue them to the best of our ability.

Levulis: In terms of the jurisdiction, you know with the proliferation of work being done electronically now, does that kind of blur the lines in a sense? If you're sitting at a desk in Albany, right, but you are in contact with somebody in New York City, you know that's both jurisdictions there.

Freedman: Right. It gives us the freedom to charge cases in a lot of places because, you know, when you're using wire, I mean, you see it most often with wire fraud, you know, somebody could be sitting anywhere, but the fraud could happen in our district and, you know gives us the ability to charge those cases, because, yes, we have venue, we have jurisdiction. So I certainly think that the ability to pursue these cases in a variety of ways will enable us to hopefully bring more cases and certainly be able to use the resources easier. I mean, just on an aside, perhaps, if there is a silver lining to the pandemic and COVID, our ability to telework has really increased, our knowledge of how to use WebEx, Zoom, Teams. So where we used to need to, you know, fly a witness in or, you know, in order to interview them, or for us to travel, we've become much more comfortable with that technology. So for example, if there are witnesses in Brooklyn, you know, we'll be able to, I think, in a much more comfortable setting, be able to do a Zoom interview and interview them and speak to them. Now, of course, we always had the telephone, but when you're trying to size somebody up, it's always better to have video. So perhaps there will be some silver lining after this pandemic, that it's increased our ability to prosecute cases and to, you know, utilize witnesses who are not here.

Levulis: Now, obviously there are multiple investigations going into the January 6th riot at the US Capitol, including criminal, involving multiple agencies. What's this office’s role?

Freedman: So our office has been an active participant in that investigation. I also had the opportunity to while I was in Washington, meet the new US Attorney in DC, Matt Graves, another wonderful person. So that is an incredibly labor intensive investigation. It's involving thousands of people, thousands of agents and prosecutors. Our offices, the Northern District of New York has done a number of things to assist. Number one, there have been a number, and I'm sure you've seen, of residents that reside in the Northern District of New York, who participated in some form in the January 6 riots. And so to the extent that, although the DC office is spearheading the entire investigation, we have assisted with the execution of search warrants, drafting search warrants. When those people have been charged, handling the initial appearances on those people, as well as their detention hearings before they're ultimately transferred to the DC Circuit, where they'll be ultimately prosecuted. And we've handled those cases, both in our Syracuse office and our Albany office. Additionally, because it is so labor intensive, and the number of prosecutors that the US Attorney's office needs in DC they are constantly looking for what they call detailees, US attorneys, AUSAs, Assistant US attorneys from all the districts to come and help. And we have sent one of our AUSAs, Doug Collier, who sits in our Plattsburgh office, he volunteered, and we were happy to send him. An extremely gifted prosecutor. So he has been there for over seven months now. He is coming back, we miss him greatly. But I couldn't be more proud and honored to actually provide, as short staffed as we are right now, it was really important to the office to assist in this effort. So those are two clear ways that we've been able to assist, and we will continue to assist to the extent that the DC office needs our help.

Levulis: With that scale that you mentioned, is there any indication of how long these investigations will remain open?

Freedman: I really don't know. That'd be a great question for Matt Graves. It's certainly going to be there for the foreseeable future. I will say as you can see, on the other hand, it looks like they're making tremendous progress. There have been arrests, investigations, guilty pleas. I think they're coming up on some of their first trials. I'm reading it the way you are in the news and some of my conversations with my colleague last week, but I couldn't say is how long the investigation will remain open.

Levulis: You mentioned staffing, what's the situation with this office in regards to staffing?

Freedman: So we have a few vacancies that we had posted for Assistant US attorneys. We are currently looking to hire. The posting closed. I'm looking forward we have a fantastic hiring committee. We have a couple of vacancies in Syracuse or Binghamton. We'll be happy to find a qualified candidate who'd be happy in either city as well as in Albany and we may soon have a vacancy announcement for Plattsburgh. We've been really lucky in the past. I have a fantastic office. We have people that apply from all over the country. We're always looking for the best and the brightest that want to come and serve the Department of Justice here in the Northern District of New York. So one of the things I'm really looking forward to is hiring some new attorneys to add to my staff that are working so hard.

Levulis: And you've been with the office since 2007, as we mentioned, is this a normal amount of vacancies? Obviously, economy wide we're hearing a lot about vacancies, having trouble filling jobs.

Freedman: I think it is a pretty normal amount, there is you know some attrition that happens as people come and go. Years and years and years ago, it didn't seem as though vacancies opened up as much. I know, when I was applying, it didn't seem as though they had as many openings. But I think it's a different era now where, you know, people come, they stay for a number of years, and all sorts of things happen, where they end up needing to move for family reasons. I think in our office, truthfully, we have far fewer vacancies and far less turnover than some of the other offices. Part of it's just logical. You know, we're government employees, we make government salaries. And so in cities like Manhattan, or Brooklyn, or Chicago or Los Angeles, those are really expensive places to live. And it's really hard on a government salary to do that for an extended period of time, particularly as you have a family and your family expands. So there's many, many great things about in my opinion living here in the Northern District, but one for sure is that it's an it's a very good cost of living. We have fairly affordable housing, really good public schools, commute times aren't bad. And if you can deal with the snow, you know, it's heaven.

Levulis: And Albany snow for the record, not as bad as Syracuse snow. So you should be OK there.

Freedman: For the record, I will agree. As much as I bleed orange and I’m Syracuse through and through, Albany does have less snow and apparently more sunny days.

Levulis: This office, in the Albany area in the past year or so, announced a sort of renewed cooperation with local, state and federal agencies in regards to gun crime. You mentioned working with the new FBI special agent in charge in Albany. What's your approach to gun crime and working with the local agencies district wide?

Freedman: 100% we're working with the local agencies on a federal, state and local level. I did that even as a line prosecutor, my background is in violent crime, drugs. So I've frequently met with different task forces and sat with different task forces to address gun violence and violent crime in general. We will absolutely continue that. In addition to meeting regularly with the SEC from the FBI, I've met with the ATF. I've met with the DEA. I will continue to do that. I yesterday got to meet for the first time what a wonderful man, the Albany police chief, Eric Hawkins. And we had this very discussion about addressing that. He was grateful for the continued cooperation of my office with his office. I've met with the local district attorneys in Albany County, Schenectady County, Rensselaer County. Again, I'm able to just build on what has always been a real collaborative effort between state prosecutors, state and local law enforcement agencies in my office. I've done the same in Syracuse, I'm doing the same in Utica, really addressing the bigger cities. My office continues, and we'll always work with state and locals addressing however we can best gun violence and just all violent crime in general.

Levulis: What are the particular challenges when it comes to stamping out gun violence?

Freedman: Well, as you know, I mean, our cities, my district as well as across the country, we have a huge increase in violent crime. Some of it may be pandemic fueled, and some of it, you know, you need to speak to sociologists as to what the stem is. We're not going to prosecute our way out of this. So part of the challenge, I think, is also looking and figuring out what we can do from a community outreach education point of view. Again, that's not what my office's expertise is. It's not my expertise, but I think we need to address that. I know it's important to President Biden, it's important to the Attorney General, Mr. Garland. He's really emphasized community outreach and talking about prevention and education. On the back end, of course, is real targeted and specific strategic enforcement. You know, my office can't and shouldn't prosecute everybody who possesses a gun. Some of these cases are going to be handled by the local district attorneys, many of them. New York State, thankfully has some pretty strong gun laws so they have good tools and we have complementary tools to address that. So I think it's really a question of us figuring out what's the best way that my office can come in and not just make arrests and prosecutions. My goal is not to increase the number of arrests or prosecutions. But how can we make a difference? What I want to look at the end of my term or even month to month is, are we reducing violent crime? And I think the way to do that is not to arrest everybody. But it's to strategically figure out who are the people that are the biggest problems causing the most violence in these particular neighborhoods that are suffering so badly.

Levulis: We mentioned your predecessor a couple times, Attorney Toni Bacon. Is she still with the office?

Freedman: Yeah, she's an assistant United States Attorney in our criminal division sitting in the Albany office.

Levulis: How's that relationship work with you know you now in the lead, and she's still part of the office?

Freedman: Like any of my other assistant United States attorneys, you know, she's in the office, doing cases, doing her work and I'm doing my job.

Levulis: Finally, is there anything about this office, your work, your work of your staff that you'd like the public to know, that we haven't discussed already?

Freedman: No, I appreciate it, you were very well prepared. And I really appreciate the thoughtful questions. No just that we are here. You know, hopefully my office is known, but to the extent that we're not, I'd like them to know that I've got, you know 50 attorneys and about another at least 50 support staff, all of whom are working diligently every day to keep our community safe, you know, to bring civil enforcement actions, to defend the United States in civil cases where we need to, and I couldn't be prouder of each and every person in my office and just how hard they're working.

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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