Things haven’t been dull for Barbara McQuade.
Right after being sworn in as the Detroit U.S. Attorney in January 2010, she started dealing with the “Underwear Bomber” case involving Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate an explosive aboard a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas day.
Later that year, her office indicted ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
This year, her staff scored a major victory, convicting Kilpatrick, his buddy Bobby Ferguson and his dad Bernard Kilpatrick. She was involved in the decision that lead to the FBI digging for Jimmy Hoffa in June. And her prosecutors continue to investigate corruption in Wayne County government.
In a wide-ranging interview, McQuade, who has been a prosecutor in the office for 15 years, sat down with Deadline Detroit to talk about public corruption, terrorism, Hezbollah’s links to Metro Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick’s upcoming sentencing, the Hoffa mystery, the credibility of ex-mobster Tony Zerilli who provided the latest tip as to Hoffa's whereabouts, and what went into the decision to dig for the legendary union leader recently in Oakland Township.
“We knew there’d be some ridicule, like ‘Oh my gosh, they’re digging for Hoffa again,” she says.
The following interview was condensed and the questions were edited for clarity.
DD: Can we expect more indictments out of City Hall?
McQuade: I don’t know about city hall per se. I guess I wouldn’t want to comment on that. The pension fund case is pending and we’ll go to trial early part of next year. It’s no secret that we’re currently investigating Wayne County government because that has all been very public despite our efforts to do our best make sure we protect the integrity of people involved in that investigation. I think there have been six defendants convicted to date in that investigation.
DD: I noticed in the paper that former U.S. Attorney Jeff Collins, who works for Bob Ficano, has asked you for a letter for Ficano saying he’s not a target of the investigation. Apparently he’s not gotten one. Is there a reason not to issue a letter?
McQuade: I don’t want to comment on that other than we are investigating all aspects of Wayne County and we don’t know yet where the evidence may lead us. So people should not infer anything positive or negative from that.
DD: It's unusual for a federal judge to detain a defendant in a white collar case before sentencing. Were you surprised Judge Nancy Edmunds detained Kwame Kilpatrick?
McQuade: We thought we had a reasonable chance of that outcome. I don’t know I expected that outcome. I wasn’t stunned in light of the history he had in the state court with flouting court orders.
DD: Have you seen that before in a white collar case?
McQuade: From time to time people get detained in white collar cases. I agree with you that it is more rare. There was no argument that he was a danger to the community and more often, those are the kind of defendants who get detained. This was more along the lines of risk of flight and a history of not complying with court orders.
DD: How involved was the Justice Department with the Kwame case and how worried were they about pulling the trigger and indicting?
McQuade: Not much at all. The Justice Department does get involved in certain kinds of cases with national implications. For example, the Abdulatalab case (Underwear Bomber), which was an international terrorism case. They were very involved in that and wanted to be kept apprised at every step of the way and we needed approval from them every step of the way. The Kilpatrick case much less so. Really we were notifying them of significant events in that case. But other than that, they really let us run that case on our own.
DD: You indicted Bernard Kilpatrick, Kwame’s dad, who worked as a business consultant for city contractors. I know prosecutors sometimes worry the jury might be more sympathetic when they see a family unit on trial. Was that something that was debated?
McQuade: I guess I don’t want to talk about specifics of what we debated. But you’re absolutely right that those are always the kinds of things that you think about: How does this affect the jury’s perception of the case? Are we overreaching in any way? But we felt very strongly about charging Bernard Kilpatrick because we thought the evidence against him was very strong. Ultimately, the jury was hung on him with respect to RICO charges but did convict him of the tax charges. There was wire tap evidence, video evidence, that we thought was very strong that (showed) he was just not a participant but a leader in this activity.
DD: Do you think in his case or others the laws involving lobbying and consulting are too vague?
McQuade: Well, sometimes the lines are unclear about what is permitted and what is not permitted. But the evidence we thought in this case was very strong that there was no gray matter, that this was misconduct. But as I said, reasonable minds can disagree.
DD: A lot of people were happy to see the indictment, but some supporters of his wondered if it was racially motivated. Did you feel pressure if he walked that it would bolster his cries of racism?
McQuade: I wasn’t worried about it. Defendants always have some argument about why they’re being unfairly targeted. That’s a fairly common tactic. Certainly it was an important case for the city of Detroit. And so we did feel strongly and had great hopes the jury would see it our way and convict him. If he had not been held accountable I think it would have sent a terrible message to the entire city of Detroit and the entire community.
DD: In terms of sentencing for Kwame, have you guys figured out what you’re going to be pushing for?
McQuade: I don’t want to comment on that. I expect the guidelines will be high and that we will advocate for a sentence commensurate with other defendants who have been found guilty of similar offenses like Gov. Rod Blagojevich and County Commissioner (Jimmy) Dimora in Cleveland. And Frank Russo in Cleveland. Russo got 21 years or something like that. Those are things I think we’ll ask the court to look at along with the sentencing guidelines.
DD: Does it matter if he gets 15 or 20 years? Is the message any different?
McQuade: I think a significant number is very important. Because in these cases it’s all about deterrence.
DD: Is 15 years significant?
McQuade: It is significant.
DD: Does it matter, 15 or 20? That’s the question. Is there a point of diminishing returns?
McQuade: I suppose philosophically, yes there probably is. I don’t know what that point is.
DD: In terms of terrorism in this area, are there active investigations going on?
McQuade: There many active investigations that go on. Some of them never materialize into criminal cases. Sometimes we’re working with federal agents on cases that have more intelligence value then actually materialize into a criminal case. Sometimes we’re assisting in putting together cases that end up with FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court). They assist the government in getting a better understanding what the threats are. We’ve had the Abdulmutallab underwear case. We’ve had a few cases involving financial support to terrorism organizations like Hezbollah.
DD: Hezbollah seems to have a presence in Dearborn. Is there some confusion in the community as what they can contribute financially?
McQuade: Yes, we’ve actually gone out and done some public forums on that topic. People seem to understand the distinction. There are people in our community who support Hezbollah verbally and they have a First Amendment right to do that. I think historically many of them came from villages bordering Israel where Hezbollah was not just a military organization but also a social services organization. So they have an allegiance to Hezbollah. That is not illegal.
But what they cannot do, and what the law forbids, is providing what’s called material support to any organization that has been designated a foreign terrorism organization by the secretary of state of the United States and Hezbollah is one of them.
DD: How has your approach to terrorism changed since Sept. 11?
McQuade: We have changed the name of our unit from counterterrorism to national security to reflect that sort of broader concept of protecting the integrity of our border. Now our national security resources are focusing on some other things, export violations. We’ve had a few of those cases.
DD: When you talk about export violations, what are you talking about?
McQuade: We had a case involving telecommunication equipment to Iraq. We’ve had cases involving trade secrets where foreign companies are seeking to steal trade secrets from our automakers. And dealing with other border security issues. Sometimes it’s human smuggling. Sometimes it’s simply immigration violations where people have been ordered deported multiple times and yet have come back to the Eastern District of Michigan.
DD: Trade secrets. Is that a problem with some foreign nations like China and the Big Three Automakers?
McQuade: I don’t know if I want to single out China but we have had instances and in both cases it did involve Chinese companies seeking to steal trade secrets from both Ford and General Motors. And it does seem to be a prevalent problem. One of the reason I think it’s become so easy, in both cases, employees were able to download thousands and thousands of documents that were proprietary to the automakers. One involved hybrid technology one involved electrical systems.
In one case it was downloaded to a thumb drive, in one case to an external hard drive and you can just grab that and go and get on a plane. I think the temptation is great and for companies from China, Korea, other places where their industries are growing, it’s a great temptation. So we want to work really hard to protect our industries.
DD: The Jimmy Hoffa dig. A lot people asked me: “Why are they still bothering, why are they spending all these resources?”
McQuade: When the opportunity presented itself we actually spent a lot of time really discussing the pros and cons of doing this because certainly there had been other digs in the past. I don’t know that we were supremely confident that we’d find anything this time, but there was probable cause to support it and we kind of weighed the advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand there was some intrusion to the property owner, although it was somewhat minimal. It was undeveloped property.
DD: What was the the cost?
McQuade: What was the out of pocket costs? It ended up being about $5,000. So that’s certainly money the government could use for other things. That’s a real cost. But not an outrageous cost, we thought.
DD: How credible do you think Tony Zerilli was?
McQuade: The people who have first-hand knowledge of this incident are now few and dwindling and aren’t going to be around forever.
He had information that seemed pretty credible based on other things that we knew. It is one of the great mysteries of law enforcement. To me, the deciding factor is, (Hoffa) still has family living, and to me, if that was my dad I would kind of want that closure. Just to be able to give the family that closure if we had a chance to find him, I kind of felt like we owed it to them to give it one last shot. And so we did.
DD: Did you have any contact with family?
McQuade: I didn’t personally. But the agents have interviewed them repeatedly about the facts, what did they know at the time. They’ve always been very helpful. Everyone here was agreement. Everyone at the FBI was in agreement. I don’t think anyone was holding their breath that this is finally it. We knew there’d be some ridicule, like ‘Oh my gosh, they’re digging for Hoffa again.” You know that’s going to happen. You have to weigh all those factors. Is this a good use of resources.
We did it. We found what we found. Which was not Jimmy Hoffa. The mystery continues.
DD: You’re office has had a lot of big victories. But you’ve also had some embarrassing moments like the Huttaree militia members who were charged with treason and plotting to kill cops. The judge acquitted them at trial before it even went to the jury. She wasn’t buying the case. Looking back, is there something you would have done differently with that case, or not indicted?
McQuade: I think it was case where the judge had a different view of the case than we did. Reasonable minds can disagree about a case. In that case she made a ruling that the case shouldn’t go to the jury.
She acquitted the defendants on her own. From our perspective, we had a group that we had evidence was, not just training for use of guns to protect themselves. But affirmatively planning to kill police officers. Training with bombs and building them and where they posed a very real threat to our community. They talked about luring a police officer on false hoax for a false report and killing him and then attacking his funeral, because they said you know who goes to cops’ funeral: more cops. We thought it was more than idle talk.
DD: There’s a lot of states that have medical marijuana laws but the DEA and Justice Department are often in conflict with that. Do you feel you have a clear mission?
McQuade: I think the department has tried to be clear in its statements. I think what’s unclear is that all these state laws make it legal to possess small quantities of marijuana for medical purposes in many states and for recreational purposes in even in a couple of states. And I think that probably leaves some lack of clarity for the average citizen. But the Department of Justice has made it very clear. We’ve never prosecuted cases involving those very small quantities of possession of marijuana that would comply with state medical marijuana laws.
DD: Back in the day, in the 1980s, you had a lot of big drug gangs in Detroit: Young Boys Inc. , Pony Down, Chambers Brothers? It seemed at some point they figured out it was better be smaller and lower key. What are you seeing out there?
McQuade: I think you’re right about the smaller organizations. We do have a number of drug conspiracies that we charge. But opposed to being these gangs with national connections, more often now we see these neighborhood street crews. They tend to be smaller and more nimble. They don’t give themselves fancy names. But certainly drug trafficking continues to be a big challenge because of the violence it brings with it.
DD: What kind of drugs do you see out there these days?
McQuade: I think crack is still there but is a little less pervasive than it was. Marijuana continues to be the biggest drug that is trafficked in large quantities. One thing that we’ve seen a big uptick in is heroin. And the theory that DEA has, is, because of the proliferation of prescription drugs, young people take Oxycodone and some of these other opiates, which give them a particular kind of high but which are very expensive. It might cost $80 per pill. So instead, they to heroin to get the same kind of high.
DD: Back in the 1990s the Colombians had representatives here for the cartels. Now with the Mexicans taking over a lot of distribution, are we seeing the Mexican cartel representatives here in town?
McQuade: We certainly have cases that trace backs to cartels. We are often a destination city because there are great opportunities for distribution here.
DD: Some defense attorneys feel this office under your stewardship has been tougher on sentencing and plea bargaining? Is that a fair assessment?
McQuade: I don’t know that it’s true that we’re tougher. I think that we are more rigorous in our review to make sure that cases don’t fall through the cracks. But I think that one of the things that we’ve done is as directed by Attorney General Holder, is to try and make a more individualized assessment of cases. We try not to put sentences in a category, because you committed a crime x, your sentence will be a particular sentence.
DD: We’ve seen the deaths of the Giacalones and other mobsters. Is there still a Mafia in Detroit?
McQuade: I think yes, and I think that we want to make sure we don’t ignore it and become complacent and assume that the Mafia has gone away. But I think organized crime has a slightly different look today. It’s not just La Cosa Nostra the way it used to be. Organized crime comes from lots of places. Albanian, Romanian, Middle Eastern. Frankly, you could call some of these street gangs organized crime.