U.S. Attorney Announces Intent to Resign and Highlights Office Accomplishments
(STL.News) The Honorable Christina E. Nolan, U.S. Attorney for Vermont, announced she will tender her resignation, effective February 28, 2021. U.S. Attorney Nolan assumed the position on November 27, 2017, following the bipartisan recommendation of Senator Patrick Leahy and Governor Phil Scott; the President’s nomination; and unanimous confirmation by the U.S. Senate. U.S. Attorney Nolan stated: “I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity for the last 11 years to work for Vermonters in the fight for justice with the talented and good people of the U.S. Attorney’s Office – its criminal and civil Assistant U.S. Attorneys, administrative staff, and support staff – and to have led this outstanding group since November 2017. Together, we secured justice, promoted public safety, and vindicated victims’ rights on behalf of Vermonters and the American people. It has been the honor and privilege of a lifetime to have been a part of this effort, and I am certain the U.S. Attorney’s Office will continue to accomplish impactful results in the years to come.”
U.S. Attorney Nolan’s tenure was marked by unity, teamwork, and mutual support within and across the Divisions of the Vermont USAO. From that foundation flowed strong partnerships with community stakeholders and federal, state, local, and county law enforcement; historic office growth and transformation; increased productivity; new programmatic initiatives; and pathbreaking criminal and civil casework. The USAO’s achievements of the last three years, a sampling of which are catalogued here, occurred against the strong headwinds of the longest government shutdown and the coronavirus pandemic.
The USAO for Vermont, one of the smallest USAOs in the country, underwent unprecedented growth and restructuring, acquiring five new full-time employee positions: three for Assistant U.S. Attorneys and two for litigation support specialists. To compliment these additions, the USAO created two new supervisory positions: a Supervisory Paralegal with responsibility for supervising support staff personnel, and a Deputy Criminal Chief with responsibility for oversight of drug prosecutions.
Casework and Initiatives
The USAO implemented a variety of new programmatic initiatives and its productivity spiked, with 224 defendants charged in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 – representing a 51% increase over FY 2018; the highest number of defendants charged in a FY since 2010; and the largest annual increase in the number of defendants charged since 2008 (the earliest year for which data is readily available). In FY 2020, despite drastically scaled back court and law enforcement operations due to the pandemic, the USAO charged nearly the same number of defendants as in FY 2018.
Drug Trafficking and Firearms
The USAO devoted at least half its prosecutorial resources to matters involving drug trafficking, firearms, and violence, and prioritized deployment of resources to all counties of Vermont which have been hard-hit by these crimes. In 2019, the USAO orchestrated three separate geographically-targeted coordinated “surges” of federal, state, and local law enforcement to conduct firearms and drug trafficking arrests. These operations occurred in Brattleboro and surrounding areas, the Northeast Kingdom, and Rutland and surrounding areas. The USAO also partnered with law enforcement for Operation “Fury Road,” an 18-month enforcement action along Interstate 91, spanning October 2018 to February 2020, and netting 82 federal arrests for federal firearms and drug trafficking crimes, the seizure of 128 unlawfully possessed firearms, 7,511 rounds of ammunition, and kilograms of heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine base. The USAO also prosecuted drug trafficking organizations of international significance, with ties to Canada, Mexico, and Peru, among other locations. The office also prosecuted, and assisted state and local prosecutors with, numerous shootings and homicide cases, some of them drug related.
Recognizing that Vermont’s drug addiction crisis demands a holistic response, focused on both supply and demand reduction, the USAO partnered with U.S. Attorney Nolan’s former defendant, Justin Goulet, to create the short documentary, Face of Recovery, which tells the story of Mr. Goulet’s addiction, federal prosecution for drug and firearms crimes, and remarkable recovery from addiction. U.S. Attorney Nolan and Mr. Goulet screened the film at schools and community venues to highlight the dangers of drug use and encourage addicted individuals to seek treatment.
The USAO launched an outreach program to state and local law enforcement concerning federal firearms crimes that can be charged against domestic violence offenders. In 2020, the USAO increased federal prosecutions of domestic violence offenders by 100% from the previous year.
The USAO convicted Brian Folks for human trafficking and related crimes involving his physical and sexual abuse of vulnerable, young women in Vermont, many of whom suffered traumatic upbringings. Folks – who had a prior manslaughter conviction and controlled his Vermont victims through violence and withholding drugs – was sentenced on September 21, 2020 to 22.5 years in prison.
In 2020, the USAO, which co-chairs the Vermont Human Trafficking Task Force (HTTF), was instrumental in establishing in central Vermont a recovery house and related programing for women recovering from violence and trauma, such as human trafficking. The USAO partnered with HTTF members, the nonprofit Jenna’s Promise, the recovery services community, and law enforcement to launch the program, which is the first of its kind in Vermont and unique in the country for its length of stay and continuum of support services.
The USAO allocated substantial resources to combatting child exploitation, focusing on contact and recidivist offenders. In May 2019, the USAO partnered with the federal and state law enforcement to conduct a sweep of arrests of nine child exploitation offenders residing across the state. In 2020, the USAO charged a first-of-its-kind case involving allegations that a Vermont man and Venezuelan woman committed a series of child sexual exploitation offenses, as well as conspiracy to commit kidnapping and murder abroad. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
Affirmative Civil Enforcement and White-Collar Crime
The USAO garnered national attention for its unprecedented civil and criminal enforcement actions against companies involved in fraudulently billing federal healthcare programs and corrupting the doctor-patient relationship through kickbacks. In February 2019, the USAO reached a $57.25 million civil settlement with an electronic health records company (EHR), Greenway Health, LLC, to resolve claims it obtained federal government incentive payments by deceiving the government concerning its software’s capabilities. In January 2020, another EHR, Practice Fusion, reached an agreement with the USAO to pay $145 million to resolve its criminal and civil liability for accepting kickbacks from Purdue Pharma L.P. and other pharmaceutical companies, in exchange for embedding alerts in its software to cause doctors to write medically unnecessary prescriptions for those pharmaceutical companies’ products. In October 2020, Purdue pled guilty to a federal felony, admitting it paid Practice Fusion a kickback in exchange for its installation of a prompt in its software intended to cause doctors to prescribe medically unnecessary prescriptions for Purdue’s oxycontin and other extended release opioid pills. Under its plea agreement with the USAO and other offices of the Justice Department, Purdue agreed to pay more than $8 billion to globally resolve its criminal and civil liability in the Practice Fusion matter and other cases under investigation by the federal government.
In May 2019, the USAO charged three individuals associated with the EB-5 visa program in the Northeast Kingdom, alleging the largest fraud in Vermont history. In August 2020, Ariel Quiros, pled guilty to three of the federal fraud offenses. The other two defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
Law Enforcement Relationships
Prior to the pandemic, U.S. Attorney Nolan traveled on a quarterly basis to meet with State’s Attorneys in their counties, resulting in strengthening of communication and partnership between federal and state prosecutors. In 2018, the USAO began hosting an annual Law Enforcement Awards Ceremony to honor the outstanding work of Vermont law enforcement officers, and an annual two-day International Law Enforcement Conference in Burlington for Canadian and Vermont law enforcement officers. The office also launched a quarterly Law Enforcement Newsletter distributed to partner agencies in Vermont and Canada.
Responsibilities in Washington, D.C. and Nationwide
U.S. Attorney Nolan brought the voice of Vermont to Washington as one of about a dozen U.S. Attorneys selected to sit on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee (AGAC), which advised the Attorney General on all aspects of civil and criminal law enforcement policy. She devoted special attention to controlled substances and domestic violence, chairing the AGAC’s Controlled Substances Subcommittee (CSS) and sitting on its Domestic Violence Working Group. In April 2018, in her capacity as Chair of the CSS, U.S. Attorney Nolan testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, urging Congress to adopt stronger penalties for those who deal fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, and asking that it pass legislation permanently outlawing fentanyl analogues. In 2020, U.S. Attorney Nolan was tapped to cochair a nationwide DOJ initiative to combat sexual harassment in housing.
Acting U.S. Attorney
Upon U.S. Attorney Nolan’s departure, her First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Ophardt will become Vermont’s Acting U.S. Attorney. Mr. Ophardt has served almost six years with the USAO as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and more than eight years with the Department of Justice. He will serve as Acting U.S. Attorney until a successor is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.