Aug. 13, 2002 – The man who heads the U.S. Justice Department in the Virgin Islands is a local law-enforcement veteran who has been around long enough to witness a sea of change in the role of federal prosecutors in the territory and get some up-close experience with the war on drugs. And now he is on the trail of terrorists and international money launderers doing business through regional banks.
David Nissman, whose appointment as U.S. attorney was announced in April, has served in the federal prosecutor's office for 15 years. In a Source interview, the Oregon native talked about the changing priorities set by a changing local government and a region impacted by changing world events. He emphasized the importance of forming partnerships with other law-enforcement agencies and the notion that while the U.S. attorney's office operates on a different level from the territorial government, under his watch it remains responsive to the crime-fighting needs of the community.
Following is an edited version of the interview.
Source: How did you start out with the U.S. Attorney's Office, 15 years ago?
Nissman: I was a state prosecutor, and I came to work in the U.S. Attorney's office. The first part of the work I did was a lot of murder cases, rapes, robberies, burglaries, drug cases. We were the local prosecutor then, too. Back then, the U.S. Attorney's Office did the felony prosecution of all territorial offenses. But then, jurisdiction changed.
I guess I was one of the few federal prosecutors who really wanted a jurisdictional change. I always felt that it was a very interesting thing, us handling the local jurisdiction. It allowed people to play a lot of games … It was like reverse federalism, it was like reverse colonialism …It has the federal government saying, "Okay, we'll supply you with some U.S. attorneys to prosecute local crime until the Virgin Islands Legislature says that they want the attorney general to do it … And then, every two-year cycle, you'd have this big debate at the Legislature: Should we give it to the attorney general? Is the attorney general ready? And it kept getting delayed, and delayed and delayed.
You know, we're not driving the train on this issue; we're just waiting for the Virgin Islands government to say when it's ready. What I really felt was sort of nefarious about this whole arrangement was that every other community in America got two layers of protection. You had your local prosecutors who do all of the serious work of crime … and then you had the federal government.
What the U.S. attorney's role should be is to stand back, take a look at the crime problems — the federal crime problems in our community — and say, "How can we use our resources to best address that?" But we could never do that, because we were in there doing murders, rapes, robberies, you know? So this community never got people that looked at white-collar crime and public corruption and tax matters. So far as I know, there has never been a criminal tax case filed in the Virgin Islands.
What kind of deterrent effect can you get if nobody ever gets called to task when they cheat the Virgin Islands government out of taxes? So, this is something that you never had in the Virgin Islands for all these years, because your U.S. attorneys were forced — didn't choose — they were forced by the V.I. Legislature to try local crimes.
And that finally got changed in 1993?
I think it was '94, but it might have been '93. And then, everybody said, "Well, the AG's office isn't ready — no, no." Necessity is the mother of invention. You watch how the A.G.'s office is doing on these cases. They're not doing a bad job. If they get to court, they're winning a lot of cases. And they've got trial lawyers; they can try cases. They've got good judges in Territorial Court. These judges are great! There's nothing wrong with that system.
The only thing that I think could be tinkered with is that there could be some work done on uniting the police and the A.G.'s office. There's cases that, like, the paperwork doesn't get filed on time, that type of thing? And that seems to be something that we can help with, in terms of just doing some training on how to process a case.
And we have a very good working relationship with Iver Stridiron … I really admire him. He and I both serve as executive board members of the Puerto Rico-Virgin Islands HIDTA — it stands for High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. And we're lucky because we have these federal funds that help us do drug work in the Virgin Islands. We have task forces that combine DEA agents with the V.I. Police Department and some other agencies as well, but those are the two primaries.
One year it's a local law-enforcement person from the executive board that is the director, sort of the chairman of the board, and then the next year it's a federal person. And ever since the year HIDTA came about — which was about 1995 — in that whole time, or at least in the first six years, there had never been somebody from the Virgin Islands that had run the unit…
So I had suggested, "Iver, it's got to be you. It's your turn. We need to get someone from the Virgin Islands to run this thing." He agreed and we got him elected and he just finished his term last month. He did a fabulous job, running this thing. Everybody from both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands thought he that he was fantastic, that he paid a lot of attention to it, it was important to him. He's the kind of guy that doesn't have a territorial viewpoint. He's really got a regional viewpoint, and that' just what we need. So I love working with him.
You have a lot of responsibility, but as you were saying, you don't work alone. You don't act alone. You're part of a law-enforcement team in the Virgin Islands.
And we're working very hard to enhance it, further develop it. We're working on — I can't tell you the details, but we're working on a big money-laundering initiative, the local and federal governments together. We've brought federal agents over from Puerto Rico to work in the Virgin Islands. It's always team building. With the attorney general, one of the things that we're working on, one of the new things in the territory, is something called Project Safe Neighborhood, which is part of a national program.
We're going to have an assistant attorney general and an assistant U.S. attorney co-located with agents. We're hoping the Police Department is going to put some people in it. We're going to get the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau, the federal firearms agency, and our investigative agency, it's going to be working on this, and we're going to be really tackling these gun crimes.
This is probably the only area of violent crime work that we're going to be following, because that's both local and federal. In those cases, you're going to have a local prosecutor and a federal prosecutor sitting down together looking at those cases and saying, "Okay, based on what we have, where can we get the most effective remedy? Should we file it federally or should we file it locally?" Whatever's best for the case, that's what we're going to do.
That may sound to you in sort of contravention of what I was saying before, in terms of, well, we always get stuck doing the local crime. Well, that's an area where the crime's both local and federal, and it's something that's of tremendous importance to this community with all the homicides we have.
It doesn't sound like a contravention because of where we are, which is in the middle of the ocean, and what we're surrounded by, which are islands that represent other nations and movement of people between those nations. There've got to be times when crime crosses the boundaries, because people cross the borders commit
You're on a whole new subject now, and that's a good one to get into, because I guess my viewpoint is pretty regional and because every 40 miles is another country, particularly in the areas of terrorism and terrorist financing, and illegal alien smuggling. We really need to unite with our brethren on these other islands.
We put on a tremendous anti-terrorism conference in February at the Divi Carina Bay Resort for three days. Not only did we have most of the federal and local law-enforcement agencies represented from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands; we also invited agents from 12 different Caribbean nations. Not only did they come and participate, but they gave us briefings on terrorist threats in their countries.
What we want to do is really build a network. It's one world, it's one region, and crime affects us all. If we unite, we can do some information sharing, and we can stave off some threats before they happen.
You're going to see a lot more training programs here where we're going to try and bring the best resources to bear. There's a lot of great people who are experts here on things, and where we don't have them, we'll bring them from elsewhere. Already this year we've put on two major programs. One was the anti-terrorism conference in February; the other is this banking conference [held two weeks ago at Palms Court Harborview Hotel on St. Thomas]. Next year, I'd like to do a money-laundering and terrorist-financing conference.
From 1985, the big initiative was Ronald Regan's war on drugs, a lot of which is centered here in the Caribbean because it's a transshipment point. You have a number of long-standing regional relationships, some based on the war on drugs, some based on new things that are happening in the world today…
The HIDTA's are particularly helpful with that, because we do form these networks. We get all of the federal and local law-enforcement agencies in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands represented at the executive board of HIDTA, and we meet with them once a month. Attorney General Stridiron and I always go.
Sometimes Police Commissioner Franz Christian goes; he's part of that board. Sometimes he sends Assistant Police Commissioner Bruce Hamlin. So, the Virgin Islands is well represented there. We're encouraging Law Enforcement Planning Commission director Eddy Charles to write a letter, and we're going to have him made a member of this.
With our local HIDTA meetings, a lot of times we have the British agents with us. The Coast Guard holds very interesting meetings of what's called the CLIC, which stands for Caribbean Law-Enforcement Intelligence Committee. Once a month they have a meeting where they invite the agents from the different island nations to come. We talk about drug smuggling; we talk about alien smuggling.
There are some very good things that have been built in the last few years here to get us regionally attuned, and we here in the Virgin Islands want to take that four or five steps further. Because it's not just drug shipments. Drug transshipments are a big thing regionally, but it's drugs going one way and money coming another way …
Yeah, arms is another one. There's guns coming from Florida to the Virgin Islands, and then there's guns leaving the Virgin Islands to go to some of the other island nations, and they're very upset about that, because then the Virgin Islands is a problem to them. We don't hear about that much.
We never think about that, only about being on the receiving end of things. So, this is where Project Safe Neighborhood is going to be functioning?
Our primary interest in Project Safe Neighborhood is making the neighborhoods in the Virgin Islands safe. But at the same time, we're going to analyze the different types of firearm transactions that occur, and if there are outgoing firearm transactions, we're going to look at that. But what we really hope to do is reduce the murder rate if we shut down a lot of the gun trafficking.
We're working very hard at that, because to me one of the toughest goals in the Virgin Islands, in my 15 years of work here, is to enhance the rule of law so that witnesses are not killed, witnesses are not terrified. Project Safe Neighborhood hopefully is going to reduce gun violence; but by the same token we have a lot more resources to make witnesses safer than we once did. And it is a concern to both the local and the federal law-enforcement agencies.
It's not without problems, this whole concept. But this is a goal — that five or 10 years from now, if we reduce gun violence, if we reduce public corruption, if more Virgin Islands tax revenues are collected because people are paying their taxes, and if there's more of that money that's going to services — to making better schools, better hospitals, better roads — that people can feel safer at night. Then we will have accomplished something.
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