On Monday a 24-count federal indictment charging 29 members of Somali gangs with sex trafficking of juveniles and other felony offenses was unsealed in Nashville. The investigation began in St. Paul and grew to include Columbus and Nashville with the cooperation of seven state and federal law enforcement agencies. It’s a big and important case.
The first three allegations of the first paragraph of the indictment make it clear that Minnesota is the hub of the activity giving rise to the indictment. The indictment identifies three gangs — the Somali Mafia, the Somali Outlaws, and the Lady Outlaws — responsible for the crimes alleged. Each gang is alleged to be based in Minneapolis.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press covered the case in big page-one stories yesterday. The Star Tribune returns to the story in today’s paper with additional background on the charges.
Despite the Minneapolis base of the gangs, the case is being prosecuted by the United States Attorney in Nashville. What gives?
The only item addressing this question in the local press is a column by the Pioneer Press’s Ruben Rosario. Rosario is irate that the case has not been brought in the Twin Cities, where it seems to belong. Rosario is right to raise the question of venue, but he misses some of the relevant background.
Under the tenure of my friend Rachel Paulose as United States Attorney for Minnesota, trafficking was one of the office’s highest prosecutorial priorities. Rachel’s tenure proved to be controversial with a contingent inside the office and allies in the press outside the office. Incidentally, as I recall, Rosario was one of the local reporters and columnists involved in the crusade against Rachel. Rosario claimed that the office had lost its way under Rachel’s leadership.
In May 2007 I attended the press conference Rachel called to announce an indictment against 25 defendants for operating an international sex trafficking ring based in Minneapolis. (I wrote about the press conference here.) The gist of the indictment was that numerous women had been imported from Mexico and Central America and essentially held in bondage to work as sex slaves on behalf of the defendants. Seventeen of the 25 defendants were illegal aliens and all of the victims were illegal aliens. Then-Assistant United States Attorney Erica McDonald was the prosecutor assigned to the case and spoke briefly at the press conference.
We posted a letter by University of Rhode Island Professor Donna Hughes on Rachel’s anti-trafficking concerns here. The New York Times noted that Rachel “embrace[d] some of Mr. [Alberto] Gonzales’s larger law enforcement priorities, including his call for aggressive prosecution of child pornographers and criminals involved in human trafficking.” At the time this seemed to be viewed by the Times et al. as a strike against Rachel.
Last year Erica McDonald was appointed a Minnesota state court judge by Governor Pawlenty; McDonald has left the office of the United States Attorney for Minnesota. Speaking yesterday with Jeanne Cooney, the press spokesman for the office, I inferred that McDonald’s departure and other vacancies in the office made prosecution of the Somali trafficking case by the Nashville office of the United States Attorney preferable. Cooney referred several times to the comparative resources of the two offices. Cooney’s comments to Rosario are consistent with my inference.
It is to be regretted that a case that belongs in Minnesota is being prosecuted in Nashville. There is nevertheless no scandal involved in the case having been brought in Nashville, even if it might make an informed observer nostalgic for the good old days under Rachel Paulose.
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