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Bostonian of the Year

Bostonian of the Year: Carmen Ortiz

By targeting corruption and white-collar crime, the US attorney is restoring our faith in the system.

By Scott Helman
Globe Magazine Staff / December 30, 2011
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She brought former House speaker Salvatore DiMasi to justice, won a big terrorism conviction, and is preparing the long-awaited prosecution of James “Whitey” Bulger. And this idealistic US attorney is just getting started.

They were big names in the city, elected to public office to serve the people. Instead, they stood accused of serving themselves, of trading on their influence to make a few bucks. The revelations, each more breathtaking than the next, kept coming. One politician, then another. Then another. The bribes in some cases reached into the tens of thousands of dollars. The evidence was damning, the criminal charges grave, the defendants defiant. Power itself was on trial.

Carmen Ortiz, new to the job, attacked these breaches of the public trust with vigor. She and her cohorts on the government’s prosecution team saw themselves as guarantors of democracy. They held the political class rapt, weathering intense scrutiny of federal authorities’ controversial undercover methods. She put in long hours building toward high-stakes litigation.

She was 24 years old.

It was the summer of 1980. Ortiz had just finished her second year at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C. She had scored an internship in the US Department of Justice’s public integrity unit, a division created after Watergate to root out political corruption. She toiled alongside a young trial attorney named Eric Holder, who would grow up to be US attorney general. For fresh-faced lawyers with unspoiled ideals and a yen for public service, Justice was the place to be. “It was God’s work,” says Reid Weingarten, a government trial attorney with whom Ortiz worked and now in private practice in Washington, D.C. “We all felt that way.”

When Ortiz arrived for her summer job, Weingarten, Holder, and other Justice Department lawyers were pursuing one of the government’s biggest corruption cases to date, an influencepeddling investigation known as Abscam that targeted members of Congress and local officials around the country. The FBI had set up a sting operation, with federal agents posing as representatives of an Arab sheik purportedly willing to pay hefty bribes for legislative favors. Six US representatives and one senator were ultimately convicted. (“I’ve got larceny in my blood,” one of them, John Jenrette, then a US representative from South Carolina, was seen saying on a videotape played in court.)

Abscam was novel, and it was huge. Ortiz, who performed legal research on Jenrette’s case, could hardly have asked for a better education. The experience left her hungry for a public sector job: She decided she would set the world right, or at least try to, using the tools of a prosecutor. “I just thought I was at the heart of what was important,” Ortiz says.

More than three decades later, she still is. Only this time, Ortiz is the one in charge, leading high-profile public integrity cases as the powerful US attorney in Boston, a post she has held since November 2009. She is older – she turns 56 on Thursday – wiser, and tougher, having survived many professional and personal trials. Yet she is still floored by the arrogance of those implicated in the Abscam scandal, still disgusted by corruption. “It makes the public feel like ‘Wow, who can you trust? What is really genuine?’ ” she says. “It puts a stain on everything.”

Ortiz has overseen successful prosecutions of two fellow Democrats, most notably Salvatore DiMasi, the once-mighty Massachusetts House speaker convicted in June of a kickback scheme, and former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who pleaded guilty in 2010 to eight counts of attempted extortion. Ortiz’s office won a conviction, too, against former Boston city councilor Chuck Turner. Each investigation began under her predecessor, Republican appointee Michael Sullivan. Ortiz and her team never let up, though, winning each case, successfully pushing for lengthy prison sentences, and aggressively defending prosecutors’ motivations.

Last month, Ortiz won a noteworthy case against Tarek Mehanna of Sudbury, convicted of supporting Al Qaeda and plotting to kill US soldiers in Iraq; a separate terrorism case is pending. She also opened probes into freshllegations of malfeasance by public officials and has drawn international attention for leading long-awaited criminal cases against former South Boston mob kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger and his moll, Catherine Greig. To be sure, Ortiz isn’t doing any of this alone. She is the public face of a US attorney’s office with a platoon of respected deputies who, in many cases, have fought in the trenches for years. But Ortiz, who is Boston’s first female and first Hispanic US attorney, generally wins high marks for her stewardship thus far. She has sent an unambiguous message to the Massachusetts political class to behave, ramped up prosecutions of white-collar crime, and built a new civil rights enforcement team. For all of these reasons, she is our Bostonian of the Year.

Chocolate hearts. Battery-powered toy dogs. Dolls. Hats. Christmas tree lights. Ortiz’s father, when he wasn’t driving a cab, sold a little bit of everything on the streets of New York. She was often at his side, helping hawk goods from curbside tables and later at variety stores he opened in Brooklyn. “He never took a break,” she says. “And quite frankly, I don’t think I ever took a break.”

Her mother and father had come to New York from Puerto Rico in the early 1950s. They spoke little English. Neither had a high school degree. They married, started a family in a public housing project off 103d Street, and made what living they could, hoping their children would have it better. “I clearly wanted more for myself," says Ortiz, the oldest of five. So she set out to get it, propelled by her parents’ encouragement, a Catholic education, and an inner drive that her siblings didn’t necessarily share. She went on to Adelphi University on Long Island, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration, before following a scholarship to George Washington University for law school in 1978.

Her gritty background set her apart from many law school classmates. “I taught her how to say ‘y’all,’ and she taught me everything else,” says Elise Grace, a close friend who’d come from a comfortable Jewish home in Birmingham, Alabama. Together, they opened a modest cafe in the basement of the law building, brewing coffee and setting out boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts before classes each day. Ortiz’s humble beginnings – and her relentless drive to transcend them – help explain why she found political corruption so galling, according to Grace. “She was so self-made that she didn’t tolerate people who just weren’t honest and who didn’t work hard and do the right thing,” Grace says.

Ortiz challenged professors and spoke her mind. Classmates knew she was cut out for the courtroom. She revered confident litigators who could swing juries with persuasive oral arguments. Her third year, Ortiz worked as a student prosecutor in the local US attorney’s office, trying two misdemeanor cases herself. Afterward, she anxiously asked her supervisor if she had what it takes. “And he goes, ‘You’ve got it, you’ve got it,’ ” Ortiz recalls. “That gave me great confidence.”

Her career took her back to the Justice Department after law school, and then to Massachusetts, as an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County under Scott Harshbarger. Over the next two decades, she helped Harvard Law School professor Philip Heymann modernize Guatemala’s criminal justice system; was considered for a judgeship; worked in private practice; and then returned to the Middlesex DA’s office to oversee district court prosecutions under Thomas Reilly. “The thing I love about her is she’s not intimidated by anything,” says Sharon Hanson, chief of staff to Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis and a close friend of Ortiz’s since they worked together in Middlesex County. Ortiz also helped the National Football League investigate sexual harassment allegations against members of the New England Patriots, and she assisted a US Senate probe into whether the Reagan-Bush campaign sought to delay the release of American hostages in Iran to tilt the 1980 presidential election.

Her personal life, though, posed the hardest tests. As she was finishing law school, Ortiz began raising a younger sister, who came to live with her at about age 14 after their mother became sick. When Ortiz moved to the Boston area with her fiance, Michael Morisi, whom she had met in law school, it was a package deal: Her sister came, too. Her sister eventually graduated from Belmont High School. Ortiz, as the surrogate mother, pushed her hard to improve her grades.

Then, in 1992, Morisi, who was just 34, was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer. For eight years, Morisi, Ortiz, and their two young daughters battled through ups and downs, as he underwent various treatments. He made it to August 2000, when his body finally gave out. Their daughters were 8 and 13. Ortiz, now faced with raising a family alone, wasn’t sure she could continue in her legal career, despite all the work she’d done to get there. “The thought of being a lawyer – I had no energy,” she says. “It was hard for me to pick up the pieces.” But she did, and those around her marveled at her strength. “That’s all those girls had was her,” Reilly says. “If she had folded, they wouldn’t be where they are today.” Ortiz, who would eventually remarry, says the experience taught her that even life’s lowest point doesn’t have to dim your expectations. “You cannot,” she says, “let that moment define you.”

The lesson on perseverance was useful sooner than she anticipated. In 2005, one of her sisters nearly died from a ruptured aneurysm. Two brain surgeries saved her life. The scare held a blessing: Ortiz and her other sister, after being tested, learned they had aneurysms, too. So in 2006, only a few years after losing her husband, Ortiz herself underwent brain surgery. “I felt like life wasn’t fair,” she says. As she had before, she fought on. “I’ve always been very driven in terms of what I want and how to go about getting it,” she says. “I have to say, despite a number of challenges, I’ve been able to accomplish everything I’ve wanted at different phases of my life.”

A petite woman with dark, intense eyes, Ortiz exudes quiet confidence. She spent a dozen years as a prosecutor in the US attorney’s office before being nominated by President Obama to run the place, a promotion that took some by surprise. In hindsight, it made sense to many who have worked with and watched her over the years. “She’s probably realized the job is bigger than she thought, but she’s up to the task,” says Sullivan, who held the post for more than seven years.

Nancy Gertner, who retired from the federal bench in September, is more circumspect. Gertner was critical of Sullivan for going after low-level drug offenders at the expense, she believed, of more serious criminals, especially in the white-collar arena. She says she is still waiting to see major white-collar prosecutions – including antitrust and environmental cases – manifest under Ortiz. “When I left, I didn’t see much difference,” says Gertner, now at Harvard Law School. “Maybe she hasn’t put her stamp on the office yet.” (Gertner is unwilling to grant Ortiz credit for the big corruption prosecutions because Ortiz did not initiate the cases.) The number of white-collar prosecutions has been steadily climbing under Ortiz’s tenure, according to figures provided by her office. Defense lawyers believe more such cases are in the pipeline.

One broad-based criticism of Ortiz’s tenure is that she, like other US attorneys, still adheres too closely to a rigid federal sentencing framework in recommending punishments, despite a US Supreme Court decision allowing more leeway. “There is still too much dogged adherence to sentencing guidelines,” says Brad Bailey, a former federal prosecutor who now does criminal defense. But overall, says Tom Hoopes, a former state prosecutor now in private practice, Ortiz has ushered in an era of relative harmony with the defense bar and with federal judges. “She has really changed the culture over there,” he says.

For all her success in bringing home corruption cases – DiMasi, Wilkerson, and Turner are all doing federal prison time – her office came up short on two other noteworthy public integrity prosecutions. Two former Boston firefighters, James Famolare and Albert Arroyo, were acquitted of disability pension fraud within the last six months. Ortiz says prosecutors knew they would be difficult cases but believed they had sufficient evidence to convict.

Many tests of her anti-corruption work lie ahead. A federal grand jury has for months been investigating alleged wrongdoing at the state Probation Department. The FBI is conducting a criminal investigation into the troubled Chelsea Housing Authority. And newly legal casino gambling promises to keep public watchdogs busy for years to come. Bailey, for one, doubts Ortiz will shrink from any fight, saying she betrays no hesitation when it comes to tackling tough cases, nor any political basis for her decisions. “There don’t really appear to be any sacred cows in her office,” he says.

And then, of course, there’s Bulger, a man whose criminal mystique has transfixed the city for years. The drama and emotion wrapped up in the case certainly aren’t lost on Ortiz. Yet she says she does not feel any additional pressure despite the aura surrounding Bulger. She sees it, in many ways, like any other prosecution: She will strive to handle it with fairness, consistency, and adherence to the law. “If I feel confident that I’m doing that, then that’s all I can expect of myself,” she says. “I can’t always be right. I hope I’m not wrong very often.”

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