Machen had been an associate at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering immediately after graduating from Harvard Law in 1994. He then left for a year to clerk on the federal appeals court in his hometown of Detroit. He could have returned to Wilmer, but when the opportunity to become a prosecutor arose, he jumped at it.
“I wanted to learn how to try cases,” Machen says. “You just don’t get that opportunity as an associate at a firm.”
Jeb Boasberg, now a judge on the US District Court for the District of Columbia, started a few weeks ahead of Machen in December 1996 in the US Attorney’s Office, where they shared an office and became friends.
They were in the homicide unit together, four years into their tenure as prosecutors, when Machen decided to return to private practice at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in 2001. Before he left, Machen handed off one of his cases—a grisly matter in which an estranged husband shot his wife and her lover—to Boasberg.
Machen had prepared a summary of his investigation, known as a prosecution memo. Such memos are usually 10, maybe 15 pages long.
“He handed me a 50-page prosecution memo that detailed all the incredibly exhaustive steps he had taken in all facets of the case,” says Boasberg. “He essentially handed me an unlosable case. This was not a high-profile case, but he had treated it like one.”
Jamie Gorelick, former US deputy attorney general and now one of the most prominent partners at WilmerHale, recalls arriving at the firm in 2003 and immediately taking note of a lawyer she describes as “a young superstar out of the US Attorney’s Office named Ron Machen.”
Machen was helping run one of the firm’s biggest cases, a matter for Boeing that Gorelick also worked on. She was particularly impressed by his ability to develop strategy and to assess witnesses and facts.
Machen got an early taste of DC scandal while working on the firm’s pro bono investigation of Harriette Walters, the midlevel manager in the DC tax office who embezzled more than $48 million. Though the US Attorney’s Office conducted its own investigation of Walters, the DC Council separately retained WilmerHale to perform an independent probe.
Partner Bill McLucas headed the effort. Prosecutors were concerned that the WilmerHale investigation would interfere with their work, but McLucas says Machen, a respected alumnus of the US Attorney’s Office, put them at ease.
Machen primarily defended clients in white-collar criminal matters during his time at the firm, experience that colleagues say has helped him identify weak points in the cases he’s involved with as US Attorney.
“He’s always thinking about what he would do if he were defense counsel,” says criminal-division chief Mary McCord, one of the senior prosecutors involved in the DC-corruption investigations. “I like to think that even though I’ve done this 17 years, I can still put on a defense hat. But oftentimes he’ll say before I’ve thought of it, ‘If I was a defense attorney, I’d do this.’ I think that’s been helpful.”
In 2009, when President Obama nominated him to be the District’s top prosecutor, Machen was successful in private practice and surely comfortable—the average WilmerHale partner takes home more than $1 million a year; Machen’s hourly rate was $875.
As US Attorney, Machen makes $155,500, but he says the position is “a dream job.” After his Senate confirmation, he was sworn in by the man he calls “the biggest mentor of my entire career,” Judge Damon Keith of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, a civil-rights icon often mentioned in the same breath as Thurgood Marshall.
Keith, who was 87 at the time, flew in from Detroit for the occasion. Standing before a packed room at the federal courthouse on Constitution Avenue, he led Machen through the oath of office. Machen’s wife and sons were by his side, and his parents were in the audience.
Machen had clerked for Keith shortly after law school. Keith, now 90, says Machen is like a second son.
Keith remembers him as being a little overconfident when he first showed up for work. After playing football at Stanford and graduating from Harvard Law, Keith says, Machen thought he knew it all: “We had to take a little of that swagger out and still keep him courageous and strong.”
Machen grew up in the middle-class Detroit suburb of Southfield. His father was a chemist at Ford, and his mother worked for a purchasing company that was a Ford subsidiary.
Machen’s parents saved to send him to one of Michigan’s most elite prep schools, Cranbrook—the same one attended by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Though he says it broke his mother’s heart that he wanted to move so far away when he chose to go to Stanford, his parents encouraged him. Machen had begun playing football when he was 12 and walked on at Stanford as a wide receiver. He says he likes that the game takes both physical and mental toughness.
The talent for the sport seems to run in his family. Machen’s young sons, ages 8 and 11, already play football, and until recently his oldest son, from a previous relationship, was a middle linebacker at Georgia Tech.
Machen loves hanging out with his kids—he calls them “my guys”—and tries to make time to jog or bike in Rock Creek Park on weekends. Most days, he wakes by 6:30 to get the boys ready for school or summer camp, and he arrives at his office by 9 or 9:30. His wife, who is in marketing, takes care of the kids in the evenings while Machen works at the office until 9 or 10 at night.
At the urging of DC congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who recommended him to Obama, Machen moved his family from Silver Spring to DC so he could be part of the city he’s charged with protecting.
Machen tapped an old friend and colleague from his first go-round in the US Attorney’s Office to be his second-in-command.
Vincent Cohen Jr. is the son of Washington legal legend Vincent Cohen, the first black partner at the law firm then called Hogan & Hartson, now Hogan Lovells.
The junior Cohen started as an assistant prosecutor about nine months after Machen. Though Machen was only slightly more senior, he took Cohen under his wing, showing him the ropes and offering advice on how to manage the various cases assigned to first-year prosecutors.
“He left no stone unturned,” Cohen says. “He’d put a number of witnesses—more than probably anyone else in the office—into the grand jury for his cases just to make sure that any defenses, any outs, any avenues that somebody might try to take, were blocked by testimony.”
Together at the helm of the office, the two have made an aggressive team, most notably leading the wide-ranging probes into public corruption among DC officials.
Though unrelated, the investigations into ex-council members Harry Thomas Jr. and Kwame Brown and the Gray campaign hit almost at the same time.
First came the accusations in March 2011 from former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown that the Gray campaign had paid him to stay in the 2010 race and promised him a city job if he continued to attack Gray’s chief opponent, incumbent Adrian Fenty.
By June 2011, the feds had begun investigating Ward 5 council member Thomas for spending more than $350,000 of the city’s money on vacations, a motorcycle, and a luxury SUV, among other items.
Then, in July of that year, Machen’s office revealed that prosecutors had been investigating Kwame Brown for misusing campaign funds during his 2008 reelection bid for his at-large seat on the council.
And those are just the matters out in the open—the US Attorney’s Office handles many more confidential investigations than public ones.
Last fall—a few months before the FBI raided Harry Thomas Jr.’s home—Machen decided a special team of prosecutors was necessary to handle the onslaught of public-corruption cases. He asked Cohen to lead the effort and act as his eyes and ears.
Though Cohen’s administrative responsibilities, including personnel and budget matters, could be a full-time job, he says the public-corruption casework takes up as much as 75 percent of his time.
And the guilty pleas are stacking up: Harry Thomas Jr. pleaded guilty in January to theft and tax charges and was sentenced in May to 38 months in prison, the first sitting DC Council member to be charged with and convicted of a felony; two other people have also pleaded guilty in connection with Thomas’s scheme. And Kwame Brown pleaded guilty in June to bank fraud and violating DC campaign law.
Now the focus seems to be narrowing on Candidate A himself. Thomas Gore and Howard Brooks, both members of Gray’s campaign treasury team, admitted to secretly paying off Sulaimon Brown. Gore also pleaded to obstructing justice, and Brooks pleaded to making false statements—both federal offenses.
An even bigger bombshell dropped in July, when public-relations campaign consultant Jeanne Clarke Harris admitted to evading campaign contribution limits by funneling political donations from businesses owned by Gray financier Jeffrey Thompson through coworkers and relatives. The scheme resulted in a $653,000 shadow campaign to elect Gray. (Thompson hasn’t been charged as of this writing, though feds have seized boxes of his documents and records, and he has hired powerful criminal-defense lawyer Brendan Sullivan.)
“One of the things I’m most proud about with these public-corruption cases is they haven’t gone to trial,” Machen says. “We’ve put together such strong cases in the investigative part, in the grand-jury process, that there’s just no reason. These aren’t folks that are just going to wilt and cry because the US Attorney comes calling. They only plead when there’s no option.”
Gray, whose office didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story and who has stayed mostly quiet about the investigation, has previously told reporters: “This is not the campaign that we intended to run.”
Gray’s lawyer, white-collar criminal-defense giant Bob Bennett, a partner at Hogan Lovells, is not among Machen’s critics. In an e-mail, Bennett writes that in investigating his client, the US Attorney “has been totally responsible and professional” and, though “an aggressive advocate for the government,” Machen has been “very fair.”