On a Friday afternoon this summer, Machen stands before an audience of young people at HD Woodson High School in Northeast DC. He’s there for the second annual youth summit organized by his office, with the theme of “breaking the silence on youth violence.”
As an Ivy League-educated black man in one of the city’s most powerful jobs, Machen has seized the chance to be a role model to the predominantly African-American public-school students he frequently speaks to.
“Why are we here?” he begins. “The answer is simple: Too many young people are dying in DC.”
He’s there to convince the kids to stay out of trouble, but he doesn’t come off as preachy. Maybe it’s all those years he spent on the football field—he sounds more like a coach giving a locker-room pep talk than a law-enforcement official there to boss them around.
Machen tells the students they have to stay vigilant to guard their futures—easier said than done, particularly for those without support systems at home.
He says a major factor in his decision to return to the US Attorney’s Office was the opportunity to build trust between DC’s toughest neighborhoods and law enforcement. He hopes that in addition to the public-corruption work, this will be an important component of his legacy. As part of his outreach, he’s appeared at basketball games and other events to build ties in neighborhoods such as Anacostia that rarely have a warm relationship with prosecutors.
Machen’s focus on the community draws frequent comparisons to Attorney General Eric Holder, who was DC’s US Attorney in the ’90s when Machen was a line prosecutor in the office. Like Machen, Holder devoted time and resources to neighborhood outreach.
“I remember [Holder] saying in my interview with him that the most important function of the job is to protect folks in their own communities,” says Neil MacBride, who was an assistant prosecutor with Machen and is now US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria.
Machen’s community initiatives aim to end the “anti-snitching” culture that hinders investigations in DC’s most crime-ridden areas. One of the first efforts Machen launched is a partnership with churches to host town-hall meetings encouraging residents to cooperate with law enforcement and educating them about what his office does and how it can help them. The idea is that if citizens know and trust prosecutors, they’ll be more likely to help combat crime.
Church leaders say Machen’s efforts have made a difference in how their congregants view his office.
“Initially, turnout wasn’t great,” says Reverend Kendrick Curry of the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Southeast DC, who has held events with Machen. “But over time, it’s grown immensely. Once people see you on a regular basis and there’s some rapport, they begin to come out.”
Curry has been pastor at his church for nearly a decade, but he says this is the first time he’s ever met the city’s US Attorney or anyone else from the prosecutor’s office.
Machen also attends church east of the Anacostia River, at both Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist and Matthews Memorial Baptist Church.
But the US Attorney is up against long-held and often well-founded fears. In parts of the city such as Wards 7 and 8, the belief that helping law enforcement is akin to a death wish runs deep. Last November, prosecutors won convictions of three men in what had been a 2½-year campaign of violence and intimidation against witnesses to a 2007 murder in Southeast DC.
The culture isn’t the only obstacle in Machen’s way: His office, like the rest of the federal government, has been hit by budget cuts and a hiring freeze. While homicides are at a half-century low in the District, the unit responsible for prosecuting murder cases this year lost half a dozen seasoned prosecutors and had to move others from elsewhere in the office to fill the vacancies. Other violent crimes are increasing: Arrests for aggravated assault in DC are up by 13 percent compared with the same period in 2011.
And while the public-corruption cases appear to be going well for Machen, he had a high-profile stumble earlier this year in the prosecution of retired baseball star Roger Clemens for allegedly lying to Congress about taking performance-enhancing drugs.
The first Clemens trial ended abruptly and embarrassingly for Machen’s office when prosecutors mistakenly showed jurors evidence that had been barred from court, forcing the judge to declare a mistrial. Prosecutors could have dropped the case, but they retried it earlier this year. Clemens was acquitted in the retrial after a quick jury deliberation—a huge setback for the government. Clemens’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, said at the time that jurors weren’t even close to convinced by the prosecution: “They believed the whole thing was an abuse of the process.”
Machen, though, doesn’t have the luxury of dwelling on past shortcomings. If history is any lesson, his time as the District’s top prosecutor is almost over. Most of his predecessors haven’t stayed longer than four years, and he’s coming up on three. There are already rumblings in Washington’s legal community that Machen will land back in private practice.
That’s where several of his predecessors have ended up, including Jeffrey Taylor, who jumped from the US Attorney’s Office to Ernst & Young, where he led the fraud-investigations practice. He’s now general counsel of Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems.
The position has catapulted others into higher-level government jobs, such as Kenneth Wainstein, who went on to become George W. Bush’s Homeland Security adviser, and of course Holder, the current attorney general.
Machen insists he isn’t thinking about anything other than his current job. He’s busy focusing on the investigation that will more than likely define his tenure as US Attorney—an investigation that remains very much open.
For now, Mayor Gray still sits in his office in the Wilson Building, about a mile west of where Machen is perched above Fourth Street talking about how his prosecutors are “attacking” the public-corruption cases.
Machen can’t say when he expects the Candidate A matter to end—or whether Candidate A ultimately will be charged—but he offers this assurance about the investigation: “We’re moving as fast as we possibly can.”
This article appears in the October 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.