Vincent Cohen is the acting U.S. Attorney of the District of Columbia. (Department of Justice Photo)

Vincent Cohen Jr. has served as the Acting United States Attorney for the District of Columbia since April 1, when his boss and friend, Ronald Machen, left the position to practice law privately. Cohen, in an exclusive interview with the AFRO on Aug. 20, talked about the latest developments in the 2010 District mayoral campaign investigation, what his plans are for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and his push to make his office more open to the community.

Cohen spoke briefly about the 2010 mayoral campaign investigation that dogged Vincent Gray while he served as the District’s mayor from 2011 to this past January. While Gray hasn’t been charged, a number of campaign associates have pled guilty to various crimes and some are awaiting sentencing. The investigation’s slow pace has frustrated some residents.

“I cannot comment on a public investigation,” Cohen said. “I understand the public’s interest in this matter. We are working diligently to close this investigation.”

Cohen has plenty of experience conducting investigations. As a graduate of Sidwell Friends Schools, a K-12th Quaker school, and an honors graduate of Syracuse University in 1992 and the Syracuse School of Law in 1995, Cohen worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the District from 1997-2003, handling high-profile criminal and civil cases until he departed the office to work in private practice.

In private practice, he worked for what is now known as the law firm of Hogan Lovells and as a partner with Schertler & Onotario. He came back to the District’s U.S. Attorney’s Office in July 2010 to serve as the principal assistant U.S. attorney under Machen.

While working under Machen, he played a key role in the prosecution of former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown and former D.C. Council members Harry Thomas and Michael Brown, and former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.  Cohen said those prosecutions led many people around the country to view the District as a cesspool of public corruption.

“It is an incorrect perception to think that the District’s public officials and employees are rampantly corrupt,” he said. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of public officials and employees in the city work very hard on behalf of the people.”

When asked whether his office intentionally targets Black elected officials for prosecution, Cohen balked. “No, we are not targeting Black elected officials,” he said pointedly. “Ron Machen and I didn’t just look out the window and see a Black elected official and say ‘Hey, let’s get him.’ The majority of public corruption cases we prosecute aren’t for people who look like me, it just seems that way.”

Cohen said that his office, recently, successfully prosecuted a billion-dollar procurement case

where “none of the defendants were African American.”

Bringing down public corruption is one of the many responsibilities of Cohen’s office. The District U.S. Attorney’s Office is the largest in the country with over 360 assistant U.S. attorneys and over 350 support staff.

The assistant U.S. attorneys practice in District and federal courts and prosecute primarily adult crimes and juveniles charged as adults. Cohen said that his office deals with a wide range of cases with a voluminous workload. “We prosecute from Benghazi to Barry Farms,” he said, referring to the case of the death of the U.S. ambassador in Libya in 2012 and a crime-ridden housing project in Southeast Washington. “We prosecute about 20,000 cases a year and work on cases that deal with D.C. residents and Americans abroad who have committed crimes against Americans . Because of the workload, we try to get a plea from a defendant many times and we don’t give them away cheap and easy.”

Cohen said that tips from anonymous sources sometimes lead to investigations. “Someone will make a phone call, write a letter or send an email to tip us off to something that’s not right going on,” he said.  “We will look into matters like those and if there’s nothing there that’s wrong, we’ll shut the investigation down.”

Cohen is a District native whose father, the late Vincent Cohen Sr., was one of the city’s leading attorneys and a mentor to scores of legal professionals. He replicates his father’s love of the city and thinks his office and the community should be partners, not adversaries. “It is extremely important that we engage the public,” Cohen said. “We work on building relationships with members of the community, keeping in mind that these are potential jurors and witnesses. For example, after 6 p.m., I start my second job – so to speak – going out in the community speaking at schools, churches, community meetings, and places like homeless shelters to talk about our office and subjects such as synthetic drugs.”

Cohen is waiting to be officially appointed as the U.S. Attorney by President Obama.  “I will keep doing my job and serving the people of my hometown, the District of Columbia,” he said.