John Perilli: Peter Neronha, US Attorney & Rising Political Star?
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Is this someone you would vote for?
If so, you might want to start encouraging Peter Neronha, the sitting United States Attorney for the District of Rhode Island, to run for public office. Since being appointed to the office in 2009 by President Barack Obama, he has flown under the political radar while quietly amassing an impressive list of accomplishments. However, recent events such as the raid on Speaker Gordon Fox’s office, which the U.S. Attorney’s office helped lead, have put Neronha’s name on the map. Is Neronha bound for the ballot?
An Accomplished Attorney
The US Attorney’s office is a high-powered but humble institution. It regularly handles cases and settlements worth millions of dollars, but doesn’t boast much about them. During Neronha’s tenure, the office has won numerous such cases that you may never have heard of. Here is a taste:
• In 2011, Neronha led a federal investigation to illegal advertising practices by Google which ended with the internet juggernaut paying an historic $500 million settlement. Of that total, Rhode Island took nearly $250 million, not a small sum considering that Rhode Island’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget was $7.7 billion (or $7,700 million, for comparison).
• In 2012, Neronha’s office helped bring in former New England mob kingpin Anthony DiNunzio on charges of extortion.
• In 2013, the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s Office successfully indicted developer Richard Baccari on bribery charges, alleging that Baccari bought North Providence City Council votes with a $50,000 bribe.
Arresting mobsters, busting corruption, and bringing one of the largest companies in the world to its knees? These are the sorts of accomplishments most candidates would salivate over. But Neronha wasn’t done. Earlier this year, in a daring and dramatic stroke, Neronha’s office took a leading part in the raid on former Speaker Gordon Fox’s home and State House office.
Now I will say this: Gordon Fox is innocent until he is proven guilty of a crime in a court of law. And that’s if the investigation was even about him––even that much is so far unclear.
But it takes a certain kind of person to storm straight into the offices of arguably the most powerful politician in the state and just start taking evidence, even with a federal search warrant. Neronha had to have seen the public reaction coming, the tide of speculation, even the potential for a change in power, but he carried out the search anyway. It showed that Neronha has guts, and isn’t afraid to make difficult decisions that he deems to be necessary.
Is this not the same kind of guts it takes to govern?
Neronha certainly would not be the first U.S. Attorney to pursue public office. The ranks of American politics are peopled with former federal prosecutors. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut. Governor Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey. Rhode Island’s own Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D).
The position grants a unique set of advantages when it comes to running for public office. For one, the U.S. Attorney’s office employs a large public-payroll staff, giving Neronha firsthand experience with the ins and outs of bureaucracy. Second, U.S. Attorneys are appointed by the President, allowing them to claim trust from a widely recognized political figure. Should Neronha choose to run as a Democrat, claiming Barack Obama as an ally could move votes.
Third, there is a statewide office practically waiting for a public-sector prosecutor to run for it: the office of Attorney General. Forty-three states have elected Attorneys General, and Rhode Island’s spot seems to have Neronha’s name on it if he wants to run. Senator Whitehouse was elected Rhode Island Attorney General after his tenure as U.S. Attorney. Is a similar path in the cards for Neronha?
A Prosecutor’s Trials
All this considered, though, running for elected office is never a guarantee. If Neronha is to run for statewide office, he will doubtless face many other aspirants trying to force their way through our quadrennial electoral bottleneck. And campaigns are brutal. Would Neronha rather protect his already positive legacy than risk being crushed into the mud?
Another challenge for Neronha will be his insidership. While public sector experience certainly helps, not all appointees make for good elected officials. Can Neronha prove to the public that he has the political skill to hold elected office, and is not just cashing in on connections?
Neronha will likely not be public about his future plans until his tenure as U.S. Attorney is over, but he is certainly someone to watch. He has batted away any queries about his political future, but then again, so did then Senator Barack Obama in 2005. The fact is that Neronha could put up quite a fight. If he can overcome the obstacles of insidership and play heavily on his role as a crime-fighting public servant, he would be hard to beat.
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