The search for a new federal prosecutor to fill the seat recently vacated by Charlottesville-based U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia Timothy J. Heaphy has officially begun, but the process of getting a nominee cleared by a U.S. Senate whose powers of cooperation have yet to be tested could take some time. In the meantime, an attorney with two decades of experience in the district is at the reins.
Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner announced last week that they’re soliciting applicants to replace Heaphy, who resigned in December after serving for five years to take on white collar criminal defense with Richmond firm Hunton & Williams. Kaine and Warner will recommend candidates to the White House, and the Obama administration will then nominate one of those candidates for consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee and, ultimately, the full Senate.
With Republicans now in control of the Senate, getting approval for Obama’s nominees for any number of appointments could be dicey, but Geoffrey Skelley of UVA’s Center for Politics said U.S. attorney appointments will probably be low on the list of battles the GOP plans to pick.
The position isn’t exactly apolitical, Skelley said—Heaphy worked for then-Senator Joe Biden before law school, he pointed out—but he thinks chances of a long delay in the appointment are low.
“It will depend on who the President ends up nominating, based on the recommendation of Warner and Kaine,” he said. Depending on how long the process takes, Heaphy’s successor may not serve long; once Obama’s term is up in two years, the next President can replace U.S. attorneys across the country with new appointees.
In the interim, Heaphy’s second-in-command, Anthony Giorno, will take over as the top federal prosecutor in the district, operating out of Roanoke. Giorno, 63, is a Brooklyn native who moved to Loudoun County as a teenager, attended George Mason University and received his JD from William & Mary in 1976 before going into private practice in Patrick County. He simultaneously served as the part-time Commonwealth’s attorney for the county for 12 years, a complicated arrangement not uncommon in sparsely populated parts of the state at the time. It meant his courtroom career was something of a juggling act, as he was employed both as a defense attorney and a prosecutor.
“I’ve joked that every time I went in to practice law, I was walking into a buffet line of different cases I could choose from,” he said.
That breadth of experience served him well when Giorno arrived in the Western District as an assistant U.S. attorney in March of 1995. The district covers about two-thirds of the state, with federal courts in seven localities.
“The whole gamut of federal law is what we deal with, and we only have 24 lawyers,” Giorno said. “We don’t have the luxury of specialization.”
Giorno has been the district’s point man on human trafficking since the launch of a task force to address trafficking crimes in 2013. It’s an issue he said he’s passionate about.
“I come from an immigrant background, and I’m aware of how a lot of immigrants come here with such hope and such expectation, and yet there are people out there who will prey on them and take advantage of them for their own nefarious purposes and personal gain,” he said.
Giorno said he’s honored to take on the role of acting U.S. attorney in the wake of Heaphy’s departure, but he’s not ready to say yet whether he wants to be among those considered for the position long-term.
“I know the senators will do a great job, and the person they pick will be very qualified, whoever that person might be,” he said.