In making Dana Boente acting attorney general, President Donald Trump has elevated a longtime federal prosecutor best known for his handling of public corruption cases.
Boente, a 31-year veteran of the Justice Department, most recently oversaw the prosecution of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell – a case ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court. Previously, Boente oversaw the government’s cases against U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., and former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, D.
Lawyers who have known Boente, who was U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said he has a reputation for being tough but even handed. While he has not been vocal about his political views, they said, he would not have agreed to be thrust into the role of defending Trump’s controversial executive order banning some migrants unless he believed it was legally sound.
“Dana was very circumspect about his politics,” said former assistant U.S. attorney Gene Rossi, now a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. “I never saw Dana in the 22 years I worked with him make what I considered to a political decision . . . He will try his best to enforce what he thinks is the law.”
But Rossi added, “If he thought that the executive order was illegal, I doubt very seriously he would have taken the position of acting attorney general.”
Longtime defense attorney Jeffrey Zwerling echoed that sentiment.
“I don’t think he would do it if he felt that it was morally wrong to do it,” Zwerling said. “I believe he looked inside himself and decided he could morally and legally defend the position. I don’t know how he votes, but he’s no liberal. The Eastern District of Virginia is a very tough jurisdiction and he ran it as a very tough jurisdiction.”
The Trump administration said Boente, who replaced fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, was sworn in about 9 p.m. Monday.
In an interview, Boente noted his office already had been supporting the president’s order in a challenge brought in Virginia federal court.
“I was enforcing it this afternoon,” Boente said. “Our career department employees were defending the action in court, and I expect that’s what they’ll do tomorrow, appropriately and properly.”
Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the Legal Aid Justice Center, who filed a complaint on behalf of two Yemenese men sent away from Dulles under the executive order, said he had spoken with Boente about the case by phone Sunday and Monday.
The U.S. Attorney’s job in the Eastern District of Virginia is an important and high-profile one. The Eastern District is home to the CIA and the Pentagon, and its prosecutors often handle terrorism cases. The office has about 300 lawyers and other employees working in Alexandria, Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News.
Boente was sworn in to head the office in February of 2016 but had served in that post on an interim basis since replacing Neil MacBride in late 2013.
When he was sworn in, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch called Boente one of the department’s “consummate utility players” and said he was “one you could always count on to be there for you.”
Under Boente’s leadership, prosecutors won corruption convictions against McDonnell, R, and his wife, Maureen, only to see those decisions overturned by the Supreme Court. Boente’s office pushed to retry the couple; they were overruled by higher-ups at the Justice Department.
Prosecutors working for Boente also convicted CIA leaker Jeffrey Sterling under the Espionage Act and television news analyst Wayne Simmons for pretending to be a CIA agent. Boente has overseen ten prosecutions of Americans accused of supporting the Islamic State, eight of which have resulted in convictions. The remaining two are set for trial this year.
In the past several years, Boente’s office has also aggressively targeted opioid dealers implicated in fatal overdoses, taking on what Boente has described as a worsening epidemic in Virginia. “I’m very concerned that we haven’t seen the worst of this,” Boente said at a forum late last year in Loudoun County. “If you don’t know someone who’s had a problem with addiction, you will.”
Boente was nominated to lead the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Virginia by former President Barack Obama on Oct. 8, 2015, and confirmed by the senate two months later.
Before he became a U.S. attorney, Boente worked in the tax division and as an interim attorney in both the Eastern District of Virginia and the Eastern District of Louisiana.
Boente, who is from Carlinville, Illinois, lives in Northern Virginia with his wife. The couple have grown children and grandchildren.
Boente said he presumes he will serve until Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is confirmed.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Rachel Weiner