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From a Jersey diner to the DOJ, Philly’s new U.S. attorney is unlike any the region has seen before

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 8/7/2022 Jeremy Roebuck, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro greets Jacqueline C. Romero, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, before a July 27 news conference at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia. © ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro greets Jacqueline C. Romero, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, before a July 27 news conference at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia.

Jacqueline C. Romero is unlike any U.S. attorney the Philadelphia region has seen before.

The first woman of color to hold the position of top federal prosecutor for eastern Pennsylvania, she was also the first woman ever nominated for the role. She’s the rare U.S. attorney to have been selected not from the outside but elevated from within the ranks of the office she now oversees.

And in a profession often dominated by lawyers who come from privileged backgrounds, her interest in a legal career began while observing the attorneys and public officials who patronized her family’s North Jersey diner.

But despite the many firsts that came with President Joe Biden’s choice for the top Justice Department official in the region, Romero says she’s less focused on the historic nature of her appointment and more interested in how the office she now leads can best serve Philadelphia’s needs.

“It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about violent crime, the other things that are going on, and what this office can do for the community.”

In an interview with The Inquirer — her first since taking office in June — the 51-year-old attorney who has spent nearly all her career in government service outlined her priorities for her tenure, chief among them focusing more federal resources on addressing the city’s rising rate of violent crime.

Jacqueline C. Romero, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania poses for a portrait in her office. © TYGER WILLIAMS/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Jacqueline C. Romero, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania poses for a portrait in her office.

As U.S. attorney for the nine-county region stretching from Philadelphia to Allentown and west past Reading, she is charged with overseeing an office of 140 government lawyers prosecuting drug trafficking, political corruption, and terrorism cases, as well as handling civil matters on behalf of the federal government.

Romero said her years working as an assistant U.S. attorney in the office’s civil division had left her uniquely prepared for the job.

“I’ve put the time in,” she said. “I’ve been that AUSA pulling all-nighters getting ready for court. People know I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and do the work.”

And while she was reticent to discuss how her approach might differ from that of her predecessor and former boss, Donald Trump-appointee Bill McSwain, the guiding philosophy she laid out promised a marked departure in style — if not, particularly, in substance.

“I see my job as getting out of the way of my team,” Romero said. “I have some of the best attorneys in the country working here. … My job is to be the executive and make their lives easier.”

‘Everyone has their style’

McSwain, in his nearly three years in the post, emerged as one of the most outspoken and overtly political U.S. attorneys in the country, using his platform to set up his own ambitions for elected office.

Never one to shy away from a news conference or an opportunity to be interviewed on cable news shows, he positioned himself as a pugnacious counterweight to what he described as “Philadelphia’s culture of lawlessness.”

When the office brought a first-of-its-kind lawsuit in 2019 challenging plans for a supervised drug injection site in the city, McSwain argued the case himself in court and won — an unusual move for the office executive.

And his bitter public feud with Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner strained a long-standing relationship between the two most prominent prosecutorial offices in the city.

McSwain launched a bid to become the Republican nominee for governor shortly after leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office last year, a race he lost to State Sen. Doug Mastriano in the May primary.

In the interview, Romero avoided discussing whether she viewed McSwain’s combative public persona as constructive.

“Everyone has their style of how they approach things,” she said. “I was not trying to get involved in whatever disputes people were having. … I was very busy being an AUSA.”

And while she was reluctant to draw distinctions between herself and her former boss, subtle differences emerged throughout the conversation.

Asked about Krasner, Romero described him as a valued “partner” in addressing crime in the city and said she looked forward to working with him.

She described a meeting the two had weeks into her job as constructive and said they expect to announce soon an initiative in which several assistant district attorneys will be deputized as special assistant U.S. attorneys to help prosecute federal violent crime cases.

“He’s been nothing but cooperative,” Romero said. “And that’s what we all need to be doing with the violent crime situation in the city.”

As for the ongoing litigation surrounding the proposed supervised drug injection site in Philadelphia — a case that inspired McSwain to threaten arrests of people who worked there — Romero acknowledged the matter was now being primarily run out of the Justice Department in Washington. Still, she referenced the case with a more conciliatory tone.

“There’s the possibility of a settlement — and in settlement, sides compromise to come up with something that both sides can live with,” she said.

Justice Department reevaluating supervised injection sites after its yearslong effort to block one in Philly

When asked whether she envisioned herself arguing cases in court, as McSwain did with the supervised injection site suit, Romero was quick to answer.

“Executives belong as executives,” she said. “I think it’s a mistake to go back and try to be an AUSA. That’s not a comment on Bill at all, that’s my personal thought on things.”

From a diner to the DOJ

It was while discussing her path to her current position that Romero became most animated.

The granddaughter of a commercial fisherman who came to the U.S. from Spain at 16 with pennies in his pockets, she was raised helping out in the family bodega and diner he opened in Tenafly, N.J.

“That experience really formed my youth, but in the most amazing ways,” she said. “When you’re in a diner, you meet everybody. You not only have the workers getting off the night shift — Ketchup Freddie and Oilwell Pete — but you also have the local schoolteachers, and the mayor and some of the politicians and lawyers.”

Her interactions with that latter group, she said, and her appreciation for the crusading writing of Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko inspired her future career path.

“The lawyers seemed like the people who were actually going into court and making changes,” she said.

By age 5, she’d announced to her family over Thanksgiving dinner that one day she would become a judge. Achieving that, however, proved more challenging.

“I didn’t have role models,” she said. “Everybody in my family was working class. We didn’t come from that world.”

Still, she became the first in her family to graduate from a four-year college and went on to earn a law degree at Rutgers. She took her first government job in 1998 as a trial attorney for the Justice Department and has since served as senior counsel to the U.S. Mint.

In her 16 years at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, she’s overseen complex cases including a false-claims suit that led to a $422 million settlement with Swiss drug giant Novartis and a 2011 case that recovered 10 famous gold coins — valued at $80 million — that had been stolen from the Mint in the 1930s. In addition, she’s served as the civil coordinator of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s civil rights cases and as a past president of the Hispanic and LGBTQ bar associations.

When her nomination was announced by the White House in April, Romero said she was not initially focused on its historic nature, but she’s since been touched by the response from underrepresented communities in the region.

“You realize it’s so much bigger than you,” she said. “I’ve been approached by people on the street who want to hug me. … People identify with your story, and it means something for them.”

And now, she’s eager to put her own stamp on the office.

Her first few weeks have been filled with meetings with local law enforcement officials. She appeared at a news conference last month to announce a major settlement with a Philadelphia-area mortgage lender accused of redlining — the type of civil rights case Romero said she’d like the office to continue to focus on.

And in coming months, she said, she hopes to further define plans to address everything from fentanyl use to domestic terrorism. She’s also outlining plans to create a new executive-level post in her office focused solely on community engagement.

“I love this job and I love this office,” Romero said. “I wouldn’t have spent the greater part of my career here if I wasn’t madly in love with the work and the people and what we do.”

©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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