Former longtime federal prosecutor Peter Strasser took the helm of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans on Monday after a quiet swearing-in ceremony.
Confirmed late last month by the U.S. Senate, Strasser becomes the first presidentially appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana in 18 months, since Kenneth Polite Jr. was swept out in a March 2017 purge by the Trump administration of all U.S. attorneys named by former President Barack Obama.
Strasser, 64, leaves the Chaffe McCall law firm, where he was a partner and sparred with some of the same prosecutors he will now lead, as he defended clients in some high-profile cases involving gangs, drugs and a murder-for-hire plot.
Strasser was sworn in by U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown in a private ceremony Monday morning. By afternoon he was settling into his new 17th-floor office. Dressed casually in a linen jacket and tasseled loafers with no socks, Strasser sidestepped questions over how he plans to put his stamp on an office that has seen its share of upheaval in recent years.
He said he had been meeting informally with members of the office during the past week or so at a nearby coffee shop, just to get to know them on a personal level. He’s also been reviewing their resumés and said he’s been blown away by the caliber of the staff, which includes 58 prosecutors.
“I’ve never seen such a bright, talented, brilliant group of people,” he said. If the U.S. Attorney’s Office were a private law firm, he said, “we’d put every other law firm out of business.”
He said there will be some reshuffling of the deck in terms of leadership positions in the office, but his entire team will be drawn from the roster of existing employees. He already has picked the new leaders but can’t announce them until they’ve been approved by the Department of Justice, he said.
Strasser, who was among the first to throw his hat in the ring for the U.S. attorney’s job last year, wryly compared the process to running for political office, but noted that the campaign takes place completely outside of public view and doesn’t require any fundraising.
“Like anything in life, it’s a competition,” he said.
He said he met with “literally hundreds” of people during his quest for the post, including members of “the business community, the law enforcement community, the political community, the government community and the legal community.”
He wanted the job because he takes an “extreme satisfaction in fighting crime,” he said. That passion was enhanced, he said, during stints in developing countries like Pakistan, Malawi and Georgia, where as a legal attaché Strasser helped teach local prosecutors to become more professional.
He described public corruption, white-collar crime and “guns and drugs” as the traditional “troika” of federal law enforcement. Strasser, who has lived in the same Uptown neighborhood since the 1980s, bristled at the notion that the U.S. attorney might emphasize one of those spheres over others.
“I don’t like crime,” he said flatly. “It’s crime that’s ruining this city. I don’t care if it’s coming from a street corner, if it’s coming from a corporate boardroom, if it’s coming from City Hall or what. And I have a talented staff that I’m gonna let loose.”
Asked whom he considers a role model, he cited John Volz, who was the U.S. attorney in New Orleans when Strasser began working in the office. Volz was appointed by President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and continued to serve under Ronald Reagan, a Republican. Volz died in 2011.
Strasser’s wasn’t the first name that U.S. Sen. John Kennedy forwarded to the Trump administration to lead one of 93 U.S. attorney’s offices in the country. Pugnacious defense attorney Kyle Schonekas had that honor, before his chances sank for unknown reasons.
But Strasser had been the presumed nominee since late last year, withstanding a vetting process that has dragged out for many U.S. attorney’s offices around the country.
He is the last of Trump’s three U.S. attorney picks in Louisiana. Brandon Fremin has been confirmed by the Senate as U.S. attorney for the Middle District, while David Joseph was confirmed as U.S. attorney for the Western District.
It’s common for new administrations, particularly with a switch of parties in the White House, to make wholesale changes at the top of U.S. Attorney’s offices nationwide.
Two New Orleans-area figures – Volz and former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten – bucked that tendency; both served for over a decade under both GOP and Democratic presidents.
The Eastern District encompasses 13 parishes in the southeastern part of the state, including the New Orleans metropolitan area. Prosecutor Duane Evans has served as acting U.S. attorney since Polite’s departure.
A native of Charlottesville, Virginia, Strasser earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and his law degree from Washington and Lee University.
He spent the first few years of his legal career as a lawyer with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the U.S. Army’s legal arm, according to a copy of his resumé posted on LinkedIn.
Strasser moved to New Orleans in 1984 to work as an assistant U.S. attorney, a job he held for 18 years, eventually heading the fraud and organized crime sections in that office.
He was on the prosecution team that convicted former Gov. Edwin Edwards of racketeering in 2001.
He was the lead prosecutor in the 1995 federal bank fraud case against former Jefferson Parish Council Chairman Bob Evans, who was acquitted of all charges.
Strasser left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2002 but remained with the Department of Justice as a legal attaché, working at embassies in Africa, Europe and Asia. He returned to New Orleans in 2013 to join Chaffe McCall.
As a defense attorney, he was among the first in New Orleans to voice allegations of misconduct against Chad Scott, a longtime U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who is facing 10 corruption-related charges, including perjury and obstruction of justice.
Strasser also represented Damian “A.D.” Barnes, one of 10 alleged “39’ers” gang members accused of more than a dozen murders and extensive drug-dealing activity in New Orleans. A jury convicted Barnes on racketeering, drug and firearms conspiracy charges but acquitted him in the April 2011 murder of Floyd Moore.
In that trial, early last year, Strasser got into a heated argument with Assistant U.S. Attorney Myles Ranier that turned into a minor physical tussle, with Strasser either pushing or poking Ranier in the chest.
The incident prompted a recent jab on Twitter from Polite, the former U.S. attorney, but didn’t derail Strasser’s path through the Senate.