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Ball's in her court: We profile attorney general Loretta Lynch

She's America's first black, female attorney general, with a track-record of defeating mobsters and terrorists. Now, Loretta Lynch has Fifa in her sights

By Rupert Cornwell

Published 06/06/2015

Loretta Lynch
Loretta Lynch

Unless they're a Kennedy (as in Robert), or get sent to jail (as in John Mitchell of Watergate infamy), US attorney generals don't usually become household names - least of all one who's been in the job for exactly one month and is best-known for being a hard worker who prefers to stay out of the limelight.

But in New York last week, in the federal prosecutor's office in Brooklyn, all such pretensions to obscurity vanished. Loretta Lynch, formally installed as America's chief law enforcement officer on April 27, unveiled a breathtaking set of charges against nine present and former top officials of the governing body of the world's most popular sport.

They had, she said, been engaged in "rampant, systemic and deep-rooted" corruption stretching back 20 years and involving hundreds of millions of dollars.

It should be noted that female representatives of the US judicial system have a habit of shaking up the universe of big-time sport. Back in 1995, the then district court judge - now Supreme Court justice - Sonia Sotomayor ruled against baseball's mighty owners and ended the seven-month players' strike that had forced the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. But that decision, transformative as it was for America's national pastime, had zero impact outside the States.

Lynch, by contrast, has shaken a global pastime to its foundations. In launching the first serious legal attempt to cleanse the cesspool that is Fifa, she became an instant celebrity, heroine of football fans on five continents.

She set in motion a chain reaction that led to the departure of Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter, hitherto shameless and indestructible in equal measure, and desperately needed reform of the organisation. All in all, not bad for a woman from North Carolina, whose father was a pastor, her grandfather a share-cropper and her ancestors slaves.

The story of Lynch's rise to become her country's first female African-American Attorney General is one of remarkable self-achievement. Her fascination with the law stemmed from hours spent at the local courthouse in Durham with her father, watching cases play out.

She won a place at Harvard, where she studied English, before taking a graduate degree from Harvard Law School. By 1991, at the age of 30, she was a federal prosecutor for New York's eastern district, specialising in drug cases, racketeering and political corruption - all sadly features of a high-profile jurisdiction that covers much of New York City as well as Long Island.

In 1999, Bill Clinton appointed her to the eastern district's top job, of US attorney. As such, she led the prosecution in the case of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant savagely beaten up by New York police officers. The affair created national and international outrage, and inflamed tensions between the police and minority communities.

But Lynch, typically, outwardly played a mere supporting role. She left the prosecution's keynote opening statement in the trial to a junior prosecutor. Only at the end, after the defence had raised the issue of race, did she take over.

Her closing arguments were polished, measured and persuasive, helping to send the officer primarily responsible to prison for 30 years.

But that first stint as US attorney lasted only until 2001, when George W Bush won the White House. Lynch returned to private practice and corporate law, serving also as a board member of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, monitor of the country's financial centre and by far the most important of the central bank's dozen regional members.

But, by 2010, she was nominated by President Barack Obama to her old job. By then the focus was on terrorism and the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and Lynch handled various cases against the big banks. But she generated her biggest headlines with the 2014 indictments of the mob figure Vincent Asaro and friends for the 'Goodfellas' robbery, 36 years earlier, of $6m (£4m) worth of cash and jewellery from a Lufthansa vault at JFK airport. The still mysterious heist featured in the hit movie by Martin Scorsese.

Throughout, the Lynch modus operandi did not change. She kept a low profile, she listened as much as she talked. She was tenacious, but never a showboater and always ready to hear an opposing viewpoint.

As one admiring former Justice Department official put it: "Loretta is steel wrapped in velvet, incredibly tough with a diplomatic touch." President Obama was even more effusive when nominating her for the US Attorney General job in November 2014: "She might be the only lawyer in America who battles mobsters and drug lords and terrorists, and still has a reputation for being a charming people person."

In an ever more partisan political environment, too, Lynch is demonstrably non-partisan. Last year she did indict Michael Grimm, the former Republican congressman from Staten Island, for fraud and tax evasion - charges for which he now faces a three-year jail sentence. Long before that, though, she had prosecuted a slew of Democrats on the New York state legislature.

Much good that record or the presidential encomium did her, however, among Republicans who now control the Senate. Her two previous confirmations, as US attorney in New York, were relatively painless. This one dragged on for a near-unprecedented 166 days.

To a small extent, her problems were self-inflicted, most notably her admission of faulty handling of an HSBC money-laundering case which the bank settled for $1.9bn, in which, as the US attorney in charge of the prosecution, she failed to get hold of separate documents showing HSBC had helped clients to hide money offshore.

Mainly, though, she was hostage of the chronic inability of Democrats and Republicans to agree on anything, and of the latter's opposition to Obama's plans to bypass Congress and allow many illegal immigrants to stay in the country. The hapless Lynch's offence was guilt by association.

But in April the logjam broke, and she's barely had time to draw breath since. The day she took over the Justice Department, the riots in Baltimore over the police role in the death of the young black man Freddie Gray reached their climax.

Then Congress failed to pass legislation to reauthorise government access to Americans' phone data, a supposedly vital tool in the fight against terrorism. Last week, as the world waited for her words on Fifa, she made a renewed plea for action, before the relevant parts of the Patriot Act lapsed.

That wait was worth it - and how. Not least noteworthy was the sheer mastery of the affair displayed by a woman from a country less besotted than most by the beautiful game.

But her expertise should not have surprised, given that the case was mainly put together in New York during her second stint as US attorney, between 2010 and 2015.

For Lynch, like most who care about the game, the Fifa scandal is an act of gross betrayal, of the trust of millions - above all young people - around the world.

The New York Post, Murdoch-owned and normally no friend of Democrats, summed up the general feeling perfectly: "Keep those red cards coming, Loretta."

A life so far...

  • Born: May 21, 1959, Greensboro, North Carolina
  • Family: Her mother, Lorine, was a school librarian and her father, Lorenzo, a Baptist minister. Married to Stephen Hargrove, who works for broadcaster Showtime
  • Education: BA in English and American literature from Harvard and Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School
  • Career: New York lawyer. Prosecutor in the US attorney's office in 1990; attorney for the eastern district of New York in 1999 and 2010-14. US Attorney General April 2015

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