Let no one accuse the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. of slacking. In the last seven months, the feds have turned District politics into one of the most entertaining real-life soap operas around.
There’s Harry Thomas Jr., who resigned in disgrace and pleaded guilty to stealing more than $350,000 to buy an Audi and a motorcycle. Former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown resigned as part of a guilty plea for lying on a bank loan so he could buy a boat. And then there’s the main plotline: the investigation of Mayor Vince Gray. So far, two top aides have pleaded guilty to paying off nuisance candidate Sulaimon Brown. Last week saw another admit to playing a key role in an off-the-books shadow campaign that helped Gray and was funded by one of the city’s biggest contractors. You can’t make this stuff up!
Helping to direct this drama is Vinnie Cohen Jr., a gravel-voiced former Division I basketball walk-on who has quietly become one of the most powerful people in District politics. And as fate would have it, Cohen also happens to be a well-connected native Washingtonian—the cub of a lion in the city’s legal community, a guy who has lived in all four quadrants, and an alumnus of Marion Barry’s summer jobs program.
The No. 2 at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Cohen serves as the point man on local corruption cases for his boss and close personal friend, U.S. Attorney Ron Machen. Cohen wouldn’t say what his exact role is, but people familiar with the probes say he’s very involved, sitting in on plea negotiations and witness interviews.
That a D.C. native has such a key role in local prosecutions is probably a good thing.
“It helps everyone,” says Cohen’s former supervisor in the U.S. Attorneys’ Office, Bob Spagnoletti (who also represented Gray in a dispute over his fence and was recently appointed to head the city’s new ethics board). “It helps the council, it helps the citizens, it helps the Congress have faith” that the U.S. Attorney’s office is aware of the broader implications of bringing down local elected officials.
But rumblings about black politicians being unfairly targeted are growing louder. On Wednesday, a group of ministers held a rally at the Wilson Building to support Gray. Speakers didn’t accuse the feds of blatant racism like some did 20 years ago when Barry was in trouble. But the Rev. Willie Wilson said Gray’s campaign had received unfair scrutiny and that the U.S. Attorney’s Office was creating a “media frenzy” with a stream of leaks.
For Cohen, any suggestion of racial bias doesn’t compute.“You got me, a native Washington African-American male. My boss: African-American male. His boss: an African-American male. His boss’ boss, an African-American male,” Cohen says, referring to Machen, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., and President Barack Obama. “We prosecute conduct. We don’t prosecute color.”
Friends and associates describe Cohen as a detail-oriented, aggressive attorney who sets a high bar for employees. A recent Washington Post article quoted unnamed federal prosecutors complaining about overbearing bosses, but Cohen says you can see the results of his and Machen’s hands-on approach in the recent guilty pleas.
“These politicians are not afraid of, you know, conflict,” he says. “For them to plead guilty early on, it really demonstrates how much investigative time and effort and tools were used to bring them to a place where they really had no option.”
Warren Williams, a developer the D.C. Council blocked several years ago from winning the lucrative lottery contract, says Cohen was just as aggressive as a youngster on the basketball court when they used to play together. “He was tenacious.” (As it happens, the FBI has started interviewing people about that contentious lotto contracting imbroglio.)
Cohen, 41, likely inherited that aggressiveness from his father, a former standout basketball player at Syracuse University (where he roomed with football great Jim Brown) who went on to become one of the most prominent African-American attorneys in D.C. and a mentor to several of this town’s most prominent black lawyers. One of those attorneys was Fred Cooke Jr., who has represented four of the five people to plead guilty in high-profile D.C. corruption cases this year.
Known as an aggressive trial lawyer, Cohen Sr. told the legal publication Diversity & the Bar that “litigation is win-lose, and I like to win.”
Cohen Sr., who died last year, also dabbled in politics. He was an ANC commissioner and helped run Clifford Alexander’s unsuccessful bid for mayor in 1974. He also used to throw a pool party/networking event for young black D.C. attorneys every summer, says Cooke. A regular at those parties: Vinnie Cohen Jr., known locally as “Vo.”
Cohen grew up in Shepherd Park and sounds slightly embarrassed about his privileged upbringing. “My parents tricked me and had me take a test, and I scored very, very well, and they ended up throwing me into Sidwell Friends,” Cohen says, referring to the tony private school where presidents send their kids. As a youngster, Cohen and Councilmember Michael Brown used to ride bikes, play sports, and skip rocks in Rock Creek. (Cohen lives off 16th Street NW now.)
Cohen followed his father to Syracuse, where he was a walk-on basketball player. (An article from the Syracuse Post-Standard says he didn’t take his first shot during a game until his junior year. It was a three-pointer, which he drained. “They tell us in practice that if we’re open, we should put it up,” a matter-of-fact Cohen told the paper. “I was wide open, so I put it up.”)
After getting undergraduate and law degrees from Syracuse, Cohen clerked for a D.C. Superior Court judge before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1997. Cohen was interviewed for what he called his “dream job” by the U.S. Attorney at the time, Holder. Cohen says his desire to be a prosecutor stemmed from seeing his beloved hometown ravaged by crack and gang turf wars.
“I knew I had to do something when I came back to D.C. to help D.C. get back to the way it was when I was much, much younger,” he says.
He left the office for the much more lucrative world of private practice after six years, working at Schertler & Onorato (where Spagnoletti now works). But Cohen says the same motivation drew him back. He wants his legacy to be that he made “D.C. a safer better place for my kids, like the soldiers before me—my dad and the folks like him.”
There’s talk that Cohen might have a much more visible legacy: His name’s been mentioned as a possible mayoral contender in a future race. Cohen’s local ties and current position might make him a natural fit in a town reeling from scandal and desperate for a law and order candidate. But if Cohen’s got political aspirations, he’s not shared them with his friends.
For his part, all Cohen says is that he’s focused only on the job at hand. Considering the work load, that’s probably a good thing.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery