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Hur’s Looming Departure as U.S. Attorney Creates Plum Vacancy for a Political Appointee

Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

The political rumor mill started churning at warp speed Wednesday following news that Robert K. Hur, the U.S. attorney for Maryland since 2018, plans to step down on Feb. 15.

Hur’s imminent departure creates a plum position for President Biden to hand out, in consultation with the state’s two U.S. senators, Benjamin L. Cardin (D) and Chris Van Hollen (D). And it creates a huge opportunity for ambitious Democratic lawyers in Maryland ― who have been shut out of the U.S. attorney position since the Clinton administration gave way to the Bush administration two decades ago.

Hur was nominated to his position by President Trump in 2017 and took over on April 15, 2018. He replaced Rod J. Rosenstein, who had a long tenure as Maryland’s U.S. attorney until he became Trump’s deputy attorney general in 2017.

In his announcement Wednesday, Hur said he plans to return to private practice and that his deputy, Jonathan F. Lenzner, will become acting U.S. attorney until a permanent replacement is found.

“Together, we’ve worked tirelessly to bring criminals to justice, protect and provide recourse to victims and witnesses, and defend our nation against adversaries both foreign and domestic,” Hur said in a statement, praising his colleagues. “We protected our traditions of integrity and continued our commitment to justice in the face of daunting challenges, including the longest federal government shutdown ever, tragic acts of violent extremism, and a frightening pandemic.”

Hur has had a busy tenure.

During his time in office, he has successfully prosecuted several public corruption cases, winning convictions or guilty pleas against former Baltimore mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D), former Baltimore Police commissioner Darryl DeSousa, former Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore City), former Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Prince George’s), members of the Baltimore City Police Department in connection with the Gun Trace Task Force investigation, and correctional officers at multiple state correctional facilities.

Hur’s office on Wednesday also issued a long summary of prosecutions he led involving national security and cyber crime, violent crime and gangs, fraud, and the opioid crisis.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland has been something of an anomaly given Rosenstein’s long tenure in the top job. He was appointed by President George W. Bush and took office in 2005 but then was not replaced during President Obama’s eight years in the White House.

It’s extremely rare for a U.S. attorney appointed by a president to stay in office for the entire tenure of a successive administration, especially if the next president is of a different political party. As such, the last U.S. attorney for Maryland appointed by a Democratic president is Lynne A. Battaglia, who was the pick of President Clinton and served from 1993 to 2001 (she later became a judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals).

But even as Democrats complained about the politicization of the U.S. Justice Department under Trump, they’ve praised Hur for being an even-handed and professional prosecutor ― and many said they’d be pleased if he stayed on.

Now, Biden, in consultation with Cardin and Van Hollen, will have a decision to make ― with wide deference given to Cardin, as the state’s senior senator.

U.S. attorney selections are hard to track in advance ― they’re akin to the deliberations of the College of Cardinals when there’s a vacancy in the papacy. So anyone who says with certainty who the nominee is going to be isn’t telling the truth.

Nevertheless, smart and politically plugged-in Maryland attorneys and Democratic leaders have already assembled a list of potential replacements for Hur. According to several sources, it includes (in alphabetical order):

  • State Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s), a former Justice Department attorney who served as a counsel to Biden when Biden served on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Barron was co-chair of the group Marylanders for Biden, which formed early in the presidential election campaign.
  • Anjali Chaturvedi, who is currently the assistant general counsel for investigations at the defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. She spent more than a decade working as a federal prosecutor in California and Washington, D.C.
  • Kurt L. Schmoke, the former Baltimore mayor and current president of the University of Baltimore. Schmoke started his political career as state’s attorney for Baltimore City and was also the dean of Howard University Law School.
  • Paul M. Tiao, who is head of the cybersecurity practice and the energy sector security team at the Washington, D.C., law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth. A member of Biden’s Justice Department transition team, Tiao was general counsel to the FBI under former director Robert Mueller, focusing on cybersecurity and tech issues.
  • Thiru Vignarajah, who is currently a partner at the firm DLA Piper and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Baltimore in 2020. Vignarajah is a former assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland and also served as chief of the Major Investigations Unit in the State’s Attorney’s Office for Baltimore City and as deputy Attorney General for Maryland.

Whether any of these people winds up as U.S. attorney, Lenzner will run the office until a replacement for Hur is confirmed by the Senate.

Lenzner first joined the United States Attorney’s Office as an assistant U.S. attorney in 2010. He previously served as an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office from 2004 to 2010. He served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland until 2013, departing for the private sector until Hur brought him back as his principal deputy.

“Throughout my tenure, Jon has been my principal partner and advisor, and much of the Office’s recent innovation and success are attributable to him,” Hur said. “I have utmost confidence in him. The Office and its legacy are in supremely talented and experienced hands.”

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Hur’s Looming Departure as U.S. Attorney Creates Plum Vacancy for a Political Appointee