NEW CASTLE — Cindy Chung is just over three months into her role as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
But while his job description may be novel, the challenges of his office — which spans Pennsylvania’s 25 westernmost counties, including Mercer and Lawrence — are not.
Drug trafficking, of course, tops the list.
Chung, 46, who was nominated by President Joe Biden last fall and confirmed by the Senate in late November, traveled to New Castle on Thursday to meet with local law enforcement, the district attorney, county commissioners and common pleas court judges, as well as to visit Arise, an emergency shelter and advocate against violence and abuse.
Cindy Chung, 46, was sworn in Nov. 23 as the 59th United States Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
“We do a lot of drug, opiate and now methamphetamine trafficking cases,” she said. “When I started working in our office in 2014, meth wasn’t really an issue. But we’re really seeing an increase in not only meth, meth, but a much purer kind than what we used to see.
It’s those types of cases, she said, when her office and local law enforcement often team up.
“The cooperation has been going on for many years,” she said. “I think it has intensified in recent years. About two decades ago the FBI had a residential office here (in New Castle). It was reinstated about three years ago, and there’s a permanent federal presence here with the FBI office.
“And we actually have a dedicated (Assistant United States Attorney) here in Lawrence County at the FBI office. He did a lot of good work.
Last year, she said, Acting U.S. Attorney Steven Kauffman (now Assistant Executive U.S. Attorney) worked with Lawrence County District Attorney Joshua Lamancusa on a wiretap drug takedown of 25 defendants. .
“These are the types of cases that are often federal, these large-scale drug trafficking organizations,” Chung said. “They often start with local agents identifying people and then working together to move up the chain of the drug organization.”
However, drugs are not his only problem. Violence also gets his office’s attention, and indeed, noted Mike Warfield, the two issues are linked.
Warfield is a retired Pennsylvania State Trooper who was based in Lawrence County and worked closely with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. After retiring, he worked in Lamancusa’s office as an investigator before taking his current role as Law Enforcement Coordinator with the U.S. Attorney’s Western District Office. He is also the current Aliquippa High School football coach.
Lawrence County, he said, is “similar to many areas in our district. We have seen the increase in drug activity, which is causing the increase in violence. I think that’s something that Cindy and the staff want to make these little counties aware of, that our office is there and we’ll be there to help.
“A lot of times in the past, people might have had this federal government figure coming in and taking cases. But I do believe that Cindy and the office really care about outlying communities and want those people to know that we’re here to help, not just periodically, but year-round.
And even if a violent crime doesn’t consistently rise to the federal felony level, Chung says his office can still help local law enforcement deal with it.
“We can lay a firearms charge in a shooting,” she said. “If there’s a shooting or a murder, and none of the witnesses want to cooperate, but we can trace the gun to a person, and we can actually say the shooter had the firearm, then we can take that to the federal level, because often that person is prohibited from having a firearm.
“Once they’re in federal custody, it can do a lot to make witnesses less afraid to cooperate with state affairs, and it can help the state make the case for a shooting or murder. Or sometimes it’s because another person who knows will then choose to cooperate against the shooters. We can help violence by this.
Thursday’s visit by Chung and his team also included a visit to Arise, where domestic violence and human trafficking are among the top concerns.
“I think it would surprise people to learn that there is also the possibility of federal prosecution for domestic violence,” Chung said. “A lot of times guns are used in these crimes, and a lot of times people shouldn’t have these guns, so we can take a gun case in these cases, which I think often puts victims more comfortable.
“This is not the kind of case where the victim has to testify. It was really a law enforcement officer who recovered the firearm testifying that they recovered it. It is therefore a good way to solve this problem without the victim having to appear in court or to be blamed by his aggressor.
Cybercrime, another priority for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, could also be linked to a domestic violence case.
“The use of computers and wireless technology to harass, harass or threaten victims are federal crimes that we sometimes take because our local law enforcement will say is ‘a very dangerous assailant, who the victim is afraid of, the victim is afraid to testify against,’ she said. accuse this either of a case of interstate threat, even if it is intrastate, or of cyberstalking.”
Yet, as the U.S. Attorney’s Office pursues the cases behind the United States and its agencies, putting people in jail isn’t its only function.
“Another part of what we’re doing today is also meeting with the reintegration services that are available here,” Troy Rivetti, senior deputy U.S. attorney, said of the team’s visit. “One of the important messages that our American attorney is trying to get across, in terms of solving the crime problem, we also want to amplify those voices by understanding that it’s not just about arresting people, but to solve the whole problem of the community and to support the services that are there, so that people understand the opportunities that are available to them.
Chung echoed this statement.
“It’s definitely a priority for us to recognize that there’s no way to pursue your path away from crime,” she said. “That’s obviously a very important part and what we mainly do, but we really want to support the efforts to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“In Pittsburgh, we have a lot of disruption at the community level, to disrupt violence before it even happens. There’s also reintegration, which we hope people don’t re-offend by highlighting opportunities and providing the services people need to reintegrate, because it can be difficult.