Justin E. Herdman, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, announced today that he has submitted his resignation to President Donald J. Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr.
Herdman was sworn-in as United States Attorney on August 21, 2017 and will step-down on January 8, 2021. By operation of federal law, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget Brennan will be sworn-in as Acting U.S. Attorney upon the effective date of Herdman’s resignation.
“I commend U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman for his distinguished service to the Justice Department and American people these past few years,” said Attorney General William P. Barr. “Justin is a consummate and principled public servant who has also served as an invaluable member of the Attorney General’s Advisory Council. His steadfast commitment to building safer communities and bringing justice to the citizens of Northern Ohio and our nation is unparalleled. Under his leadership, his office forged partnerships with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to combat addiction and violence in his community. I wish him well in all his future endeavors.”
“To serve as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio for these past three years has been a singular honor,” said U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman. “There are not many jobs where you can work every day to ensure the safety and well-being of millions of your neighbors and friends. Northern Ohio is where I grew up, it is where my wife and I chose to raise a family, and it is where I have always wanted to spend my entire career. To have been offered an opportunity to contribute, even in a small way, to the future of our community is the privilege of a lifetime.”
“I want to thank President Trump, Attorney General Sessions and Attorney General Barr for their confidence in me to lead this office. I would also like to thank Senator Portman and Senator Brown, both of whom originally recommended me for this position and placed their trust in my abilities to serve all residents of northern Ohio. I am also deeply appreciative of the men and women of the U.S. Attorney’s Office who have stood with me in carrying out the virtuous mission of the Justice Department. Their work and dedication to the pursuit of justice make our communities and country a better place to live. As a person soon to re-enter private life, I am forever grateful for their vigilance in protecting the public. Any credit for the accomplishments throughout my tenure as United States Attorney belongs to them and our law enforcement partners, and for that, they have my enduring thanks.”
The following are notable accomplishments achieved under U.S. Attorney Herdman’s leadership:
Enforcement Priority: Combatting Opioids & Narcotics Overdoses
As United States Attorney, Herdman’s chief priority was to focus on saving lives. When he began his tenure in 2017, no area demanded more attention than the opioid epidemic and narcotics overdose crisis. Using a whole-of-office approach, Herdman established a Diversion Working Group to pursue unlawfully diverted prescription painkillers across the supply chain, which resulted in the precedent-setting use of the Controlled Substances Act’s civil provisions to enjoin healthcare professionals from illegal prescribing. “I am particularly proud of the results of our Diversion Working Group,” said Herdman, “The hard work of those attorneys and investigators led to numerous prosecutions, convictions, and civil suits of irresponsible healthcare workers. Their efforts have absolutely reduced the oversupply of prescription opioids in our district and have undoubtedly saved lives.”
Herdman also established a Dark Web Working Group, a multi-agency investigative team tasked with identifying online vendors of illicit narcotics, especially fentanyl and synthetic opioids, and holding them accountable. These efforts have led to numerous prosecutions of dark web and online drug dealers, as well as charges against the Zheng drug trafficking organization, which is based in the People’s Republic of China and in July 2020 was designated under the Kingpin Act by the U.S. Department of Treasury. Herdman also oversaw the nationally recognized Operation Darkness Falls initiative, which was a multi-agency effort designed to identify, investigate, and prosecute the highest-profile criminal targets operating on the dark net. Given the record number of deaths stemming from the opioid epidemic, Operation Darkness Fall’s chief focus was on combatting fentanyl and other synthetic opioid dark net distributors. Included among the successful prosecutions of this operation was the identification and prosecution of MH4Life, the most prolific fentanyl trafficker on the dark net, which had over 4,000 verified drug transactions on just three of the dozen dark net marketplaces where it was operating.
In October 2018, the Department of Justice announced that Cleveland would be the location of a new, multi-agency Strike Force funded by the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force. The Strike Force commenced operational activities in 2019 and is expected to co-locate all operations at a new Strike Force building, which will host all participating agencies, in January 2021.
Under his leadership, the office prosecuted more narcotics-related offenses in each year between 2018 and 2020 (393, 456, and 493 individual defendants, respectively) than ever before in the history of the district. From 2018 to 2020, the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuted more than double the number of narcotics defendants than in the years 2014 to 2016. “Behind each of these numbers is a drug trafficker, someone who sold poison to one of our neighbors, friends, or family members suffering from addiction,” Herdman said, “The decision to prosecute someone on the federal level is not one that we make lightly, but the fact is that in this era, where fentanyl has killed thousands of Ohioans, there is no such thing as a low-level drug dealer. Enforcement of our nation’s drug laws is a cornerstone in winning the fight against overdose deaths, and over the past three years, our office and our investigative partners have more than done our part.”
Herdman also brought federal resources to bear in combatting narcotics trafficking in locations outside the largest metropolitan areas. In 2018, Operation S.O.S. was launched in Lorain County to help stop the supply of synthetic opioids in the area. Since that time, opioid overdose deaths in Lorain County have decreased by 31%. Similarly, targeted enforcement operations have been brought across the district, including in Trumbull County, Marion, Mansfield, and Lima. “There is no town in Ohio that has escaped the opioid epidemic,” Herdman said, “I’m proud of the cases that we have brought in smaller cities with the cooperation of local law enforcement. The residents of Warren, Marion, Mansfield, Lorain, Elyria, and many other cities have people who are alive in this holiday season because of the cases that we have prosecuted.”
Herdman also continued a series of prevention efforts designed at developing collaborative, community-wide approaches to reducing overdose deaths. In 2018, Herdman convened a conference of leaders from healthcare, recovery, social services and law enforcement communities at the Cleveland Clinic. This group, which was brought together five years after a similar conference, recommended a new community action plan that established, for the first time, a team dedicated to incorporating data and analytics into the U.S. Attorney’s Heroin and Opioid Task Force.
These efforts have seen success and, in some instances, dramatic improvement in the death rate associated with narcotics overdoses. In 2018, the district experienced the first decrease in narcotics overdoses since 2010. In Cuyahoga County, 2018 saw a 24-percent decrease in overdose deaths from the preceding year and that number remained relatively stable through 2019. Similar decreases in overdose deaths were witnessed across the district in that time span. “Despite all evidence pointing to the impossibility of reversing the upward trend of overdose deaths, we were able to do just that in Ohio through the coordinated efforts of law enforcement, treatment and recovery professionals, the health care community, policymakers and politicians, and concerned citizens,” Herdman said, “We are not out of this yet, though. 2020 will undoubtedly see a rise in overdose deaths as COVID-19 has pushed the opioid crisis from the headlines and as our neighbors suffering from addiction have had to do so in isolation, without face-to-face help from peer counselors and recovery specialists. I promised to leave no stone unturned in our fight against overdose deaths. Our office is well-positioned to continue delivering on this solemn commitment to our community in the next year and for many years to come. This is a fight that we not only can win, but must win.”
Enforcement Priority: Reducing Violent Crime
Upon becoming U.S. Attorney, Herdman established a Violent Crimes Unit and staffed it with experienced attorneys focused on prosecutions of gang members, gun traffickers, armed robbers, and carjackers. These efforts were supplemented by increased enforcement of illegal firearms possession, especially where guns were used to further other violent crimes or narcotics offenses. The number of individuals prosecuted for illegal firearms possession offenses in 2020 represented a 162% increase – almost three times as many – from the number of similar offenses prosecuted in 2016.
In both Toledo and Cleveland, the police departments were participants in the Department’s Public Safety Partnerships, which provided training and technical assistance designed to improve the city’s approaches to reducing violent crime. In 2018, the office supported Operation We-R-CLE, an enforcement operation focused on the east side of Cleveland, which resulted in the seizure of numerous firearms and arrests of the city’s most violent fugitives. That operation resulted in a historic low for homicides in the city – 2 in the month of May 2018 – and an overall decrease in violent crime across the neighborhoods selected for the initiative.
In 2019 in Youngstown, the office supported Operation Steel Penguin and Operation Rookery, violent crime reduction efforts which included a data-driven enforcement effort. Under these initiatives, the ATF, along with officers from the Youngstown Police Department and Ohio’s Adult Parole Authority, worked together to identify violent offenders and reoffenders. These operations led to 109 arrests, the seizure of 45 illegally possessed firearms and an overall reduction in violent crimes during the operational period by 30% and homicides by 90% (as to compared to the preceding year).
More recently, in July of 2020, Herdman announced that Operation Legend, a collaborative law enforcement partnership, would be launched in the city of Cleveland to address increasing violent crime rates. Operation Legend will provide funding to support almost 40 task force officers from the Cleveland Division of Police, Ohio State Highway Patrol, the Ohio Investigative Unit, and Ohio Adult Parole, as well as permanent reassignment of additional federal agents from ATF, DEA, FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service. Also this past year, in response to an alarming rise in firearms violence over the summer, Herdman announced Project Red-Zone, a partnership between federal, state, and local law enforcement in Toledo and Youngstown to federally prosecute every illegal gun possession case from those locations during the operational period of the initiative. This effort was credited with dramatically reducing firearms violence in those cities over the Labor Day weekend in 2020.
“Until this past year, our violent crime reduction efforts were making significant progress in our district’s largest cities,” Herdman said, “While there is no doubt that 2020 has presented new, substantial challenges to law enforcement when it comes to violent crimes, especially shootings and homicides, I am confident that the strategies and resources that we have put in place will witness improvement in our cities’ violent crime rates in 2021 and well beyond.”
Enforcement Priority: Prosecuting Domestic Violence Offenders
Another area of focus for Herdman was an unprecedented federal enforcement effort directed at the prosecution of domestic violence-related firearms offenders. In October of 2018, Herdman announced a new initiative on federal level domestic violence enforcement.
In the two years since that announcement, the district has seen a 300% increase in the number of firearms-related cases brought against domestic violence offenders than in previous years. “A gun in the hand of a domestic violence offender is far more likely to be used to kill the victim in that setting, and far more likely to be used against responding law enforcement,” Herdman said, “I am proud of the work that we have done in addressing domestic violence on the federal level and I believe that these efforts, which were previously never the focus of federal law enforcement, have saved the lives of domestic violence victims, innocent children, and police officers.”
As U.S. Attorney, Herdman also ensured that the Department of Justice’s number one priority – preventing terrorism and advancing national security – was carried out in the Northern District of Ohio. The office was responsible for disrupting several planned mass-casualty attacks, including a plan to attack downtown Cleveland on July 4, 2018 perpetrated by an individual who swore allegiance to Al Qaeda (United States v. Demetrius Pitts); a plot to attack a downtown Toledo bar and an energy pipeline (United States v. Lecron; United States v. Armstrong); an alleged plot by an ISIS-inspired individual to attack a Toledo-area synagogue (United States v. Joseph); and an alleged plot to kidnap and kill members of local law enforcement (United States v. Ferguson). Herdman also supervised ground-breaking prosecutions involving cybercrime, including the successful trial of a group of Romanian hackers (United States v. Nicolescu, et al., also known as the “Bayrob Group”) and continued to oversee public-private partnerships devoted to a broad cybersecurity response in Northern Ohio. Herdman also initiated prosecutions stemming from the Department’s China Initiative, including charges alleging a local researcher had failed to disclose financial support from the Chinese government’s “Thousand Talents Program.”
Fraud and Public Corruption
Throughout his tenure as U.S. Attorney, Herdman has delivered on a core Justice Department principle: rooting out self-dealing by public officials. Notable prosecutions and charges in the area of public corruption include the following:
- A former Allen County Sheriff was charged with soliciting bribes, extortion and making false statements, which resulted in a 136-month sentence and an approximately $600,000 restitution order.
- The former Chief Operating Officer of a publicly-funded hospital, along with four others, was convicted of a bribery and kickback scheme that involved thousands of dollars paid for patient referrals and the illegal use of hospital resources to support a side business.
- In a pending case, four sitting members of the Toledo City Council have been charged with bribery and extortion.
- The former chief of the City of Cleveland’s Demolitions Bureau was charged with receiving bribes in exchange for expediting inspections and providing non-public information on upcoming bids.
- A former Cuyahoga County land bank employee was charged with honest services fraud and bribery.
- A City of Cleveland Section Chief in the Engineering and Construction division was sentenced to 18 months in prison for extortion, bribery, and tax offenses after he accepted below-market improvements on his property from a city contractor he supervised and directed city projects to benefit himself. He was also ordered to pay restitution to the City of Cleveland and the Internal Revenue Service.
Fraudulent schemes, especially those that targeted vulnerable Ohioans and those seeking to exploit Medicaid programs and the nation’s efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic, received similar attention from Herdman. An active participant in the Department’s Elder Fraud Initiative, Herdman’s office brought several charges against those who sought to exploit elderly residents of the district, including some residing in nursing homes. During Herdman’s tenure, the office also brought charges against three women who, under the guise of operating a reputable adoption agency, are alleged to have paid bribes to foreign officials to facilitate adoptions for American families in violation of, among other laws, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Charges were also brought against physicians and pharmaceutical employees who were alleged to have defrauded the Medicaid program by falsely diagnosing patients and promoting the use of specific controlled substances in exchange for kickbacks. Finally, Herdman has supervised a series of cases charging several individuals who allegedly defrauded the Payroll Protection Program, a federal effort to support small businesses during the pandemic, by, among other things, creating fictitious business and falsifying records to create the illusion that they were entitled to program funds.
During Herdman’s tenure, civil rights remained a top priority of the office. Herdman also became a vocal advocate for the need to address the surge in white supremacy-related violence and threats to the public. Notable civil rights achievements include the first-ever indictment alleging both national security violations and hate crimes offenses (United States v. Joseph). Near the time of this indictment in early 2019, and recognizing the growing number of threats to places of worship and those who seek to peacefully exercise their religious rights, Herdman brought more than 250 people together, including community members, religious leaders, and law enforcement representatives and agents, for a multi-denominational conversation about supporting all faiths and securing places of worship.
Herdman also oversaw numerous prosecutions of individuals who used social media platforms or other internet-based communications to threaten northern Ohio residents with violence, including an individual who is alleged to have threatened a Youngstown-area Jewish Community Center (United States v. Reardon). With respect to human trafficking, the office remained engaged in addressing this threat to Ohioans, particularly in the area of juvenile sex trafficking. In Toledo and Cleveland, religious leaders have been charged with juvenile sex trafficking for allegedly paying underage boys and girls for commercial sex acts. Additionally, in what is the largest juvenile sex trafficking indictment brought in this district, a former Youngstown-area physician awaits trial for juvenile sex trafficking and child exploitation charges related to six juvenile victims with ages ranging from12 to 15 years.
Civil enforcement of federal civil rights laws received equal attention under Herdman, as the office has prioritized policing reform efforts, prevention of disparate discipline in public schooling, enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and efforts to combat sexual harassment in housing. Notably, and for the first time ever in the district, the office filed a complaint for sexual harassment in housing against Toledo-area residents for allegedly engaging in abusive and harassing conduct towards vulnerable women. The office also entered into a settlement agreement with the Toledo Public School District, the fifth-largest school district in northern Ohio, to address and resolve disparate disciplinary practices for minority and disabled students.
Herdman also oversaw the continued efforts of the Department to implement the terms of the Consent Decree with the Cleveland Division of Police and the City of Cleveland, which include revised search and seizure policies; use of force reforms and improved documentation and investigation of uses of force; and critical incident response training for specially-designated officers responding to calls for service to assist community members in times of a mental health crisis.
Herdman previously served as an Assistant United States Attorney from 2006 through 2013. As an Assistant U.S. Attorney, he served as Deputy Chief of the National Security, Human Rights, and Organized Crime Unit. Prior to that, he was an Assistant District Attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office from 2001 to 2004.
Herdman was nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as U.S. Attorney on June 12, 2017, and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on August3, 2017. He took the oath of office from U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Gaughan on August 21, 2017.
In 2017, he was appointed to the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee (AGAC), of which he is currently the Vice-Chair. In this role, Herdman serves as one of fifteen United States Attorneys charged with developing and offering recommendations to improve management, operations, and functions of U.S. Attorneys’ offices nationwide, as well as the Department of Justice.
In 2019, Herdman was appointed to Attorney General Barr’s working group focused on federal responses to Domestic Violence. He has also served as Chair of the AGAC’s Terrorism & National Security Subcommittee and as a Co-Chair of the Attorney General’s Prescription Interdiction and Litigation Task Force.
Herdman continues to serve as a Judge Advocate in the United States Air Force Reserve and is a former intelligence officer in the United States Navy Reserve. He earned his B.A. from Ohio University, his M.Phil. from the University of Glasgow, and his J.D. from Harvard Law School.