Thomas E. Delahanty II knew his days as U.S. attorney for Maine were numbered after November’s election.
He was appointed in 2010 by President Obama, a Democrat, and the new president-elect, Donald Trump, was a Republican.
“Every single one of us knows it’s a temporary job depending on the results of the election,” he said.
Delahanty held the post for nearly the entire period of Obama’s two terms. He spent much of the last several years tackling drug trafficking cases, hoping to make a dent in the state’s growing opioid crisis.
And like all 93 U.S. attorneys throughout the country, he was given a choice once Trump was elected: resign effective on Inauguration Day or indicate a willingness to stay on until a successor could be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Delahanty, who enjoyed the job and thought a smooth transition was important, opted for the latter, as did 45 other U.S. attorneys.
For several weeks during the transition, he said, he was told by Department of Justice and Trump transition team officials that he would remain in office for the foreseeable future.
So when he learned late last week that he would have to resign immediately, the timing caught him off guard – even more so because he was on vacation.
Speaking publicly on Friday for the first time since his sudden resignation, Delahanty was diplomatic about the transition of power but said the manner in which it happened was “a bit of a surprise.”
“I didn’t really get a chance to wrap up any loose ends,” he said. “By Monday morning, my email and iPhone had been shut off.”
Although previous presidents have acted similarly with regard to replacing U.S. attorneys, the suddenness – and Delahanty says, a seeming shift in approach – has attracted criticism.
Back in December, before the inauguration, Delahanty met with Trump transition team members as a member of the U.S. attorney general’s advisory committee.
“At that time, the recommendation of the transition team was that (we) would be able to continue until a successor was confirmed,” he said.
A memo from the Justice Department was sent shortly before Trump’s inauguration in January with a similar message.
In late February, Delahanty received another Justice Department memo outlining changes within the department. That memo said U.S. attorneys appointed by Obama would be able to continue “for the time being.”
About a week later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued the call for resignations to every U.S. attorney who was an Obama appointee, effective immediately.
On that same day, White House press secretary Sean Spicer lamented to reporters that the president was concerned about a “deep state” of federal employees who might try to undermine Trump’s agenda.
Delahanty, who has had a long legal career in Maine and comes from a well established legal family, said he never viewed the job as political and was never explicitly instructed by the Department of Justice to pursue certain cases or ignore others.
He said he wishes he had the opportunity to assist his successor, just as he received guidance from the U.S. attorney he replaced, Paula Silsby, an appointee of President George W. Bush.
TWO STINTS AS U.S. ATTORNEY
In fact, it wasn’t until about a year and a half after Obama was elected in 2008 that Delahanty was confirmed by the Senate. During that time, Silsby stayed on, even though she had been a Republican appointee.
None of Obama’s appointees will have that opportunity.
Delahanty, a Lewiston native who now lives in Falmouth, started his career out of law school in the early 1970s as a defense attorney and then became a prosecutor in Androscoggin County.
He actually held the title of U.S. attorney for Maine for a short time in 1980 and 1981. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to replace George Mitchell, who was appointed as a federal judge.
However, not long after, Carter lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan, who then began replacing U.S. attorneys.
Delahanty returned to private practice for two years before he was appointed a justice of the Maine Superior Court. He held that position for 18 years, including five as chief justice, until being named U.S. attorney again in 2010.
The Justice Department announced this week that Richard Murphy, who was Delahanty’s assistant U.S. attorney for many years, would serve as the interim.
Delahanty, 71, said the public doesn’t necessarily understand the role of a U.S. attorney. In simplest terms, they are the same as local district attorneys but handle only federal cases. There are a lot of variables that determine what makes a case a federal case and not a state case, but typically it’s when any of the alleged conduct crosses state lines. Internet crimes, including cyberthreats and child pornography, are always handled in federal court. Fraud and malpractice allegations involving federally funded agencies end up there as well. Asset forfeiture cases are prosecuted federally.
Delahanty’s office oversaw the high-profile prosecution in 2012 of a young man who set fire to a nuclear submarine at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery. More recently, his office successfully prosecuted Dr. Joel Sabean, a well-known local dermatologist, for tax evasion and health care fraud.
During his time as U.S. attorney, drug trafficking prosecutions, especially heroin and other opiates, became a major focus, Delahanty said.
Gov. Paul LePage, in a letter sent in late January to Sessions, seemed to criticize the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Delahanty for not moving fast enough to prosecute drug dealers.
“I have been told the U.S. Attorney’s Office has not been active in prosecuting drug crimes despite the fact that these drug dealers cross several state lines on their way to Maine,” LePage said. “I am also told that the U.S. Attorney’s Office is very slow in prosecuting the cases they do decide to take up.”
Delahanty said he was surprised by the governor’s critical letter, which he found out about only after a reporter contacted his office, because LePage had sent another letter a few months earlier to then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in which he “in essence praised the office for doing everything we do with the limited resources we have.”
FOCUS ON TRAFFICKING LEADERS
LePage’s office did not respond to a request for comment Friday by the Portland Press Herald.
Delahanty said the governor’s criticism didn’t bother him because the governor doesn’t understand how federal cases work.
He said his office made a priority of drug cases that involved organizers and leaders of drug trafficking operations, rather than lower-level dealers who were caught up in their own addiction.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Maine prosecuted 58 drug cases in 2016, compared with 87 in 2015 and 53 in 2011. Of the 2016 cases, 42 cases involved heroin and OxyContin.
Delahanty, who led the Maine Opiate Collaborative – formed in 2015 to help combat the state’s epidemic – said he was saddened to hear the recent overdose death numbers for 2016.
“I don’t know what it will take to solve the problem,” he said. “I think if we knew the answer, we’d have done it already.”
He also said he’s not convinced that the new Justice Department is going to be as compassionate about the treatment and prevention components of the response to the crisis.
It’s not clear yet how Sessions will approach the opioid crisis within the Justice Department but just this week he used a decades-old slogan that favors prevention over treatment for those already addicted.
“I think we have too much of a tolerance for drug use – psychologically, politically, morally,” Sessions told law enforcement officials in Richmond, Virginia. “We need to say, as Nancy Reagan said, ‘Just say no.’ ”
Delahanty said he likely would have stayed on as U.S. attorney had the election outcome been different, but he’s also excited to move on. He doesn’t know what he might do next but said his wife told him last year, during a post-surgery recuperation at home, that she doesn’t imagine he’ll ever stay retired.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: