Arizona United States Attorney

More from this show

The United States Attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke talks to Horizonte about the new civil rights unit, human trafficking, mortgage fraud, and other issues.

José Cárdenas: Last month, representatives of the financial fraud enforcement taskforce, including attorney general Eric holder, met in Phoenix for the second of a series of mortgage fraud summits. The number of mortgage fraud cases in Arizona has prompted the Department of Justice to focus its crackdown in the state. Tonight joining me to talk about this, border security and other issues, is the U.S. attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke. Dennis, welcome to "Horizonte." You've been on the show before. You've been on "Horizon." This is going back home for you. You used to be in the attorney general's office.

Dennis Burke: I worked at the main justice and worked as -- worked on drug prosecutions in the district of Arizona and main justice as part of their legislative affairs team.

José Cárdenas: I'd like to talk about differences from when you were there and when you came back, but specifically how the department, the office has changed or has handled the turmoil that was there involving the firing the Paul Charlton.

Dennis Burke: As you alluded to, Paul Charlton, one of my predecessors was a U.S. attorney singled out and fired for very questionable reasons. And the politicalization of the department had a dramatic impact of the morale of the office and the district of Arizona and we've focused on restoring that morale and it's a priority of attorney general holder and he's announced that from the get-go and we're trying to ensure that prosecutors know and federal attorneys working on either civil or criminal matters know that that those matters be will be not be politicalized and they're not seeking just victories but justice.

José Cárdenas: And policies in place to make sure that happens?

Dennis Burke: Yes, there are. Numerous policies with regard to how we make decisions that not only in this decision with regard to potential politicalization of cases and investigations, but also in response to the case of senator Stevens who have been -- charged were brought against him, a senior senator from Alaska. They were very questionable practices conducted by the prosecutors in that case with regard to disclosure and providing information to the defense team. That has had a dramatic impact on the department as a whole with how we try cases and provide material to a defense during a trial.

José Cárdenas: Dennis, before we get to the specifics of what your office is doing right now, give us a thumbnail sketch of your office. What you do and how many people you have doing it.

Dennis Burke: You mentioned I worked in the office in the past. When I was an attorney in the 1990s, the office was half the size. We have 300 people in our office. Located in four separate branches. We've got four attorneys in Flagstaff. We have three attorneys in Yuma. Then evenly divided the rest of our staff are either in Phoenix or Tucson offices. We're considered an extra-large jurisdiction. One the seventh largest attorney general's offices in the entire system and the growth has come from the resources from the justice department focusing on the border and immigration and now with regard to the epidemic of mortgage fraud we're witnessing that took place in Phoenix and Tucson.

José Cárdenas: I want to talk about that, but before I do, is the growth attributable to the cutbacks that state law enforcement entities are experiencing? For example, the attorney general's office, areas where you might have concurrent jurisdiction?

Dennis Burke: No, they're not currently connected but they do help -- the justice department makes a determination where to put the resources, there's not a direct calculation with regard to what resources are in that strict. The determination of what federal cases are brought. That being said, when it comes to white collar crime, that's an area where the federal government can play a huge role. We have an opportunity to fill that gap. And go after the individuals in that area and perpetrators of fraud schemes.

José Cárdenas: We noted in the introductory comments, this was the second mortgage fraud summit. Tell us about that.

Dennis Burke: The first was in Miami, the second here. It was actually, attorney general holder himself said he wanted one in the district of Arizona. We had a full day of meetings in the morning, we heard from community leaders, people in the housing industry, people in the banking industry. The mortgage industry. And providing information to the taskforce, which is a national taskforce that attorney general holder set up. Providing information and the lay of the land and what's occurred in Arizona with regard to real estate and foreclosures and mortgage industry and in afternoon, we had a closed session with just law enforcement in particular to work on joint investigations to respond to mortgage fraud. We are No. 2 in the country with regard to foreclosures. Our economy has been rattled by the turn in our real estate industry in this state. And it provided for many years, because a lot of these cases are historic, for many years, an opportunity for fraud schemes to be perpetrated in the district of Arizona.

José Cárdenas: When we talk about mortgage fraud, what are we talking about principally?

Dennis Burke: We get a lot of cases where individuals were fraudulently filing for mortgages. The victims are the lenders themselves. They had no intention to ever reside in these homes and the whole point was to get the loan and keep the cash and move on. Thereby, leading to foreclosures and impacting all of us and the victims are all of us who own homes and the economy, because as the foreclosures grew and grew and grew, it had an impact on the entire economy. Sometimes very sophisticated. And involved a -- at times appraisers and sometimes bank officials themselves. And mortgage lenders themselves and many different schemes. Not necessarily easy cases to try because they're document intensive and we have so many of these cases because there was such an epidemic that we're dealing with a backlog of investigations and lots and lots of documents.

José Cárdenas: I think when we talk about mortgage fraud a lot of people are focused on the people who may have been induced to obtain a mortgage they couldn't handle. Is that very much that's a focus your efforts?

Dennis Burke: Our office is predominantly dealing with the efforts to rip off the lenders. But what you refer to is done at the attorney general's office and we're seeing individuals who have suffered a loss. Done nothing wrong other than the fact they can't afford their house and now they're targeted by schemes to say, hey, we'll help with you your foreclosure. Here, send us a couple of thousand dollars and we'll take care of it and then they're off. During the summit, recently, attorney general holder's fraud summit, we heard from several groups of individuals who identified these scams, there's a lot targeted toward the Spanish-speaking community in Arizona and the companies are actually run out of California. Where they're call in to Arizona, trying to get individuals to give what little resources they have left with the scheme, they're going to help them with their mortgage.

José Cárdenas: What's the end product of this summit? What concrete steps will be taken as a result of the meetings you mentioned?

Dennis Burke: Part of it is outreach. The lay of the land and schemes are and getting feedback and part is building partnerships with community groups so we can respond to the new schemes. As I indicated earlier, they just -- the individuals involved in these kind of fraud schemes move from scheme to scheme to scheme and we have to keep up with them and to this outreach, to have a connection with individuals in the community and get a sense of what happened in the community and respond and build these partnerships and a sense of what tools we can use to go over them. It's not just a question of prosecuting them. It's to get any kind of return, any of the funds back to the victim.

José Cárdenas: New topic, border security. Before we came on the set, you talked about the fact one difference between your last tenure in the U.S. attorney's office and your current one, the greater focus of resources in the southern part of the state.

Dennis Burke: So we put more and more attorneys and more resources in our Tucson office because it focused on the border itself and security and immigration cases and what else has changed drastically is our partnerships with Mexico. I was meeting with the republic of Mexico and these are unprecedented cooperation and partnerships we've had with Mexico. They are now doing prosecutions in Mexico. The individuals who came into the United States with the efforts of importing drug, some of those cases we're giving back to Mexico and they're prosecuting them in Mexico. That never occurred in the past.

José Cárdenas: When you were in the governor's office, as chief of staff, there was a shootout on the freeway and we haven't seen anything like that and yet the level of violence in Mexico has increased and there are concerns about it spilling over the border. What is your office doing in that regard?

Dennis Burke: We've done numerous investigations with regard to cartel activity. Not only around the border but any of their reach into the district of Arizona. I'll give an example. We had -- I worked with ATF closely when I first came into office. We had a strike force come into the state of ATF agents across the country to work on home invasions and we -- that is an unprecedented investigation that we did in district of Arizona. I haven't seen -- it hasn't been done anywhere else in the country.

José Cárdenas: Speaking of violence along the border, we have the unfortunate killing of Robert Krentz, the rancher in southern Arizona. What has your office been doing in respect to that investigation.

Dennis Burke: Very tragic situation, the Krentz family was living in that area for generations and we're working very closely with the Cochise sheriff's office on that murder investigation and following up on -- at the federal level, our intelligence sources and reviewing our cases, drug prosecution cases to see if there's potential leads there. And then as many of us believe, this individual absconded to Mexico. Our office and the federal government will be involved in the extradiction process with Mexico to bring that individual back to justice in Cochise county.

José Cárdenas: Former Governor and Homeland security director Janet Napolitano, have you been in contact with her with regard to the Krentz matter?

Dennis Burke: She was here and met with our supervisor in the office for about an hour and a half to discuss trends with our office and we work closely homeland security and ICE and so forth and I talked about the Krentz case because custom -- with regard to following up on leads. We've been very, very focused on that matter.

José Cárdenas: Speaking of customs in ICE, smuggling issues, there's also been an increase in the number of cases of corruption by U.S. agents. Is that your observation as well and what do we see here in Arizona?

Dennis Burke: Our office does a large sum of corruption cases. As the border tightens, as we put additional resources on there, the drug traffickers will look for any possible way to get drugs into the country and if that requires -- or takes advantage of corrupting an official, we're going to see that happen and we've seen that happen and we've prosecuted numerous U.S. officials for corruption, with bribes they've taken from drug traffickers.

José Cárdenas: The war against drugs has intensified. At least the drug cartels has intensified on the Mexico side at great cost to the Mexican president.

Dennis Burke: No-- First, I would say that president Calderón, his efforts have been unbelievably courageous and I met my counter part in the republic of Mexico and this individual is extremely courageous and you can see the resolve with he and his colleagues for what they want to do. It's a difficult task, deadly task. They've put themselves in harm's way but our cooperation and partnerships with the republic of Mexico has never been greater and our focus not only now, on drugs and humans heading north is being also paralleled by our focus in our office and the U.S. federal government on focusing on guns and money heading south. Doing more on that respect than ever before.

José Cárdenas: Dennis, there's a lot more we could say about those issues but I want to talk about the civil rights initiative that your office launched.

Dennis Burke: We have a unit exclusively dedicated to civil rights cases that's the direction we've gotten from the Obama administration to make it a priority. From my boss, attorney general holder and we now have a seasoned prosecutor in our office who work exclusively on civil rights matters. That's an office we did not have before. Focusing on prosecutions and training of law enforcement, but outreach. We need to provide confidence of individuals in this state that can come forward to the federal government, to our office with civil rights complaints and they'll be heard and we'll follow up and seek justice for them and protect their civil rights.

José Cárdenas: Last question. With respect to civil right, is there anything you can say about a possible civil rights case, involving Phoenix city councilman Michael Johnson.

Dennis Burke: I met with him, a personal meeting with him, I assured him we would follow up on that, we're working with the FBI. We have our own investigation into that matter. We will be respectful to the Phoenix police department's internal review. But that said, we'll conduct an independent review to determine any violations of federal civil rights laws. It's a troubling situation but, you know, the investigation needs to play out and we'll figure out at that point what occurred and what decisions were made -- can be made. I would say that we -- independently of that have a good working relationship with the Phoenix police department. They do lots of good work in the community. They're -- we did a lot of hate crimes investigations in our office and prosecutions and a great deal of those cases come from the Phoenix police department so there's a -- they're a very good agency, but with regard to this particular incident and any other incidents that come forward from community representatives of the community with regard to civil rights violations, we'll look at them closely.

José Cárdenas: Dennis Burke, thank you for joining us.

Dennis Burke: Thank you, José.

Dennis Burke:United States Attorney for Arizona;

Endeavour Watch Party

“Endeavour” Season 9 Watch Party!

Birdwatching Across Arizona
airs June 7

Birdwatching Across Arizona

Super Why characters

Join a Super Why Reading Camp to play, learn and grow

National Memorial Day Concert image
aired May 28

National Memorial Day Concert

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: