Outgoing US Attorney Barry Grissom Discusses Achievements, Regrets And What's Next
U.S. Attorney for Kansas Barry Grissom is stepping down on Friday after serving for nearly six years. His tenure has seen foiled terrorism plots, and the use of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to arrest and convict numerous gang members in western Kansas. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur sat down with Grissom and has this interview.
Sandefur: I want to go back to April of 2010 when President Obama selected you to be the U.S. Attorney for Kansas. What was that like?
Grissom: Thrilling. I got a call from someone in the Kansas Democratic Party to see if I had any interest. I did what any smart man should do: I called my wife. And I said there’s a possibility that I might be nominated for this position. And she said very quickly, ‘You’ve waited your whole life to do this.’ And she was absolutely correct.
For someone who might not know, what is the job of a U.S. attorney?
The U.S. attorney is the highest ranking federal law enforcement official in any district. The U.S. attorney oversees all of the assistant U.S. attorneys who do all of the heavy lifting—everything from representing the Social Security Administration when a Social Security request has been denied and have to appeal it, and all the way to potential capital cases—hate crimes, terrorism. We address those needs.
I know you were heavily involved in utilizing the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to help alleviate gang violence in western Kansas. How did that unfold?
Before I came onboard, a gentleman who’s no longer with the [U.S. Attorney Office for Kansas], along with the police department in Dodge City, started working together. They were having gang issues. There was a gang called Norteños, or the Northerners. The people they preyed upon were primarily undocumented workers working in the feedlots and the meat packing plants out in southwest Kansas. Twenty-two [leaders] of this gang were involved in probably 60 percent or so of the violent crime taking place. We were able to go out under [the RICO Act] and indict all of these folks and we were able to remove them off the street. It had a huge effect.
I was out there several months ago and one of the detectives that worked on the case with us told me that before the indictment, they were averaging two random drive-by shootings a month. Since the indictment, they’ve had one.
I would imagine these gang members were preying upon undocumented immigrants because of their distrust for law enforcement. How difficult was it to find people who would talk so that you could build your case?
What we had to do is let folks who were undocumented know that being undocumented is not a crime. If you’re undocumented and you’re caught, that is an administrative procedure that you’re deported. Those individuals, like a lot of folks, didn’t understand that distinction. So they were very, very reluctant to come forward to law enforcement. We were able to do outreach to the Hispanic community, and just tell folks that if you don’t break the law, we’re not here to send you home. But, if someone harms you, or harms your family, call us. Don’t be afraid to call us. It took a while to get that message across. But we were able to do that, and I think it’s a fair statement to say that the community is much better off for it.
I would imagine that it’s important, especially in cases like this, to really get to know law enforcement officials all across Kansas.
Absolutely. We rode all across western Kansas. We would go out and speak with a Rotary Club. And then after lunch, we’d have a meeting with the local county prosecutor, the local district attorney, the chief of police, the county sheriff, just to sit down with them and say, ‘What’s going on in your county?’ Once they started talking, it was obvious they could look to us and utilize some of our resources.
For example, it is a violation of federal if you’re a convicted felon to possess a firearm or ammunition. Under Kansas law, if you’re a first-time felon, you get presumptive probation. But if you take it federal court, you can put someone away for years and years. So a lot of these small, rural communities in western Kansas, if you go to the sheriff, he or she can tell you who the bad guys are in their community. They know. And we told them if they pulled those guys over and that person has a Glock, let us know, and we’ll cut that cancer out of your community and make the folks in your community safer. And they took us up on that.
You’ve been the U.S. District Attorney for Kansas for more than 5 years. What are the events that really stick out to you?
Three events really stick out. Obviously, stopping someone from driving to Mid-Continent Airport, and I believe his intent was to kill or maim 500 [people]. TSA says that was very conservative. It could have been anywhere between 1200 to 1500. And, stopping a young man who wanted to drive a truckload of explosives to Fort Riley and kill as many soldiers as he could. But the one event that I regret we did not have actionable intelligence on was the domestic terrorist, the white supremacist, who killed three people outside of the Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kansas. That was a tragedy, and tragically, he was not anywhere on our radar screen for us to take the necessary steps to stop him.
As far as what I see as accomplishments, I talked about the outreach to law enforcement, but also outreach to members of the Muslim-American community. Here in Wichita, the Islamic Center of Wichita—wonderful, wonderful people. I reached out to them early on and said, ‘We’re going to do everything we can to protect your right as an American to worship as you want to worship, free of harassment and intimidation.' And I think, to date, we’ve done that.
Why was it time to leave this position?
I’ve been asked that a lot. There’s no real issue. I have a picture on my wall in my office in Kansas City of all of my colleagues when we were at the White House back in 2010. Forty to 45 percent of those folks have left. And it’s not uncommon as administrations draw to a conclusion that people leave. And I have had an incredible opportunity to go to work for a law firm in Kansas City that has a national footprint. So I’m really excited about that.
But I’m going to miss the interaction with local law enforcement. I will miss the outreach of going to high schools and junior colleges, churches, mosques and synagogues and dealing with folks on a day-in, and day-out basis, trying to put a positive face on the federal government, and what the federal government is doing to protect them and their families and communities. I’ll miss that.
There’s been talk that you might have political aspirations. Is there any truth to that?
Well, I’ve always been interested in politics. I’m 62 years old. I’m not as young as I once was. But it’s something that I never want to say never. Right now, I have a commitment to this new law firm that I’m going to work for. You know, politics is all about timing. And if the timing should come to pass, and I’ve fulfilled my commitment to my partners, I will seriously consider what other options are out there. But, at this moment, I’m content to take on my next challenge with this law firm.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Beall will serve as acting U.S. attorney once Grissom steps down on Friday.
Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter @SeanSandefur.
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