New Direction at the U.S. Attorney’s Office

Nine months in, Jason Dunn is settled into his new job as U.S. Attorney

A man in a white button up and black tie in front of a big window with two American flags on either side of him
Jason Dunn officially ended his term as U.S. attorney for the District of Colorado yesterday. During his tenure, Dunn took on prosecutions for drug and gang activity in Colorado and pandemic-related cutbacks within the office. / LAW WEEK FILE

Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been edited for length. 

U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn moved to his current office from Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck nine months ago. He talked with Law Week about getting acquainted with his new role and what direction he plans on steering the office in.

LAW WEEK: You’ve been in the office for nine months, and it’s been a year since your nomination last June. What have you been up to in that time?

JASON DUNN: It’s been a tremendous experience. I came in having not been in the office, so it was important to me to have a substantial period of time to listen and learn and get to know folks. 

I made the commitment to meet with every attorney in the office — we have 85 attorneys or so — I met with each of them one on one, and then met with the staff, either one on one, or in small group settings. That was a tremendous learning experience. 

I understand fully that I am just a steward of the office for a relatively short period of time, and my job primarily is to leave the office better than I found it. We spent a lot of time thinking about cases and long-term objectives of the office and how we can improve public safety, but at the same time, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about how we make the office itself better. How do we make it a more enjoyable place to work? How do we improve the quality of our work product, how we deal with the courts, how we deal with opposing counsel?

LAW WEEK: And I would say you came into the office during a time where the DOJ might have been under more scrutiny from the public. How did you react to that?

JASON DUNN: It’s really one of the things that I guess was surprising to me: how autonomous the U.S. attorney’s offices are. The Department of Justice set some priorities, and occasionally they will issue memos on how we do things. 

For example, you heard a lot about [former] Attorney General Jeff Sessions withdrawing the Cole memo on marijuana that had been issued during the Obama administration. 

Probably the other one that got the most attention was the attorney general issued a memorandum on how we do charging in criminal cases. And he basically said we will charge the most serious, readily provable offense, meaning charge people with the most serious crime you can charge them with that you reasonably think you can prove in court. And I think that was a change. 

I asked the attorneys when I got here, on a day to day basis, is that changing what you’re doing? And they largely said no. So, I think for the folks who are in the office, who are across the board outside the political world — these are career lawyers and staff — I think the change of the administration, for them, was virtually seamless.

LAW WEEK: On the topic of the Cole Memo, you spoke at a cannabis symposium back in February where you outlined your priorities for marijuana according to what is in the Cole memo. It was right around the time when Attorney General William Barr came in. Has there been any revision, or any change in your position since then? 

JASON DUNN: I think it’s an ongoing process. I think one of the things we have to think about is what are the health effects of today’s marijuana. I’m not so sure what voters intended is what we have today — I’m mostly talking about the potency levels of marijuana.

I told the industry that I will be very concerned if it appears they’re marketing to kids. Whether that is the use of vaping pens that look like highlighters or mascara, which my understanding is that vaping pens are being manufactured to look like those arguably for the purpose so that kids can bring them to school. That’s a big concern as well on how we’re allowing these products to be marketed.

LAW WEEK: Has that affected the offices enforcement?

JASON DUNN: We haven’t taken a direct action on those kinds of cases. Where we spend the large bulk of our time is on the black market. And black market marijuana production in Colorado is a huge problem. 

The DEA has estimated to me that the black market may actually exceed the retail market. This is black market marijuana not competing with the retail market in Colorado, but it’s being produced here and shipped out of state to more expensive markets, particularly on the East Coast, where marijuana is not legal. Where is all that money going, where’s all the marijuana going? I think we have an obligation to our sister states to try and quash that. Colorado marijuana is showing up in every state in the country.

LAW WEEK: Has there been any other restructuring that’s been going on in the office? My understanding is that there’s a new narcotic section and then the violent crimes and immigration section.

JASON DUNN: We basically took one section that had one section chief and broke that into two. We have a narcotic section, which now the chief of that is the person who was head of the larger section, and then we gave him a deputy, and then created the new violent crime and immigration section that has both a chief and a deputy chief. So we now have four managers in those two sections, which allows the managers to be more focused on ensuring that cases are worked thoroughly.

I was listening to the head of the DEA speak when I was in Washington, and he said in Colorado right now, opioids are getting a lot of attention — and it’s a huge problem, and it’s a leading cause of overdose deaths in Colorado — but methamphetamine use is arguably a bigger problem, because it’s more widespread, and there are all the ancillary crimes associated with it, like ID theft and violent crime associated with it.

And what the DEA has said is that when they’ve conducted large scale operations in Mexico to take down meth labs or they’ve taken down a major supplier into the U.S., they’ve seen almost no drop in supply in the United States or rise in price. And what they think that they’re seeing is that it’s such an easy job to produce, these guys are able to set back up or somebody else is able to step in and fill the void and increase production. The only we’re going to have an impact on that is we have to really disrupt the organizations themselves by going after the guys who are the middlemen and really focus on disrupting the flow, rather than simply just targeting either the big labs or just the individual distributors at the local level.

LAW WEEK: You did an interview a few months ago where you mentioned a new focus on corruption. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you’re seeing and what your plan is? 

JASON DUNN: Having been around the state governmental process a lot of my career, I’ve bragged across the country as I’ve traveled about what I believe is a pretty clean system in Colorado. And since I’ve been over here, I still think Colorado is a is a relatively clean place. 

I have been a little bit surprised at the number of those types of cases, though. I can’t get into specifics about them, but certainly where there is a break of the public trust by those in positions of power or public authority, we will vigorously attack those because I think one of the most important things we can do in Colorado is ensure that our government officials have the public’s best interest at heart. And when they don’t, we will use every tool we have in the toolbox at the federal level to target them. 

LAW WEEK: I know you just said you can’t talk about specifics regarding those cases, but is there any particular level or area of government that you’re targeting?

JASON DUNN: I probably shouldn’t comment on that. They’re isolated cases, but they run the gamut on different types of positions.

LAW WEEK: Is there anything else that you would point out about the work you’ve been doing and the focus that you’ve brought to the office?

JASON DUNN: In terms of priorities, we’re very focused on violent crime. We just put out a press release on a defendant named David Scott, who we charged with a gun offense that relates to use of a gun in a crime of violence. And the crime of violence in this case was two murders. He was not charged by the state, so we charged him. And we got a sentence of 30 years. This is probably one of the worst gang perpetrators that Denver has seen in a long time. We wanted to be able to help the local government and local law enforcement put him behind bars for a long time. The ATF was the lead on that, and they were dogged in pursuing it.

On the opioid front, we’ve taken a pretty creative approach to that as well, in two ways. One, we’re really making a push to target those who are prescribing opioids. We have really smart lawyers on the civil side of our office, who are taking federal database information and we’re we’re data mining that information to figure out where outliers are. 

And then the challenge on that is that the bulk of the of the of the data on how people fill prescriptions is actually held by the state through the prescription drug monitoring program. We have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to get that database. Not all of it, but parts of that database that are relevant to our ongoing investigations from the state. And we haven’t been successful so far in getting the state to give us that information. We may ultimately have to take that to court.

The other thing we’re doing is that we’re spending a lot of time reaching out to local law enforcement, including county coroner’s and police and sheriff’s offices, and saying, “hey, when you have an overdose, a drug overdose, don’t just treat that as an accident, treat it as a homicide scene.” 

And so you need to treat that in the way you treat any other crime scene, which is to look at the evidence, look at what pill bottles are there, grab the phone and get access to the phone to see who’s dealing. If it’s a drug deal, see if you can figure out from the text messaging who their dealer is. And let’s go charge them under federal law, a distribution resulting in death. 

That gives us the ability to help local law enforcement, if we can go to a dealer and say, look, you dealt drugs to this guy, and he died. And we’re going to charge you with a distribution resulting in death, that’s a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. So that guy now has a huge incentive to say, ‘Well, here’s where I got all my supply.’ And then it moves up the chain, and we can use that hammer all the way up the chain, to try and get to the bigger suppliers.

— Tony Flesor

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