CINCINNATI — U.S. Attorney David DeVillers resigns on Sunday as one of the most recognized prosecutors in Ohio, despite only leading the office in the Southern District for just over a year.
During that time, his office led cases against three Cincinnati City Council members for alleged pay-to-play bribery schemes and began prosecuting one of the largest public corruption cases in Ohio history at the Columbus statehouse, which DeVillers said is still ongoing.
“Whoever replaces me, I truly hope they’re going to be aggressive when it comes to these cases,” DeVillers said. “As public servants and politicians, they need to realize that you can’t promise somebody something for money. Even if that money isn’t going into your pocket, that money is going to a campaign.”
DeVillers, who spent his early career helping to prosecute war crimes in Iraq and corruption in eastern Europe, is known for being fearless, passionate and willing to take on complicated cases.
As a Franklin County prosecutor, DeVillers needed SWAT protection for a year during the trial of X-Clan gang members because there were so many threats on his life.
He survived an attempted gang hit and being chased down a Columbus highway during rush hour. He endured regular morning rocket attacks in Iraq while he assisted in the prosecution of Saddam Hussein during an overseas stint with the Department of Justice.
“He’s a prosecutor’s prosecutor … He enjoys putting in the hard work, he enjoys getting his hands dirty in investigations and prosecutions,” said former U.S. Attorney Ben Glassman, who worked with DeVillers when both were assistant U.S. Attorneys, and then supervised him as the top prosecutor from 2016 to 2019.
Only a particular type of prosecutor will take on public corruption cases, Glassman said.
“You can put a ton of resources into a public corruption investigation, and at the end of the day, not come up with the proof that is necessary in order to bring public charges. And if that happens, it’s important that the investigation be shut down and no one ever know that it even took place,” Glassman said. “The willingness to put the resources into the investigations … that’s a big commitment.”
Many of the current public corruption cases originated as investigations during Glassman’s tenure as U.S. Attorney.
When it became clear that former President Donald Trump would nominate DeVillers as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio in late 2019, he began learning about the corruption probes. Since DeVillers was already an assistant prosecutor at the time, he had the necessary security clearance.
“We realized at that point that because there were so many different investigations going on, not just in Cincinnati,” DeVillers said, “we realized this is probably a lot more common than we thought and decided to put a lot more resources towards it.”
DeVillers put some tax and white-collar prosecutions on hold and put new resources toward public corruption, violent crime and stopping the record number of fentanyl overdoses in southern Ohio.
And months later, the arrests began in what DeVillers would later describe as a “culture of corruption.”
Last February, FBI agents arrested then-Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard outside a Downtown Starbucks before a committee meeting at City Hall.
Dennard later pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud for taking $15,000 in bribes in exchange for votes on development deals. A judge sentenced her to 18 months in prison.
In late July, a federal grand jury indicted former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four others for taking millions in exchange for pushing through a controversial energy bailout.
So far in that case, two political operatives and a nonprofit have pleaded guilty. Householder and two others have denied the charges.
“I really hope what this does, and I think it has, is let people, lobbyists, companies, politicians, public servants step back and say, ‘OK let’s take a look at what we’re doing here. Let’s clean up our acts,’” DeVillers said.
In November, FBI agents arrested Cincinnati City Council members Jeff Pastor and P.G. Sittenfeld in what investigators describe as separate bribery schemes. Both have denied the charges.
Some at City Hall have quietly wondered what will happen to those cases once DeVillers resigns. They question if a new U.S. Attorney may be skeptical about prosecuting them, particularly Sittenfeld’s, because it involves political donations, which some see as falling into a legal gray area.
“One of the big unknowns of this is whether a new U.S. Attorney will see this case in the same light,” University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven said in an interview last month. “It’s very possible that a different U.S. Attorney will just look at the sum of the evidence and not see what the incumbent U.S. Attorney has seen there.”
But Glassman and DeVillers insist that no public corruption charges will be dropped, regardless of who becomes the new U.S. Attorney.
“The indictments are the indictments … they are going to go to trial or people are going to plead guilty,” DeVillers said.
Glassman agreed: “Every case that has been charged will proceed.”
“I have never seen a case that was charged in the Southern District of Ohio be dismissed because of a change in the identity of the U.S. Attorney,” Glassman said.
Bob McBride was a longtime prosecutor and former criminal chief with the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Kentucky. He is now an attorney at Taft Stettinius & Hollister.
“I know that the Southern District of Ohio and Eastern Kentucky are very solid districts,” McBride said. “I would be surprised if any high-profile case in either of these districts, or frankly anywhere, would be dismissed simply because of a change in administration or a change in U.S. Attorney.”
Since the actual casework is done by assistant U.S. Attorneys, who are career prosecutors, changes in top leadership don’t really impact daily operations, said McBride.
“When a prosecutor’s decision is made, it’s made based on the evidence and whether that evidence can meet the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt,” said McBride, who spoke generally and not about any specific pending case. “Because if you can’t prove the case at trial, then you shouldn’t be bringing the case."
After President Joe Biden was elected in November, DeVillers knew that a change in administration would likely put him and other Trump-appointed U.S. Attorneys out of a job.
But DeVillers said he had hoped to stay on as U.S. Attorney for a few more months to oversee the corruption cases and other investigations while Biden appointed his replacement.
Then, in early February, the Department of Justice called for the resignation of all Trump-appointed U.S. Attorneys, including DeVillers, by Feb. 28.
So DeVillers has spent the past few weeks briefing his first assistant, Vipal Patel, to take over the office on March 1 as Acting U.S. Attorney.
Patel is a career prosecutor who also oversaw daily operations as Glassman's first assistant.
“There could really be no one who is more prepared to lead the office at this point than Vipal Patel,” Glassman said. “When Vipal talks, everyone listens … he has command presence.”
DeVillers said that several assistant U.S. Attorneys in his office are candidates to be his replacement. There are also a few well-known outside candidates from Cincinnati and Columbus who are interested in the job.
Meanwhile, DeVillers, 54, said he will stay in Columbus where he lives with his wife, Julia, who is a successful children’s author, and work in the private sector.
He hopes the new U.S. Attorney keeps pressure on a few target areas of prosecution: espionage, especially from the Chinese government; violent crime, and drug cartels.
“Dave’s work has made a tremendous impact on the community and his leadership will be missed,” said Chris Hoffman, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Cincinnati office. “I am hopeful that the next U.S. Attorney will continue to have the same aggressive posture when pursuing those who commit crimes in our community.”
In his resignation statement, DeVillers wrote that he hopes whoever gets the job is “just, apolitical, aggressive and impactful.”
DeVillers said his phone never rang from anyone, Democrat or Republican, to complain about the political ramifications of the public corruption indictments.
“I’ve never run for office. I’m never going to run for office,” DeVillers said. “In that way it’s kind of liberating … I’m not beholden to anybody or anything.
“I don’t even know most of the politicians, let alone feel any pressure by them."