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New U.S. attorney for District of Vermont to focus on violent and white-collar crime; cannabis not a top priority

two men wearing gray suits and masks being sworn in to a role inside a courtroom bedecked with brown wood and blue carpets and chairs
U.S. Department of Justice
Chief Federal Judge Geoffrey Crawford, left, swears in Nikolas Kerest as the new U.S. attorney for the District of Vermont.

Nikolas Kerest was sworn in as the new U.S. attorney for the District of Vermont in December. As the chief federal law officer in the state, he says violent crime, white-collar crime and bias incidents will be his top priorities, while the clash between state and federal law when it comes to cannabis will not be "on the top of our priority list."

Vermont Edition’s Mikaela Lefrak spoke with Nikolas Kerest about the responsibilities tied to the U.S. attorney position, and his priorities in the new role. President Biden nominated Kerest for the job in September; the position had previously been held by Trump appointee Christina Nolan. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A man in a gray suit wearing a blue shirt and blue tie smiles while looking into the camera.
Andrew Cate Photography
Department of Justice, US attorney's office for the District of Vermont, courtesy
Nikolas Kerest has been with the US attorney's office for the District of Vermont since 2010. He was sworn in to lead the office in December 2021.

Mikaela Lefrak: First things first, what does a U.S. attorney do?

Nikolas Kerest: That's a good question. The U.S. attorney is the chief federal law enforcement officer for the State of Vermont. Our mandate is to protect the public safety and to protect the public fisc, as it pertains to federal law in Vermont.

And the other part of the job is to run an office of approximately 53 dedicated public servants who carry out the cases and investigations that this office handles.

And what kind of cases, exactly, do you handle? What are some examples?

On the criminal side, we handle all federal drug prosecutions in the state. We enforce federal firearm laws. There are federal fraud statutes that we enforce.

And on the civil side, we represent federal agencies that are sued, or need to sue other individuals for money.

What priorities do you want to have in this job?

We, in this office, to some extent have our priorities dictated by the Department of Justice and the attorney general in Washington, D.C. But we do have significant leeway here. And we have seen an uptick in violent crime here, like in many parts of the country. We're working hard to address those issues.

We're also focused on white-collar crime. That's a priority for me and for the Department of Justice as a whole right now. And we're also committed to not shying away from big cases — big, complicated white-collar fraud cases.

An area that is something that I have a special tie to, since I was a civil rights coordinator in this office years ago, is to make sure that we pay attention to bias-related incidents and hate crimes that happen in Vermont. We have a lawyer who monitors those, and we are committed to investigating those kinds of situations that might implicate federal law.

More from VPR: New Position At U.S. Attorney's Office In Vermont To Focus On Civil Rights Issues [December 2016]

I'd like to talk about some of the areas where state and federal law are in conflict. And I'm thinking here of cannabis. It's beenlegal to grow and possess marijuana at the state level here in Vermont for more than a year now. And by the end of this year, it's also going to be legal to sell it commercially.

But of course, it's still illegal at the federal level. So, how do you handle that conflict in your position?

There are potential matters involving marijuana that we would potentially consider prosecuting. But, as a general matter, that is not an area that's on the top of our priority list.

You know, the attorney general has spoken on this to some extent, as well, and we obviously take our guidance in this office from him. And Attorney General Merrick Garland has said that it's not a priority of his department to prosecute cases when folks are complying with the laws in their states.

"Attorney General Merrick Garland has said that [cannabis] is not a priority of his department, to prosecute cases when folks are complying with the laws in their states."
- Nikolas Kerest, US attorney for the district of Vermont

One other drug-related issue that I haven't heard on your priorities list is the opioid crisis. According to the CDC, between April of 2020 and April of this past year, Vermont saw a 70% increase in the number of overdose deaths, which is a higher increase than I believe any other state during the pandemic.

So, what can and will your office do to address this issue?

Those statistics are extremely alarming, Mikaela, and our office has been involved in the fight against the opioid epidemic to try to make that situation better for years. And we will continue to do that. We continue to do that every day.

We recognize that, and I recognize that, we can't prosecute our way out of that problem. We believe here, in this office, in prevention and treatment. And, when the right cases come along, under our priorities, and considering our limited resources, we also definitely believe that prosecution plays a role in curbing the opioid epidemic.

You noted that we can't prosecute our way out of the opioid crisis. And you mentioned prevention as one important tool. Now, do you support the creation of a so-called safe injection site in Vermont, where illegal drug use will being monitored so people don't overdose? Because many people see that as a potentially effective prevention method

Mikaela, I'm not going to comment on that — as to whether I or this office supports that or doesn't support that. Those safe injection sites present complicated issues that, at this point, are hypothetical, or create hypothetical violations of federal law. And as a general matter, we don't, and I don't, comment on hypothetical violations of federal law. And for some people —

— Well, I think some people who are potentially seeking to set one up might look to your response as to whether it's worth the risk of setting it up. It kind of keeps it in this hypothetical zone, without a clear —

— I understand that, Mikaela, and I understand that a "no comment" answer might be disappointing, but that's an area that, at this moment, this office, and I, don't have a comment on.

Besides the hypothetical nature of it, and the fact that we don't comment on hypothetical situations, that issue is being litigated presently in Philadelphia in federal court. And so it would be inappropriate for me to take a position on safe injection sites when the Department of Justice is litigating that issue as we speak.

More from VPR: Opioid Crisis—And Related Crime—Top Priority For U.S. Attorney Of Vermont [April 2018]

Now, when that litigation wraps up, does that mean I can ask you again?

When that litigation wraps up, we can talk again. I'm not promising that my answer will change. I just can't predict the future on that one, Mikaela.

Since you started as an assistant attorney with the U.S. Attorney's Office more than a decade ago, what are some of the cases that you're most proud to have worked on?

Yeah, I started in 2010. It was a dream job for me to move from private practice to become an assistant U.S. attorney. I started in the civil division here. I pursued white-collar fraud cases on the affirmative side, and defended federal agencies in cases where they were sued in Vermont.

And then, at a certain point, I also took on the role as the civil rights coordinator. A couple of cases that come to mind in that phase of my career here in this office: one as the civil rights coordinator, I did a lot of outreach around the Americans with Disabilities Act, and worked on an initiative to try to help make sure that more businesses on [Burlington’s] Church Street were in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

And then I also worked on a really big electronic medical records fraud case that, at the time, returned one of the biggest civil settlements in Vermont history. And that was an extremely interesting and rewarding case to work on, both because of the result, but also because of the people that I got to work with, and the way that we figured out all the details in that case.

And then in 2019, I became a member of the Criminal Division, a federal prosecutor here in this office. And in that role, I've done a variety of different types of criminal cases, from drug cases, to violent crime and one sort of white-collar immigration fraud case that was interesting.

There's really nothing like working up a case, and learning where the details are, and mastering them and putting it together. To me, it's all good stuff. And being in this office has been a thrill, and having this job is really a privilege and an honor

Before I let you go, one more question: when you are not prosecuting alleged criminals, what do you like to do to enjoy this great state of Vermont?

I have an amazing dog, Mikaela, and there's nothing that I enjoy more — especially during the pandemic — than going for walks in the woods with my dog.

Broadcast on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.