Clock ticking for Trump administration to name a new US attorney in RI

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The appointment of veteran federal prosecutor Stephen Dambruch as “interim” U.S. attorney for the District of Rhode Island may have gone largely unnoticed Thursday, but it starts the clock ticking on a little-known law that could allow the courts to appoint a replacement.

Dambruch was automatically made “acting” U.S. attorney when Obama appointee Peter Neronha stepped down in March, but by law that status was set to expire Thursday at midnight (300 days). On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Attorney General Jeff Sessions had named Dambruch “interim” head of the Rhode Island district, an appointment that will officially take effect on Friday.

But because the president has not selected a permanent pick to be the Ocean State’s chief federal prosecutor, Wednesday’s news means the Trump administration now has 120 days before Rhode Island U.S. District Chief Judge William Smith can name someone instead.

According to the law, there are “no specified requirements” for who the court can name as U.S. attorney. The designation would still be considered an interim appointment, but unlike the current status, there is no expiration date on the job.

Even after that time, however, President Trump can appoint anyone to be U.S. attorney in Rhode Island for a four-year term. But Trump’s pick would need to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, where Rhode Island’s two Democratic lawmakers, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, would likely want a say; it’s unclear if the Republican-controlled Senate will give it to them.

Dambruch is a widely respected career prosecutor. He got his start with the Rhode Island attorney general’s office, where he served for 16 years, including stints running the drug unit and number two for the criminal division.

Dambruch started working as a federal prosecutor in 2004 as an assistant U.S. attorney, and was named chief of the criminal division three years later. In 2014 he was elevated to first assistant U.S. attorney, making him Neronha’s second-in-command.

There have been no outward signs the Trump administration is in any hurry to name a permanent replacement. Spokespersons for Senators Reed and Whitehouse told Eyewitness News last week there was nothing new to report on an appointment. R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell echoed the assessment.

The administration has moved more quickly in neighboring Massachusetts, where the president’s pick for U.S. attorney, Andrew Lelling, was sworn in last month.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.