Rivera's Edge

After a year on the job, U.S. Attorney Jose de Jesus Rivera looks to be in the right place at the right time

When Ed Pastor, as Arizona's ranking (and only) Democratic congressman, was asked to nominate Janet Napolitano's successor as U.S. Attorney early in 1998, he deliberately set out to find a qualified Hispanic for the job.

Pastor wanted a Hispanic, and the White House did, too, "to break the glass ceiling," as Pastor says. The great white Phoenix fathers love to talk about the region's Hispanic and Native American heritage, but one is hard-pressed to find either sort of heritage-maker represented in high-placed government or business positions, even if the city is surrounded by reservations and is a three-hour drive from the Mexican border.

Pastor nominated Jose de Jesus Rivera, a 49-year-old, Mexican-born personal-injury lawyer who, as a young man, had been a civil-rights attorney for the U.S. Justice Department and for the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office.

In hindsight, what started out as an affirmative-action hire looks to be federal forward-thinking. Arizona's population is increasingly Hispanic. Trouble is pouring through Arizona's border with Mexico, and to stop the flow, law-enforcement officers on this side of the border are strengthening ties with law-enforcement officers on the other. What better choice for U.S. Attorney than a Spanish speaker with cultural ties to Mexico?

Rivera was not looking for the job. He was virtually invisible to the public eye, but very, very well-known and well-connected in legal circles, political circles and Hispanic circles. He seems to have gone to grade school, high school, college or law school with every prominent Hispanic in Arizona, including Pastor. He has sat on enough civic and professional committees that he should enter a 12-step program for compulsive good citizenship: Los Abogados, an association of Hispanic attorneys; the Phoenix Planning and Zoning Commission. If he had not been named U.S. Attorney, he would be the current president of the Arizona Bar Association.

He has no apparent enemies. He has a low-key and disarming manner that he uses as a tool to get what he wants or to assuage hostility. One of his staffers describes him as "one of those people you hope to God gets in this position but never does."

He has no apparent political aspirations, unlike his predecessor, Janet Napolitano. One high-ranking law-enforcement officer describes him as "a thousand percent" less political. A prominent, quote-shy politician says that Rivera wouldn't be photographed "standing next to [Sheriff Joe] Arpaio in a press conference," referring to a 1997 event in which Napolitano allowed Arpaio to characterize a damning federal lawsuit over inmate conditions as an exoneration. Rivera will have the chance to prove or disprove that statement when his office finishes multiple investigations into Arpaio's department, including inmate deaths in county prisons; Rivera's office took over those investigations from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

"He took this job at a great reduction in salary," says Tom Raffanello, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's special agent in charge for the Arizona district, "and he doesn't have a political agenda--which tells me he's got a belly for the business."

Steve Montoya, a Phoenix attorney who took the City of Chandler to court for indiscriminately targeting Hispanics in a sweep to arrest illegal aliens, thinks Rivera will "enforce the law mercifully."

"The trouble with the study of law is that it never touches on the concept of mercy," Montoya says, "and that is especially true of prosecutors and law-enforcement officers, and the concept of compassion toward the accused is completely ignored and in fact spurned."

Rivera is well-respected as an attorney.
"I've tried a couple of cases with him," says Michael Hawkins, a former U.S. attorney who is now a federal judge on the U.S. Ninth District Court of Appeals. "He's good on his feet. He appeals to juries; they like him. He's firm, but soft-spoken. I think he's quite a good trial lawyer.

"I can tell you this: In a district whose docket is dominated by border and drug and immigration issues, you simply couldn't have a more knowledgeable and experienced person."

In late May, Rivera called a press conference in Sierra Vista to announce several indictments of cocaine smugglers that had come out of joint investigations by the FBI, DEA, Border Patrol and other federal, state and county agencies.

The press conference had been announced the day before, but its agenda was kept secret. The multiagency task force thought it would find the tunnel under the border that the smugglers had been using to slip cocaine into the country--marijuana bales are sometimes thrown over the border fence, but since cocaine is so much more valuable, smugglers need less-risky ways to transport it.

At noon, law-enforcement officers descended on a trailer home in the tiny border town of Naco. Rivera was standing at a podium in Sierra Vista an hour and a half later, at 1:30 p.m., to tell reporters about the find.

It was curious timing--planning a press conference to announce something they weren't sure they had. Rivera's press officer later confessed that the Tucson dailies have been dogging the office so assiduously on border stories that they figured the newspapers would know about the tunnel by the end of the day anyway. But the press officer worried nonetheless, in planning the press conference, that if the tunnel didn't turn up where they thought it was, it would be like "Geraldo in Al Capone's vault."

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