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."

And, in fact, Rivera opened the press conference by saying, "Everyone who doesn't know we've found a tunnel, raise their hand."

Rivera is a man of medium height, with a bit of middle-aged heft. He wears dark suits like many government lawyers, but the suits give him the uncomfortable look of a man who spent most of his career wearing jeans and tee shirts.

He stiffened as he read the official statement about the tunnel; a videotape ran overhead--the dusty tunnel in question looked like a colonoscopy.

When Rivera opened the floor for questions, he loosened up, and glibly ad-libbed answers.

One reporter asked if the alleged drug smugglers named in the indictments had day jobs.

"You'll have to ask their mothers," Rivera quipped.
The fact that the federal law-enforcement officers had not yet traveled the length of the tunnel belied the complexity of cross-border investigations. They had not yet gotten permission from Mexican authorities and needed to wait until warrants were served on the other side of the border.

Being U.S. Attorney in Arizona is a peculiar job.
"Arizona is a very unique district," says U.S. District Court Judge Stephen McNamee, who is a former U.S. Attorney. "We have 300-plus miles of border with the Republic of Mexico. We have 19 Indian reservations. We have the sixth-largest metropolitan area in Phoenix and two rapidly growing areas in Pima County and Yuma County."

Not to mention seven national forests and a slew of national-park lands.
The U.S. Attorney's Office may be prosecutor or defense attorney for civil or criminal cases generated by any number of federal agencies: the FBI, DEA, IRS, National Park Service, Postal Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Customs and Immigration services, Border Patrol or Forest Service. It handles most cases on Native American reservations. It investigates civil-rights cases, such as the probe of the Scottsdale Police Department over discrimination against minority bar patrons. It handles other investigations passed up from lower jurisdictions, such as the Arpaio case. Phoenix is a hotbed of telemarketing and other varieties of fraud. It has an unhealthy collection of street gangs.

Despite the ever-increasing case load and the burgeoning population growth, the district has the same number of federal judges it had 20 years ago. The U.S. Senate wrote three new Arizona judgeships into its juvenile justice bill, which passed the House of Representatives last week.

"This is the only state I've worked in where DEA isn't the biggest customer," says Raffanello.

Because the federal government handles criminal cases on Indian reservations, as former U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano says, "This U.S. Attorney's Office does more homicide prosecutions than any other in the country, with the exception of the District of Columbia."

But Napolitano also refers to an "exploding case load, particularly in southern Arizona: immigration and drugs. Those numbers went up dramatically during my last two years in office and they continue to go up.

"You're not talking about an increase of 10 or 50 cases per year," she continues. "You're talking about an increase of hundreds of cases per year."

People and contraband flow through the border like fluids through a membrane, and that osmosis will continue as long as times are bad on that side of the border and good on this side. With a shaky economy, political unrest and recent natural disasters, times are very bad in Mexico and parts of Central America.

One of Rivera's first official acts was to designate a staffer in the Tucson office as his official border liaison. He has assiduously lobbied Congress for more money and more personnel for border issues.

"This sector is the busiest sector," Rivera says, and he claims that in March alone, 60,000 illegal immigrants were detained at the Arizona border. In fiscal year 1998, 385,000 aliens were caught crossing the border, he says. This year, with several months left in the fiscal year, more than 550,000 have already been detained. There's no telling how many crossed without detection.

So in these desperate days, it may be an efficient coincidence that both the Arizona U.S. Attorney and the district's special agent in charge of the FBI are Mexican-born Spanish speakers. (When they are together, they sometimes exchange pleasantries in Spanish.) Both downplay the coincidence.

"The U.S. Attorney's Office here, and Jose in particular, has done a good job of helping us all focus on the issues," says FBI head Guadalupe Gonzalez.

Rivera passes the praise back to Gonzalez.
"I have to give Lupe a lot of credit coming in here," he says. "He really has made the FBI an international firm that does get cooperation. If you're looking at Mexican cooperation on a particular investigation, you have to credit Lupe completely."

But other officials say that more important is the ability of Gonzalez and Rivera to communicate directly with Mexican law-enforcement officials without the usual language and culture barriers.

"Having worked with different teams at the border since 1973, this is the best situation I've seen," says the DEA's Raffanello. "Although I think it's a work in progress, the cooperation between the two [governments now is] unprecedented."

"Do I think it's significant that the head of the FBI is Hispanic, and Rivera is the federal prosecutor?" asks Douglas Mayor Ray Borane, whose city is in the middle of the border crisis. "I think it's not only significant because of their cultural background, but in their ability to interact and speak the language. There's so much lost in interpreters translating for you."

There has been a recent string of border-related indictments: the February bust of INS inspectors taking bribes to allow immigrants and contraband across the border; smugglers of drugs and people were indicted in May; in June a major drug dealer was successfully extradited from Mexico.

Rivera won't comment on any of those cases, but one law-enforcement official thinks that the flow of such cases will grow now that Rivera has been in office for a year and has gotten his office in order.

He meets frequently with the state's Mexican consuls to maintain lines of communication against future snafus.

He traveled to Douglas to attend town meetings and soothe local feathers there. Douglas area residents and city officials were demanding that federal government stanch the human flow of illegal immigrants. Frustrated ranchers on a few occasions held illegals at gun point until the Border Patrol arrived. Rivera visited with citizens to ease their concerns and to let them know that it was not legal to take matters into their own hands.

As mayor Borane points out, Rivera's own immigrant roots keep him from losing sight of the human plight that drives poor Mexicans to enter the U.S. illegally.

"He understands people wanting to work," Borane says. "He understands people having trouble with the system when they get over here. I'm really impressed with his ability to grasp the situation."

Several mornings a week, summer and winter, Jose Rivera jogs along the Arizona Canal. On one recent morning, he reflected on the seemingly lucky breaks he's gotten in life.

"I know if I were starting out now, it would be more difficult to get where I am with my background."

Indeed, he's conscious of the challenges facing inner-city Hispanics. He has visited schools to read to elementary students. He's kept his own kids in central Phoenix public schools so that they would be exposed to diversity. He speaks like the liberal Democrat he is.

But we all make our "luck," and Rivera's lucky breaks are more likely the result of being very bright and very low-key at the same time. He has not had to look for work; like the U.S. Attorney's job, work has always found him.

The first two cases he handled as a Justice Department attorney just out of law school went to the U.S. Supreme Court. He had always thought he'd practice law in Flagstaff, but he kept getting invited here and there--to San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, to private practice and to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

One of the difficulties of writing a profile about Rivera is that he has no enemies, and his many friends have no anecdotes to tell about him. They uniformly answer queries about Rivera by saying that he's a hell of a guy, a good lawyer with a big heart and a good sense of humor.

"You always get a straight answer from him, but not with a straight face," says Councilman Phil Gordon, a longtime friend of Rivera's.

He reads avidly--biographies, histories, detective novels. He is fond of the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He jokes that his two daughters fight over which of them will get to name her own daughter after a character from Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. There is a character described in another Garcia Marquez novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, as a mother who never leaves the house, but who nonetheless can inform her children on everything that is going on in the world as she sweeps the kitchen.

"I have that same mother," Rivera says.
But he reads those novels in English translation, even though his first language, and the language of his family, is Spanish.

Rivera was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1950 and named Jose de Jesus, to specify not just any Saint Joseph, but Joseph, the father of Jesus.

His mother was born in Flagstaff; his grandfather worked in a lumber mill there but moved to Zacatecas when he heard that silver had been discovered there. Rivera's mother, an American citizen by birth, drifted back to Flagstaff and brought her young family with her.

One of Rivera's earliest memories is of moving from Mexico to Flagstaff when he was 4 years old, and what made it memorable was how badly he had to pee for much of the trip.

His mother had preceded the rest of the family. Rivera, his father and a younger brother came later, boarding a bus in El Paso, Texas. Rivera's father had filled the boys with food and Coca-Cola so that they wouldn't have to get off the bus anywhere to eat, afraid that if they did, the bus might leave without them. And since none of them spoke any English, he was afraid they'd be hopelessly lost in a strange country. Finally he succumbed to the pressure at a rest stop outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, but then father and sons had to deliberate long and hard over which of the two outhouses was the men's and which was the ladies'.

Rivera started public kindergarten without knowing a word of English. He transferred the next year to a Catholic school, where the language of instruction was English, but the majority of the students came from families that spoke Spanish.

He recalls the day he was sitting in class and suddenly realized he was thinking in English.

"I think I would have been lost in the public school," he says. "[The Catholic school] showed a lot of patience with my whole family. I'm not the world's best Catholic, but you know what? I think without the time I spent there, I would not be where I am."

He did well enough to win a scholarship to Brophy Academy in Phoenix, but his father wanted him to stay home.

Rivera majored in history and education at Northern Arizona University and helped pay for his education by serving in the National Guard. He went to law school at Arizona State University and intended to return to Flagstaff, but luck and fate took him elsewhere.

The summer before finishing law school, he did an internship with the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund in San Francisco, and his supervisor suggested he apply to the Justice Department. In 1976, he got a job in Washington, D.C., as a Justice Department civil rights lawyer. One week after getting the results of his bar exam, he was sent to New York to work on a federal case against the infamous Willowbrook school.

Willowbrook was an institution for the mentally retarded that burst into the media when a young Geraldo Rivera secretly videotaped the horrendous conditions under which its residents were confined. A lawsuit subsequently was brought against the state of New York, and the Justice Department appeared amicus curiae on behalf of the plaintiffs.

On his first day in court, Rivera introduced himself to the judge.
"He looks at me and says, 'Who are you?'" Rivera remembers.
"I'm Jose de Jesus Rivera, and I represent the Department of Justice," he answered.

The judge shook his head and said, "Oh my gosh, not another Rivera."
The courtroom broke up, and Rivera was left wondering what to do next.
He spent two years with Justice, traveling to Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico and points beyond handling civil-rights cases. But he wanted to go home to Arizona.

He had a girlfriend there, Nina, a single mom with two children, who was a student at ASU law school. Now they have been married for 21 years and have three more children. She is a lawyer attached to the U.S. Small Business Administration in Phoenix.

Rivera came to work at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix in 1977.
"He showed up in a pair of black Earth shoes," quips his former colleague at the office and a later law partner, Gary Scales. It was a hint that he was a bit different.

"I remember we all had brown," Scales continues. "He was the first who had black ones."

Scales also remembers that Rivera was full of the liberal idealism that the shoes would suggest. Among his first challenges was a case that resonates eerily with the current mood at the Arizona-Mexico border.

In 1976, three Mexicans slipped across the border only to run into Thomas and Patrick Hanigan, brothers in their 20s on a "wetback-hunting party." The Hanigans allegedly detained the illegals against their will, ripped and burned their clothes, robbed them and fired a shotgun at them.

The Hanigans were tried in state superior court for their actions, but were acquitted. Then they were tried in federal court, only to have the trial end in a hung jury. Rivera entered the case when the U.S. government tried them a second time.

"When I did [the Hanigan case], I started reading the transcript of the first trial, and the translator was obviously someone who learned Spanish as a second language," he recalls. "And I'm realizing as I'm looking at the translation--I don't remember what the exact question was, but the answer came up, 'Twenty feet, more or less.' And the lawyer follows up with, 'Is it more, or is it less?' you know, the typical lawyer way, and it really looks like you're going down a specific angle. But if you look at it in Spanish, it's mas o menos, which means 'approximately,' which is a lot more vague. They lost sight of that at the very beginning of the trial, and it became an important issue throughout the whole trial. I speak to this person for the very first time and he tells me mas o menos, and I immediately know what he's trying to say at the very beginning. Big difference."

The brothers were tried together, but with two juries, one for each brother. One jury brought in a guilty verdict, the other acquitted.

While at the U.S. Attorney's Office, Rivera also handled the first of many major cases against the Arizona Department of Corrections, concerning medical care and the amount of space required for each prisoner. The consent decree was signed by the feds, and the state changed prison conditions for the better--stipulating just how many prisoners could be packed into a cell--and set the stage for major battles between the federal court and ADOC during Fife Symington's terms as governor.

Rivera left the public sector in 1981 to work as a personal-injury lawyer in the private firm Langerman, Begam, Lewis & Marks, and in 1984 he formed the practice Rivera, Scales & Kizer. But he still took the occasional pro bono case. He was city attorney for the town of El Mirage. And he worked hard to overturn the new congressional districts that had been set by a three-judge panel in 1992. Rivera represented the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which felt that the new districts should have been drawn in a way that a Hispanic would be elected. He lost the case, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the appeal was denied.

He also coached Little League and did everything else you need to do to build a family. He was living happily ever after when Congressman Pastor called and asked if he'd be U.S. Attorney.

Pastor gave Rivera just 24 hours to make his decision.

Rivera's term will end after the next federal election in 2000; the next presidential administration will appoint its own U.S. Attorney. With one year in office and another ahead of him, Rivera's supporters already have plans for his future.

"A couple of years as U.S. Attorney under his belt would qualify him as a judge," Pastor says.

Over the course of interviews for this article, many of Rivera's acquaintances said the same. And although Rivera admits that he has thought about a judgeship, he claims he is not so ambitious as to lobby for one.

"I make threats to my wife that I'm going to go out and teach high school history," he says.

Teaching would fit more into his interests, his low-key manner, his sense of grassroots community duty.

Even more, he'd rather stay U.S. Attorney.
"If I could keep this job the rest of my life, I'd keep it the rest of my life," Rivera says.

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: mkiefer@newtimes.com

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