NEW YORK — Audrey Strauss emerged as the next chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan after her former boss, Geoffrey Berman, agreed to leave the job Saturday, ending a confrontation with Attorney General William Barr. In a statement, Berman said he decided to step down because Barr reversed course on a plan to appoint an outsider as his immediate replacement and instead named Strauss acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Berman called Strauss the “smartest, most principled, and effective lawyer” he has ever worked with and said the office, the most important in the country for prosecuting white-collar crime and policing Wall Street, could be “in no better hands.”
Strauss, 72, has been Berman’s second-in-command since April 2019, but her history in the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s Office stretches back more than four decades. A graduate of Barnard College and Columbia Law School, Strauss first became a Southern District federal prosecutor in 1976. She served in the office until 1983 and then worked in Washington as a staff lawyer in the independent counsel investigation into the Reagan-era Iran-Contra affair.
Before rejoining the Southern District in 2018, Strauss had a long career in the private sector, including stints as a partner at New York law firm Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP and as chief legal and compliance officer at Alcoa Corp., where she oversaw the aluminum producer’s $384 million settlement in 2014 of federal probes into whether it paid bribes to members of Bahrain’s royal family and officials at a state-owned company. Strauss also previously served as a board member on the Innocence Project, a non-profit that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners.
The Southern District’s leading role in prosecuting white-collar crime, terrorism, political corruption and organized crime is buttressed by its longstanding reputation for independence, such that it is frequently referred to as the “Sovereign District of New York.” Barr’s original plan to shuffle top New Jersey federal prosecutor Craig Carpenito into Berman’s role raised alarm bells, but the choice of Strauss showed the attorney general would “respect the normal operation of law” and maintain the office’s independence, Berman said. His predecessor, Preet Bharara — who was also fired after refusing to quit — likewise tweeted Saturday that the office will “continue the long tradition of integrity and independence” under Strauss.
Strauss would step aside once a new U.S. attorney is confirmed by the Senate, but there are indications that President Donald Trump’s proposed nominee, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton, could have trouble clearing that hurdle. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally and Judiciary Committee chairman, has said he won’t move forward on Clayton’s nomination without the consent of New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Schumer has already called for Clayton to withdraw and for Congress to investigate the circumstances of Berman’s dismissal. Clayton has also never worked as a prosecutor before and spent many years representing Wall Street banks as a partner at New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell LLP.
Berman himself was never confirmed, though. Several months after Trump fired Bharara, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions named Berman to a 120-day interim appointment that was subsequently made permanent by the district court judges. It’s unclear if a similar appointment might be planned for Clayton.
Over the past year and a half, Strauss has played a supervisory role in some of the Southern District’s highest-profile cases, including one that reportedly led to friction between Berman and the White House. Her name appears in documents relating to the case that led Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to plead guilty to campaign finance violations. She also signed the Oct. 16 indictment of former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker Bryan Cohen, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to passing tips about deals involving Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. and Syngenta AG to a Swiss trader as part of an international insider-trading ring.
There is an ongoing probe into Trump’s lawyer and political ally, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, himself a former Southern District U.S. attorney. The office is examining his efforts to secure political dirt in Ukraine on Trump’s 2020 opponent Joe Biden and has already brought charges against two of Giuliani’s associates. There has also been a long-running investigation into Deutsche Bank, a major lender to Trump’s companies.