After a 30-month stint as the U.S. attorney for the District of Alaska, Pittsburgh native Nelson Cohen is back home.
In March, Cohen stepped down from the position, which he accepted on an interim basis in 2006, and returned to Pittsburgh where he is an assistant U.S. attorney in the White Collar Crime Section for Mary Beth Buchanan, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. He previously held that position in Buchanan’s office before he took up the Alaska job.
In his short time as Alaska’s top prosecutor, Cohen broadened the office in new ways:
• He added a Dangerous Drugs and Violent Crimes Section;
• He started an Identity Theft and Financial Crimes Task Force;
• He partnered with the City of Anchorage to prosecute drug- and gang- related cases at the federal level;
• He opened a regional branch in Juneau, the state capital.
In an interview with The Chronicle Tuesday, Cohen said crime fighting in Alaska comes with a set of challenges unknown to prosecutors in the Lower 48.
“The state has virtually no road system,” he said. “There are probably more roads in Allegheny County than there are in the entire State of Alaska.”
Yet people live all over the state on remote islands in isolated stretches north of the Arctic Circle and in a multitude of native villages that are almost inaccessible except by airplane or dog sled.
Because they are cut off, crime victims in these places must frequently wait as long as a week before Alaska state troopers can reach them.
To address problems of law enforcement in vast swaths of the state, Cohen co-chaired a panel called the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission, which included the state’s attorney general and native leaders. The commission dealt with issues such as alcoholism and domestic violence in the Alaska Bush.
Cohen’s office also dealt with crimes that other U.S. attorneys usually do not handle, such as certain Class B misdemeanors dealing with the slaughter of moose, eagles, polar bears, seals and walruses on public lands.
In one case, Cohen prosecuted Jeff King, a well-known dog sled racer in Alaska and a past winner of the Iditerod race, after he shot a moose on public land.
“We had to set an example,” Cohen said of the case. “We just couldn’t let this guy walk away from poaching on a federal preserve.”
A career prosecutor, Cohen served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Western District from 1987 to 2006, working as the Deputy Criminal Division chief in charge of the White Collar Crimes Section.
Before joining the U.S. attorney’s office, he practiced law for 10 years in Alaska: first as an assistant U.S. attorney responsible for both criminal and civil cases, with an emphasis on drug prosecutions, medical malpractice. His wife is from Alaska.
He started his career as a trial attorney in the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office.
Cohen is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, and Duquesne University School of Law.
According to the Anchorage Daily News, former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales named him U.S. attorney of the Alaska District under a provision inserted into the Patriot Act at the request of the White House when the law was amended by Congress in 2006. It allowed interim U.S. attorney appointments to become permanent without Senate approval.
In Alaska, the U.S. attorney oversees 24 lawyers who enforce federal criminal law, usually on cases brought by the FBI and other federal agencies. The office represents the federal government in civil cases.
Cohen may be the most recent Jewish Pittsburgher to hold the position of U.S. attorney since Harry Litman ran the Western Pennsylvania District in the 1990s.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)