OGDEN — Utah’s top federal law enforcement official says a program targeting repeat offenders in Ogden is known on both sides of the law.
U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber says there’s a nickname for the Project Safe Neighborhoods target enforcement area: “the box.”
“We have police who have documented in reports that the bad guys call it ‘the box,’” Huber said Friday. “’Don’t get caught in the box, or you’re going to go to the feds.’”
Huber sat down with the Standard-Examiner on Friday to talk about the federal initiative, as well as other points of interest around the state and even around the country.
Project Safe Neighborhoods, or PSN, has been a topic of discussion around the city since it was announced in April 2018. In February, the Ogden Police Department saw a 19.7% drop in violent crime, due in part to the federal PSN efforts. Huber said that so far in 2019, violent crime is still down.
“It’s actually an extraordinary number, a 20% reduction (in violent crime),” Huber said.
He went on to say that the number would be difficult to maintain, because roughly 7% of people cause 50% of crimes. The hope for law enforcement in Ogden is to maintain a decrease in crime, or at least maintain a steady, low crime rate.
“You’re always going to have a criminal element to deal with,” Huber said.
Huber commended all the federal partners in the PSN initiative, but in particular Huber said he is pleased with the “resurgence” of the FBI in Ogden. Huber said that Special Agent in Charge, Paul Haertel, has committed to revitalizing the Ogden office.
According to Justice Department budget allocations, the state was given $262,310 for 2018, the first year of Project Safe Neighborhood’s resurgence in Utah under former-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The program was formally announced to focus on Ogden in April 2018.
For 2019, $152,800 was allocated to Utah for the program. Despite the reduction in federal money flowing into Ogden’s law enforcement, Huber said money will likely be approved by Congress once more in an upcoming budget cycle. After each round of appropriations, a community has three years to spend the money and allocate the funds to whatever project they see fit.
The allocated money is not controlled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Huber said, but rather a local steering committee that decides where the money goes. The money is managed by the United Way, Huber said, not his office nor a department in the nation’s capital.
“I don’t have a hand in really deciding who gets it here in Ogden... It’s not some far off Washington, D.C. person who is going to decide what’s best for Ogden,” Huber said. “Ogden is going to decide what’s best for Ogden.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Isaac Workman added that the money set aside for PSN efforts aim to be a resource in different assets in the community.
Workman went on to say that the money is not solely used for traditional law enforcement, but the allocated PSN money can also be used for prevention efforts, or even for those who are re-entering the community.
“There are very few life sentences that are issued in federal court, everyone’s going to get out eventually,” Huber said. “So we need to think about how we can help people succeed and not reoffend.”
The funds are also used to pay overtime to cross-designated prosecutors based out of the Weber County Attorney’s Office, who handle both state and federal cases. Weber County Attorney Christopher Allred said during a PSN press conference Friday that the amount of federal indictments coming out of his office has tripled in recent years, in large part due to PSN.
Workman said that performance can be attributed to the PSN grant money, as the some of the funds help pay overtime for local prosecutors. This is just one of the ways that local prosecutors buy into the larger goal.
One requirement for the next round of PSN grant money in 2020 will likely include elements of research, in order for jurisdictions to test and analyze the efficiency of crime reduction efforts, according to U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Melodie Rydalch.
As far as funding for the national PSN program, the change, from Jeff Sessions to current Attorney General William Barr, will be nonexistent. Huber said he met with Barr several days prior, and PSN was a topic of conversation.
“There’s no light between AG Session’s priorities on this and AG Barr’s priorities,” Huber said. “They’re in lockstep together, you’re not going to see any difference that way.”
If anything, Huber said, Barr could decide to enhance certain parts of the program, but PSN as a whole is here to stay.
Outside of Northern Utah
Obviously Huber’s responsibilities stretch far beyond Ogden and PSN, as the Salt Lake City office remains busy.
One such case that consumed a number of his office’s resources was that of the Aaron Shamo case. Shamo, a Cottonwood Heights man, was convicted in August of running a multimillion dollar drug operation, sending hundreds of thousands of opioid pills across the country.
“It is a big case, I would call it a top-tier case,” Huber said. “Not all cases are the same, some are watermelons and some are grapes, this was a watermelon.”
Shamo was arrested in 2016, and though Huber said the evidence was quickly identified, the full ramifications of the case would take time to process. He went on to say that at the time of the arrest, Shamo’s criminal enterprise was an outlier, supplying fentanyl pain pills years before the drug would take off and spread across the country.
“We’re relieved to get to this point,” Huber said. “There’s still a lot of work to do, we have the sentencing hearing and what appears to be an appeal that will surely come from this. We’re very pleased with this outcome, we think it’s the right outcome. We think the jury’s verdict illustrates how pervasive this operation was.”
Outside of Utah, Huber came into the national spotlight in 2018 after he was picked to lead an investigation into the FBI’s handling of political investigations and any potential misconduct. Among the allegations against the FBI, were whether or not the bureau abused its powers of surveillance and whether more extensive investigations should have been done regarding former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Since being appointed to lead the investigation into the FBI Huber has remained quiet on the matter, which continued Friday.
When asked about the investigation, Huber said that he is still doing work into the matter.
“I still have work, yeah. These things are so politically charged that it’s really unwise for me to say much of anything about it,” Huber said.
In April, Barr told Jan Crawford of “CBS This Morning” that Huber had originally been asked to review FISA applications and electronic surveillance before being told to hold off on the matter. Barr said that Huber would be “essentially on standby” to wait and see if Inspector General Michael Horowitz needed him to handle any criminal matters.
Barr went on to say that Huber was handling matters regarding Clinton, which at the time were said to be winding down.
When asked if any sort of update in his investigation, Huber said that Attorney General Barr would be handling any spokesperson responsibilities for the matter.