WHEELING, W.Va. (WV News) — If drugs are a major point of emphasis for federal prosecutors around the country, other cases ranging from gun crimes to cyberattacks, health care fraud and much more also are in play.
And that’s the case in Northern and Southern West Virginia, too.
Northern District US Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II and Southern West Virginia US Attorney William C. Thompson acknowledge gun prosecutions make up a large part of their offices’ work.
I’m a gun owner myself. We’re from a state that has a lot of guns,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, a lot of these guns are ending up in the wrong people’s hands. We’re seeing situations where multiple firearms are purchased on a day, and it’s not for somebody’s personal protection or something of that nature.
“You’ll be surprised where some of the guns that are purchased in West Virginia end up. … We’re going to have a big issue coming up with that, but there is a tremendous problem within the state of our guns ending up in other places involved in bad crimes,” he said.
Ihlenfeld said drug prosecutions top the list of cases handled by his office. Gun prosecutions are second on the list, he said.
Ihlenfeld has served on the Board of Directors for the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area and recently was named chair of that panel. The organization, commonly referred to as the Appalachian HIDTA, has an intelligence center that gets reports from law enforcement all over West Virginia. HIDTAs from other parts of the country share information, as well.
“The trends that we’re seeing not only in West Virginia but across the Appalachian region are that we are seeing more guns seized in connection with drug trafficking offenses than we ever have,” Ihlenfeld said. “So now when we have a traffic stop where drugs are recovered or a search of a home where drugs are recovered, it’s unusual when we don’t find a firearm. And it didn’t used to be that way.
“That’s important for a number of reasons. One, it makes these types of investigations that much more dangerous for our task force officers and our uniformed officers who are involved in these cases. It also shows that drug traffickers have become, one, more violent, two, more, aware of the value of what they’re carrying and more interested in protecting the cash and the drugs that they’re carrying with them,” Ihlenfeld said. “It also is something that comes into play when we prosecute these cases, because if there is a gun recovered from someone who we can prove is trafficking drugs, that adds an additional charge and an additional enhancement that we can bring. That is a very powerful tool that we have is federal prosecutors.”
Thompson said one long problem the state has faced involves the intersection of guns and drugs.
It could involve someone from out of state coming to West Virginia, which is replete with firearms, and swapping drugs to a state resident in return for guns, he said.
“Or, they’re buying guns for someone else in exchange for some type of drug … they’re going into the gun shops and things of that nature. Every household in West Virginia has several guns in it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there is a prevalence of firearms here and a lot of them end up in the wrong people’s hands. Guns and drugs are what’s driving the state right now,” Thompson said.
Ihlenfeld said guns and drugs always have been connected, “but we’re seeing much more of that now than we have in the past.”
“And you’re going to see a big push for the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives]for all of our task forces to do even more with the guns that we’ve recovered,” Ihlenfeld said.
That will involve analysis to trace them back to the original source. And in the event of a shooting, investigators will look to do more with ballistic technology to “do an even better job of solving crimes,” Ihlenfeld said.
Both US attorneys mentioned domestic terrorism as an important issue for their offices.
“I’m seeing an uptick in domestic terrorism, domestic extremism. I think everybody in our country is realizing that,” Thompson said. “We’ve been very, very fortunate in West Virginia that we’ve not had very many of any incidents of that, but we are going to keep a very close eye on and monitor it. And hopefully we don’t have anything to prosecute on that. But we are watching and being very proactive on that.”
Ihlenfeld said domestic terrorism has become more of a focus now than ever before in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol.
“You might have seen [recently] the National Security Division of the Department of Justice has created a Domestic Terrorism Unit. We have prosecutors in each of our divisions who are part of our ATAC, or Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council,” Ihlenfeld said.
“We have an ATAC coordinator, and we’ve prosecuted some pretty substantial cases,” he added, pointing to the Timothy John Watson prosecution.
Watson, 31, of Ranson, got a 5-year prison term in October for unlawfully possessing an unregistered firearm silencer in Jefferson County. Federal authorities had alleged he was providing machine gun conversion units to Boogaloo adherents.
“There are a number of other cases that are under investigation right now that fall under that umbrella that the public will eventually learn about,” Ihlenfeld said. “The FBI is fabulous in handling those matters. Those cases are not only critical to the safety of people in West Virginia but also to all Americans. So we’ve got some really important cases in that category that we’re working on now. That’s high on the list of priorities for me.”
Ihlenfeld also believes the threat of cyberattacks is greater than it ever has been.
“We’re working closely … to try to encourage the private sector to reach out to us sooner when a breach occurs. I think that some businesses are reluctant to contact the FBI or the US Attorney’s Office for a variety of reasons, and they’re good reasons,” Ihlenfeld said. “But, we want to try to bridge that gap and get in on the front end of some of these cases and not on the back end. And the FBI again is lead on that. They really know what they’re doing when it comes to investigating those cases, but they also have a lot of other responsibilities.
“Another thing we’re trying to do is to help our state and local agents, deputy sheriffs, city police, State Police troopers, to get the training they need to be able to assist us in the cyber investigations,” Ihlenfeld said. “We already have some really good local and state officers, but we need some more because these cases are going to continue to come and come in much greater volume, and we need to be able to have those cases investigated. Especially the ones that are smaller but still important that the FBI might not have the capacity to investigate.”
White collar prosecutions often fall to federal investigators and prosecutors.
Ihlenfeld and Thompson said they plan to continue aggressively pursuing these cases.
“I know from my time in the private sector that there is healthcare fraud that’s ongoing that’s either not being reported, or it’s not being uncovered. And so we will be more proactive from a federal law enforcement standpoint in looking for health-care fraud,” Ihlenfeld said. “We’ll also be working with our counterparts on the state level with the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit through the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office.
“You’ll also see a big push … what I’ll call a COVID fraud investigation within the US Attorney’s Office. We are working very closely with WorkForce West Virginia to investigate and prosecute what I believe will be a large number of individuals who were involved in fraud related to all of the federal money that was rolled out through the various COVID relief packages from Congress,” Ihlenfeld said.
“So that will include the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans. That will include the Supplemental Unemployment Insurance money that came to West Virginia, that came to all states, that was fraudulently obtained in many instances by people here in West Virginia,” Ihlenfeld said.
“That will include identity theft that occurred where we had individuals both inside West Virginia and outside of West Virginia who were stealing the identities of others and applying for unemployment insurance benefits fraudulently,” Ihlenfeld said. “So this is a major undertaking that’s going to take quite a bit of time. But, I’m pushing to have everything wrapped up in this calendar year. This is thanks in large part to the good work of the people at WorkForce West Virginia.
“A lot of the work has been done as far as identifying people who have engaged in this type of fraud. Now we just have to connect all of the dots and determine how much fraud occurred,” Ihlenfeld said. “We need to determine whose identities were stolen. Who stole the identities, because some of the people were pretty good at hiding themselves. We’re tracking all that down.
“And then, of course, tax evasion, securities fraud, public corruption, all those fit under that white collar umbrella. And that’s always been a passion of mine, and will continue to be, but I would say the two biggest things would be healthcare fraud and COVID fraud,” Ihlenfeld said.
Thompson said probably his biggest shock since becoming US attorney was “just the severity of the white collar crime, the bank fraud, stolen wire transfers, romance scams, it’s almost overwhelming. It seems like every day I’m finding out about another one. We’re being very aggressive in prosecuting those. Now sometimes they’re hard to prosecute because the people who are doing this are very bright and they might not ever set foot in West Virginia or even in the United States. But we are taking a very aggressive approach to that.”
“That’s what I hope to leave one of my key marks in my administration is the fact that we’re dealing heavily with the white collar crime and prosecuting it to the fullest extent,” Thompson said. “But there’s a lot of it, and I wasn’t aware of it. And it’s a huge problem in the state that I’m doing my best to try to work to address. We’ve been able to work with not only our federal agencies, but also starting to work with some of our banks and other people as a way to address it.”
The US attorneys also are proud of the work of their civil divisions.
The civil divisions represent the federal government — known as “the United States” in court lingo — in US District Court litigation cases, whether that’s pursuing an action or defending one.
“Our affirmative civil enforcement prosecutors are critical to recovering money that belongs to the government. That might involve healthcare fraud. That might involve a pharmacy that has been reckless in its dispensing of prescription pills,” Ihlenfeld said.
“On the defensive side, we have a lot of litigation that comes out of our federal prisons at Hazelton and Gilmer and Morgantown. That really keeps us busy. And then another thing related to civil that is important to me, always has been, and is important to the folks at main justice, and that’s environmental justice. So anytime we see a violation of the Clean Water Act, or anytime there’s something that threatens that air quality in West Virginia where we have a statute that allows us to pursue those cases we will,” Ihlenfeld said.
Ihlenfeld added that he has plans to designate a member of his office to handle both civil and criminal environmental enforcement.
“A lot of times it’s going to end up on the civil side of the house, but sometimes it’s criminal. We want one person to be able to handle both, so I’m excited about that, and we’ve got some cases that are coming through the office now that that person will be handling,” Ihlenfeld said. Thompson noted that many in the public aren’t even aware that a US attorney’s office has a civil division.
But, “we actually have a quite productive civil side. … It’s rather significant. Any time someone makes an accusation of medical malpractice at like a Veterans [Affairs] hospital or a federally funded clinic, we end up representing the United States’ interest in that,” Thompson said.
“If there’s car wrecks and things of that nature, we will represent the United States on that. We also have a very active [practice] where people are trying to receive their Social Security Disability; we work with that to make sure the proper procedures are followed,” Thompson said.
“And we’re also somewhat proactive as well. We will also take cases into court such as there’s a pharmacy overprescribing a certain type of or over-billing a certain type of medication, or a doctor doing the same thing,” Thompson said.