Metro-East News

Wigginton stepping down as U.S. attorney to join private law firm

U.S. Attorney Steve Wigginton.
U.S. Attorney Steve Wigginton.

Steve Wigginton, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, announced Tuesday that he is resigning on Dec. 11 to join a private law firm.

Wigginton took office in August 2010 after being nominated by President Barack Obama and receiving unanimous confirmation from the U.S. Senate. He will be joining the Armstrong Teasdale law firm in St. Louis.

Wigginton said it’s been an honor to serve.

“Words cannot express the appreciation I have for the opportunity to serve the people of Southern Illinois, granted to me by the efforts of Sen. Dick Durbin, the nomination by President Barack Obama and the unanimous support of the Senate. It is truly a privilege to work with the many men and women in law enforcement at the federal, state and local level who risk their lives daily to make our communities safer,” he said.

He gave credit to his staff.

“The dedicated professionals in this United States attorney’s office have performed outstanding work over the past five years and will continue to do so in the future,” he said. “I witnessed many challenges and my office met every challenge. We viewed challenges as opportunities to do tough work, make difficult decisions and always, always, seek justice.”

When there’s a vacancy in a U.S. attorney position, a replacement is nominated by the state’s senior U.S. senator who is from the same political party as the president. In this case, that would be Durbin, a Democrat. If the president accepts the senator’s nomination, the Senate then votes on whether to confirm the nominee.

The process can take two months or more, meaning an interim U.S. attorney will likely be appointed for the district. An interim U.S. attorney would be appointed by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Obama. The interim appointee would serve for 120 days. If there is no presidentially confirmed nominee within 120 days, then the district court would appoint an interim U.S. attorney to serve until there is a presidentially confirmed nominee.

Durbin said he’ll be working with Lynch “to ensure that she will name a strong and competent acting U.S. Attorney to serve until an eventual nominee is confirmed by the Senate. I’m confident that the U.S. Attorney’s office will continue Steve Wigginton’s important work during this transition process.”

Durbin added: “Steve Wigginton has served the people of the Southern District of Illinois with integrity, independence and a firm commitment to justice. I thank Steve for his service and wish him well as he moves back to the private sector.”

Steve Wigginton has served the people of the Southern District of Illinois with integrity, independence and a firm commitment to justice.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin

The Southern District of Illinois covers the state’s 38 southernmost counties.

Wigginton said that, over the past five years, he increased the number of prosecutions of public officials and law enforcement officers caught breaking the law. This included elected officials, police chiefs, police officers, probation officers, federal correctional officers, water clerks, township officials and mayors.

Public officials sent to prison included former Madison County Treasurer Fred Bathon, who was convicted of rigging the auctions of delinquent property tax bills in order to favor bidders who contributed to his campaign fund.

Judy Ferguson suffered multiple gunshots during a robbery at her Caseyville TV shop in 2013. The case was investigated by a task force set up by Wigginton, aimed at armed robberies. Wigginton personally prosecuted the case.

“He did a fantastic job,” Ferguson said Tuesday. “He really showed me that he cared.”

The robber got a 25-year prison sentence.

He did a fantastic job. He really showed me that he cared.

Judy Ferguson, victim shot during armed robbery

U.S. District Judge Michael J. Reagan, the chief judge of the district, said Wigginton has been “firm, fair, consistent and — when warranted — compassionate in his charging decisions.”

“He returned discretion to his prosecutors and restored respect and stability to an office that has seen 11 U.S. attorneys in 15 years,” Reagan said. “He rigorously prosecuted public corruption and white-collar offenses, and he initiated programs to address the heroin epidemic and violent crime. The president faces a challenge in replacing Steve Wigginton, who was a lifelong resident of the district he served and cares deeply about.”

St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly, who was attending an anti-heroin presentation with Wigginton on Tuesday at Mascoutah High School, said Wigginton’s service has been exceptional.

“He has been the key partner in the effort to uphold public integrity and combat violent crime, and he has been a strong ally for all state's attorneys in southern Illinois,” Kelly said. “There is no state and federal cooperation like this anywhere in the country.”

He has been the key partner in the effort to uphold public integrity and combat violent crime, and he has been a strong ally for all state's attorneys in southern Illinois. There is no state and federal cooperation like this anywhere in the country.

St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly

Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons said: “Steve has been extraordinary. With his leadership, the U.S. Attorney's office has grown into a nearly unstoppable force for justice at all levels in our region. They are tremendous partners with all of us and they work directly with everybody to make sure we get the best results on cases and make sure we can do the greatest amount of good for the community. He will be missed.”

Wigginton said he’s known since summer that he’d be stepping down after his five-year anniversary.

“It’s time for me to move on. I knew when I took the job, five years ago, it would end and I would return to private practice. And, I am excited to do so,” Wigginton said. He said he will miss “working with the men and women in the U.S. Attorney’s office and in law enforcement who protect us on a daily basis.”

Wigginton, a Democrat, replaced A. Courtney Cox as U.S. attorney for the region. Cox, a Republican, was appointed to the position in 2007. After Obama took office in 2009, Durbin nominated both Cox and Wigginton for the position. Obama chose to send Wigginton’s nomination to the Senate.

Wigginton said the accomplishments of his office during his tenure include:

▪  Directed and oversaw many important law enforcement operations targeting violent crime, public corruption, fraud on government programs, health care fraud and crimes involving the exploitation of children. Took an aggressive stand targeting prohibited persons from possessing weapons. Worked closely with the St. Clair County and Madison County State’s Attorney offices to combat violent crime and the heroin epidemic which exploded over the metro-east area in 2011.

In March, 2011, he along with the St. Clair County and Madison County State’s Attorney offices formed the Anti-Heroin Task Force and focused not just on the prosecution of heroin dealers but also launched an educational program at area high schools and middle schools to educate parents and children about the danger of heroin and other opiate-based prescription drugs. Wigginton said he has spoken to more than 10,000 high school and middle school students throughout Southern Illinois.

▪  Aggressively pursued child-exploitation perpetrators and was recognized nationally for the strategic plan they formulated in 2012 showing how an office can increase the number of child-exploitation prosecutions during austere times without hiring additional prosecutors. In September 2013, formed the Metro East Armed Robbery Initiative, bringing together local, state and federal law enforcement to address the increase in armed robberies of commercial establishments. This initiative has been successful in locating, arresting and convicting violent individuals who use guns to rob convenient marts, retail stores, restaurants and banks.

▪  Oversaw operations targeting individuals who defrauded federally-funded programs such as Medicaid, Social Security, the Railroad Retirement Board and grant programs. He also focused on consumer-fraud crimes such telemarketing scams. During his tenure the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Illinois was one of the nation’s leaders in prosecuting and convicting telemarketing and mass-marketing fraudsters. The office obtained more than 50 convictions in one telemarketing scam arising out of Florida.

▪  His Operation Home Alone program, which pursues individuals who falsely claim to be performing personal assistant services and billing a fund administered by the State of Illinois, and funded by federal tax dollars, has resulted in more than 45 convictions so far. His office was also one of the nation’s leaders in prosecuting healthcare fraud.

▪  Pursued multiple affirmative civil enforcement actions against individuals and corporations involved in defrauding the government. During the past five years his office has recovered more than $450 million through the enforcement of both civil and criminal actions. He, along with his Affirmative Civil Enforcement Assistants, established a Defense Procurement Fraud Task Force targeting contractors who have defrauded the government during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last year, in a case involving defense contractors engaged in shipping, his office recovered $32 million from the contractors.

At Armstrong Teasdale, Wigginton will focus on class-action lawsuits, complex litigation involving corporate malfeasance and whistleblower lawsuits.

“I have always enjoyed practicing law at the firm level and I’m excited about joining Armstrong Teasdale, a firm I highly respect not only for its outstanding collection of talented lawyers but its commitment to serving communities through its outreach efforts and pro bono work,” Wigginton said.

Armstrong Teasdale managing partner Michael A. Chivell said Wigginton “gives our litigation practice an enhanced national scope and will broaden opportunities for the firm and our clients.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has staffs in offices at East St. Louis, Fairview Heights and Benton, with 32 attorneys.

Reporter Elizabeth Donald contributed to this report.