Dennis Burke hasn’t officially taken his post as Arizona’s next U.S. attorney, but he’s already familiar with an area that may be his top priority as a federal prosecutor – the border.
Just days after being nominated by President Barack Obama as U.S. attorney for Arizona, Burke was on the border at Nogales, part of three days of meetings with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s border czar. Obama and U.S. Attorney Eric Holder have made drug trafficking and human smuggling a top priority, and Burke said he plans to put those issues at the top of his agenda as well.
Of course, Burke was no stranger to border issues, which came up frequently in his time as co-chief of staff to former Arizona governor and current Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Since Napolitano moved to DHS, Burke has served as a senior adviser, dealing primarily with the border issues he now expects to pursue as U.S. attorney.
“I’ve spent several years now working on law enforcement and border issues in Arizona. I’ve built strong relationships with federal, state and local law enforcement officials, and since during the transition from the Bush Administration to the Obama Administration, I’ve been working on homeland security and border enforcement issues,” Burke said.
Earlier in the year, Holder and Napolitano announced an influx of resources to the border to fight smuggling of drugs and people, and to stem the violence caused by open warfare between the Mexican government and drug cartels. Both new boss and old boss have pledged to bring more prosecutors and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to the border, and Burke said those issues will be of even greater focus to the Department of Justice and DHS in the months to come.
“There’s clearly been direction provided already by President Obama and Attorney General Holder as to what they want to be doing, and this is an office that is at the center of the issues of border enforcement,” Burke said. “What I hope to do, if confirmed by the Senate, is to ensure that those plans and strategies are being implemented and we’re moving quickly on prosecutions.”
Burke said he plans to build on his relationship with local law enforcement officials as U.S. attorney, but how much cooperation he has with one in particular, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, remains to be seen. During her six-year tenure as governor, Napolitano and her administration often found themselves at odds with the border-hawk sheriff over illegal immigration issues.
Lately, Arpaio has taken heat from both Napolitano and Holder. Napolitano recently announced changes to the 287(g) program, which empowers local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration laws, and Arpaio feels the changes are aimed at him and his crime-suppression sweeps. Earlier in the year, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into Arpaio’s practices, and the sheriff sees a strong link between the two.
Burke was noncommittal as to whether he would pursue Arpaio in his new job, citing the investigation already underway.
“There are ongoing investigations by Justice. Those are going to continue,” he said. “It would be too hard to comment on that anyway at this stage because I’m not familiar at all with where the Department of Justice is with that investigation.”
Burke’s nomination is the latest step in a career that has brought him through the halls of power in both Phoenix and Washington, D.C. He served as an aide to former U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, and was an assistant U.S. attorney for Arizona from 1997-1999. In 1999, he went to work for then-Arizona Attorney General Napolitano, and in 2003 he followed her to the Governor’s Office, where he served as her co-chief of staff.
DeConcini said Burke was an outstanding staffer with top-rate communications skills. He recalled Burke’s work in helping him usher the first federal assault-weapons ban through the Senate in 1992.
“We ended up getting senators who had never voted for a gun bill, like Lloyd Benson of Texas and Sam Nunn of Georgia and Al D’Amato of New York, who were friends of mine that I worked real hard. But Dennis worked the staff. He was responsive to them and several of the senators mentioned to me what a great staffer you’ve got there, and I said, ‘Boy, you’re telling me,’” DeConcini said.
Alan Stephens, who served alongside Burke as Napolitano’s co-chief of staff, first met Burke while he was on DeConcini’s staff.
“Senator DeConcini and his staff said he was an up-and-comer, which, of course, he’s proved to be,” Stephens said. “As I remember, he was given quite a bit of responsibility as a relatively young staff member in the senator’s office.”
Jeanine L’Ecuyer, who served as Napolitano’s communications director in the Governor’s Office, called Burke “a brilliant mind” and said he is “one of the quickest, sharpest people I’ve ever been around.”
“You just never wanted to get too far down the road with an idea without running it by Dennis because he would come at it from another direction entirely. He’s got such a creative mind that he would think of things that just hadn’t occurred to you. He was hugely valuable in that regard. In so many ways he’s just the total package – creative, smart, well-connected, good politician, good lawyer,” L’Ecuyer said.
Pinal County Attorney Jim Walsh said Burke worked well with local law enforcement officials during his time on Napolitano’s staff.
“He knows the local prosecutors. He knows the county attorneys in counties around the state,” Walsh said. “There’s a lot of opportunity to work cooperatively, and there’s a lot of opportunity to just back each other up, even though we’re in two different systems, the federal system and the state system.”