Dayle Elieson, who took over Friday as interim United States attorney in Nevada, is essentially unknown in the state.
Until the Texas prosecutor was named this week to lead the office in Las Vegas, attorneys who have practiced for decades in Southern Nevada, including former U.S. attorneys, had never heard of her.
Among the 17 people Attorney General Jeff Sessions selected to lead various districts across the country, only Elieson hails from an outside state, aside from a woman named to oversee government prosecutions in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Less than two weeks before Elieson’s appointment, the Department of Justice said Sessions would personally direct an examination of a recent mistrial declared in the third Bunkerville standoff trial. That came after Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro found that government prosecutors failed to turn over evidence to defendants in a timely fashion.
Richard Pocker, who served as U.S. attorney in Nevada from 1989 to 1990, speculated that Elieson’s tenure could be short-lived.
“This may be the Department of Justice trying to get some control over the situation,” said Pocker, who is president-elect for the Nevada State Bar and will assume the role of president in July. “And they’ve brought someone who they know who has good experience. They may have gone outside for that person’s fresh approach to an office that’s had some hard knocks lately. I’m reluctant to read too much into it, but certainly that would make some sense.”
Elieson, who received her law degree from Brigham Young University, has prosecuted cases at the state and federal levels, mostly in Texas. Las Vegas Review-Journal attempts to speak with her this week were unsuccessful.
There’s no record of Elieson having lived or worked in Nevada prior to her appointment. According to the Justice Department, she served briefly in Washington with the department’s Office of Legal Policy, though the dates of that tenure were not made available.
That office deals in “special projects that implicate the interests of multiple Department components,” and its functions include serving as “primary policy advisor to the Attorney General,” according to the government’s website.
Several Las Vegas lawyers suggested that the rare move points to signs of a rift between U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and President Donald Trump. Traditionally, the Justice Department has worked with home-state senators within the president’s party to locate a candidate for presidential appointment and confirmation by the Senate.
Heller could not be reached for comment for this story.
Mahlon Brown, who served as U.S. attorney in Nevada from 1977 to 1981, was perplexed by the decision to bring in a prosecutor from another state, saying it breaks from a longstanding tradition.
“It just makes no sense to me,” said Brown, past president and executive director of the National Association of Former United States Attorneys. “It’s kind of a states’ rights thing, with a federal spin.”
Defense attorney Bill Terry, who worked as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1973 to 1976, called the appointment of an out-of-state attorney “very odd,” saying the district head should have working relationships with fellow prosecutors, judges and those within local offices of other federal agencies.
“It’s a snub to Nevadans, to tell you the truth,” Terry said. “The feel of the public sentiment is very important. When you have somebody come in from a different jurisdiction, they cannot have that feel of the public sentiment that exists in that state.”
Of Elieson’s appointment, veteran lawyer Richard Wright, who served as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1973 to 1979, said: “I’m baffled by it,” adding that the role is commonly filled by someone who “hits the ground with knowledge and knows the sentiment of what’s going on in the state and what should be the focus of prosecution.”
Another veteran defense attorney, Tom Pitaro, who has practiced in state and federal court for more than 40 years, said Elieson’s appointment could have implications for how federal cases are prosecuted in Nevada.
“To me, it’s a slap in the face to Senator Heller,” Pitaro said. “It’s an amazing thing. It almost boggles the mind to think that a sitting president goes around a senior senator of his own party. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an obvious rebuke.”
Like others, Pocker reiterated the importance of the lead federal prosecutor’s relationship with local authorities.
“It’s an incredibly powerful position and you have to have somebody who has the best interest of the state in mind,” Pocker said. “It helps federal, state and local authorities to know that the people wielding that kind of responsibility are part of the community.”
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