Nebraska Roots Serve Kelly Well 11/30/18 11/30/18 11:29:32 AM
Joe Kelly grew up in Lexington, Nebraska, and worked his way all the way to the United States Attorney’s office in Omaha. (Photo by Antone Oseka)
Nebraska Roots Serve Kelly Well
By Andy Roberts
The Daily Record
You can almost feel the warmth in his heart when Joe Kelly talks about growing up in Lexington, Nebraska, a place about as centered in the American Heartland as any you can find.
“It was a great experience,” he said.
Life in Lexington included grandparents and extended family from both sides of his family tree. The family didn’t farm; his maternal grandfather owned and ran the local newspaper – The Lexington Clipper – and Kelly’s father took over the daily operations of the paper after World War II.
A typical Midwestern boy growing up, Joe Kelly played football and golf in high school. He went on from high school to attend the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and graduated in 1978 with his bachelor’s degree in political science. From there it was straight into law school.
“I think the thought of doing trial work was the most prominent among the reasons,” he said when asked what drew him to the practice of law and his role as a prosecutor. “The excitement and fast pace of trial work as compared to other types of law.”
It is those deep Nebraska roots and that passion he brings to his still relatively new role as U.S. Attorney for the District of Nebraska. Appointed by President Donald Trump in December of last year, Kelly was approved by the Senate on February 15 and sworn in eight days later.
For this former Lancaster County Attorney, his job prior to the appointment, the move to the federal level was a logical next step.
“It was something I had always thought about because two of my predecessors at Lancaster County (Ron Lahners and Mike Heavican) had served,” Kelly said. “I was always interested in that job if it was ever open.”
Those two continue their service, of course, with Heavican as chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court and Lahners an administrative law judge with the Social Security Administration.
The role of a prosecutor is one he seems to relish. He sampled the role as a clerk while in law school, clerking in the Lancaster County Attorney’s office under Lahners.
Kelly worked there as a deputy county attorney from 1981-1986 and again from 1990-2000 where he prosecuted a range of wrong-doings including homicide, robbery, sexual assault and white-collar crime. He was chief deputy in the office until he was elected to the top job in 2011.
While he embraced the work, Kelly said no single case stands out in his memory.
“It was really enjoyable years with a lot of trial work and interesting cases,” he said.
Kelly spent a “very enjoyable” time in private practice from 1987 into 1990 with Berniger, Berg and Diver PC in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His move west was prompted by a friend in the firm and the thought of trying life in a different place.
“The firm then was about 15 or 18 attorneys, and I was in a litigation section,” he said. “A lot of the clients were commercial real estate. Owners of apartment buildings ... business buildings.”
Then it was back to Lincoln and continuing his role as a prosecutor.
There is life outside the legal profession for Joe Kelly. He and his wife Suzie met in Lincoln, have been married 28 years and have two children.
“Our oldest is our daughter Shannon who lives in Galway, Ireland,” he said. She graduated from St. Thomas University in Minnesota, which has a strong Irish literature program, and moved to Ireland to do graduate work. Their son, Tom, is a senior at Iowa State majoring in electrical engineering.”
While he doesn’t golf any more, Kelly loves to hunt and fish.
“(I) fly fish as much as I can,” he said.
The couple also enjoy traveling as much as they can with Charleston, South Carolina, a favorite destination.
His Omaha office is a more frequent destination these days as the job of U.S. Attorney is a demanding one. He manages an office of 74 people, including himself as one of 28 attorneys. It is similar in size to the Lancaster County Attorney’s office, which had more lawyers.
The priorities in the U.S. Attorney’s office are established by the U.S. Attorney General and have remained consistent, Kelly said. That is unlikely to change, as Kelly said a conference call on Nov. 8 with the acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, a day after the resignation of Jeff Sessions, indicated the priorities will remain the same.
“Violent crime and guns are a high priority,” Kelly said. “When we talk about those two issues on the federal level ... you really look at when can we take a case for a gun violation or a violent crime and obtain a result with a longer sentence than may have been obtained under state law.”
Much of the office’s work in Omaha is to assist local prosecutors, the Omaha Police Department, tribal authorities and local sheriff’s offices when they can. A retired OPD officer reviews arrest reports and provides input on what is the best venue for prosecution.
“Everyone has the same goal of reducing violent crime,” he said, “We try very hard not to operate in a vacuum.”
That work also involves drug trafficking, Kelly said. Most of the methamphetamine trafficking
in Nebraska, he said, comes from Mexico through the Sinaloa Cartel and the Sinaloa Province. One goal of his office is to interrupt that drug flow, and then make arrests and, when possible, work up the ladder of the drug trafficking organization.
While the problem isn’t at the epidemic level in Nebraska that it has reached in other parts of the country, the U.S. Attorney’s office is increasingly dealing with opiates and opioids.
“These days we put a lot of focus on that as well,” Kelly said. “To try to keep that from happening in Nebraska.”
Immigration law remains part of the criminal docket in Nebraska, Kelly acknowledged. He said the cases in Nebraska are different from the nation’s border states where it may simply be people entering the country illegally.
Here, the cases often involve people who may have been deported and return to commit violent crimes.
Asked if the emphasis on immigration law is different under the Trump Administration, Kelly offered, “You know, I don’t know for sure ... Without a doubt (under the Obama Administration), many of those cases were being filed in the district of Nebraska.”
The directions from Washington, D.C., he said, are to work with Homeland Security and file cases when possible. Human trafficking is also something the office is addressing.
“It’s a high priority,” Kelly acknowledged.
“The most talked-about is when it’s human trafficking for sex but we also look at human trafficking in labor.”
Those individuals lack the basic benefits a worker should have, including the freedom to improve their status above what basically is slavery.
Kelly declined to select a highlight to date of the year, but he holds a great appreciation for the staff at the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“Most of these staff members and attorneys have been through many years with the justice department.
I’m very impressed with their skill and diligence ... it’s been a real pleasure to work with them.”
It’s a big job and one Kelly obviously enjoys handling. He will let the future sort itself out and admitted he has “No idea” of what he may choose to do once his time in this office ends.
“I’m just so focused on this job, that’s all I’m really thinking about.”