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Milestone for Miami: First Haitian-American nominee for U.S. attorney named by Biden

Miami Herald Article

Miami attorney Markenzy Lapointe, a former U.S. Marine and federal prosecutor who was raised in Haiti and Liberty City, was nominated Thursday by President Joe Biden to become the next U.S. attorney in South Florida.

If confirmed by the Senate, Lapointe, 54, would become the first Black lawyer to serve in the most powerful federal law enforcement position in South Florida.

Lapointe has long been considered the front-runner for the position because of his broad legal background and American Dream immigrant backstory — a combination that aligns with Biden’s 2020 campaign pledge to appoint more people of color and women to federal leadership and judicial posts. Federal appeals court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who also grew up in Miami, was confirmed in April as the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and sworn in as an associate justice in June.

Lapointe rose from humble origins to become a prosecutor and then a successful attorney at two Miami law firms as he burnished his professional and political reputation over the last two decades. However, there is one curious question mark about his past — a decade-old Miami-Dade state attorney’s investigation into a political corruption allegation involving a North Miami development project. The probe died within weeks, according to public records, and Lapointe said he never knew anything about it until the Miami Herald asked him about it.

Came to Miami at 16

He grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where his mother worked as a street vendor and his father as a tailor. He came to Miami as a 16-year-old to live with his mother and other siblings in Liberty City, during the racially turbulent 1980s in Miami. His mom worked as a cleaning lady at Stefano’s restaurant on upscale Key Biscayne, but his dad was absent from the home.

The temptation of the drug trade was right outside his front door. “A lot of folks around me made those choices, but they were never mine,” said Lapointe, who worked as a cab driver and at a bar at the same Key Biscayne restaurant where his mom worked. He graduated from Miami Edison Senior High School in 1987, and joined the U.S. Marines as a reservist while attending Miami-Dade College for a couple of years.

In 1990, he transferred to Florida State University. But Lapointe, still not a U.S. citizen at the time, had to put school on hold when he was called up as a reservist by the Marines after Iraq invaded Kuwait and the Persian Gulf War erupted.

“I was there for six months,” said Lapointe, who missed his first year at FSU while serving a tour of duty in Iraq. “Going to war representing the United States was particularly meaningful to me,” Lapointe, who left the Marines as a corporal after serving six years as a reservist, told the Herald in an interview earlier this year. “It mattered to me as an immigrant who came here and could contribute to this country in a special way.”

Lapointe graduated from Florida State University in 1993 with a B.S. degree in finance, worked at a Miami bank for a couple of years and then completed law school at FSU in 1999. After graduation, Lapointe worked as a law clerk for Florida Supreme Court Justice Harry Anstead.

Following that two-year stint, he joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2002 and began to learn the skills of a trial lawyer. As one of the busiest districts in the nation, the office has about 250 federal prosecutors trying criminal cases that range from drug trafficking to financial fraud to public corruption. Of late, the office, based in Miami, has worked with the Justice Department in an investigation of former President Donald Trump and his alleged mishandling of classified documents at his Palm Beach estate, Mar-a-Lago.

A decade ago, in an Attorney at Law profile, Lapointe said that as a prosecutor he learned the critical importance of fairness in pursuing justice.

“As a prosecutor, there is no better compliment than being fair because you have tremendous discretion and enormous power, and showing the appropriate responsibility in exercising that power is essential,” Lapointe said.

Lapointe left the federal prosecutor’s office in 2006 to join Boies, Schiller & Flexner, which has offices in Miami and Fort Lauderdale but a presence across the country. There, he specialized in commercial, federal criminal and high-risk product liability cases. 

In 2017, he joined the Miami law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, where he is now a partner, as his professional and political profile rose in South Florida. Last year, he received a major legal award for his professionalism and pro bono work in the community. As a visible figure in Democratic and Haitian-American political circles, he also has been a frequent fundraiser for elected judges.

Lapointe is widely respected in legal and political circles, reflected by some bipartisan support. His name was on short lists of potential nominees submitted by South Florida commissions appointed by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. 

Longtime colleague and friend, Miami attorney Luis E. Suarez, who had been a partner with Lapointe at the Boies, Schiller firm, said the nomination caps a career of commitment to the legal profession and South Florida community.

“He has been training for this job all his life,” Suarez told the Herald on Thursday. “This is his job. This is his moment.”

But as an official nominee, Lapointe will now face a comprehensive background check by the FBI before a review by the Senate Judiciary committee and the full Senate.

Bribery investigation closed

That vetting process could be complicated by Lapointe’s friendship with another attorney, Andre Pierre, the former mayor of North Miami who was plagued by scandal during his tenure. 

A decade ago, Lapointe and Pierre were briefly investigated by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, the Herald has learned. The reason: An attorney for a major developer complained that Lapointe tried shaking him down for millions in exchange for help getting city council support for a massive retail-and-housing project in North Miami.

The previously unreported investigation fizzled within weeks with no charges filed. Lapointe himself said he was never even aware of it until provided records of the probe by the Miami Herald. 

“That’s just straight-up B.S.,” Lapointe said of the allegations in the interview with the Herald.

The complainant was Clifford Schulman, a well-known land-use attorney who was a partner with Miami’s Weiss Serota law firm. He was representing Michael Swerdlow, a prominent developer who was trying to build Biscayne Landing, a major mixed-use residential, retail and office project. 

But in March 2012, the council unexpectedly rejected the proposed lease deal on the city-owned 183-acre property — and Pierre voted no, without explaining why.

Days later, Lapointe — who was not involved in the negotiations with the city — called Schulman and they wound up meeting twice. Schulman would later tell police investigators that Lapointe offered to become a community “partner” to help get the deal done, with a total price tag of $5 million, part of it to be paid after the final vote.

Lapointe, in an interview, bristled at the claim. He acknowledged that he reached out to Schulman and they met, but said he was simply trying to land legitimate legal business for his firm, Boies, Schiller — although Lapointe could not explain why, in one email, he instructed Schulman not to use his law firm email and instead communicate to his personal account.

Lapointe insisted he never floated a dollar amount, and suggested Schulman was simply upset because he’d told him his legal fees would be upward of $1,000 an hour, the standard rate at Boies, Schiller. 

Lapointe also said he never discussed Biscayne Landing, or the possibility of working with Swerdlow’s team, with his friend Pierre. Still, cellphone records, subpoenaed by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office and included in the case file, show the two communicated extensively during this period.

Details of the investigation, including Lapointe’s phone records along with text and email messages, were contained in the state’s case file. The Miami Herald obtained them through a public records request. An “origination memo” indicated that Lapointe and Pierre were investigated on suspicion of bribery and unlawful compensation.

Schulman declined to speak in detail with the Miami Herald, although he acknowledged bringing the complaint to the attention of state prosecutors. The probe fizzled after Schulman stopped cooperating with prosecutors. 

Schulman’s attorney in the matter, David Rothman, also declined to comment.

Swerdlow, the developer, said he’d never met Lapointe and didn’t know who he was back then. But he recalled Schulman going to the State Attorney’s Office after he had met with the lawyer. “I just remember Cliff came to talk to me, and he was very upset about it,” Swerdlow said.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, in an interview on Thursday, stressed that Schulman “abandoned” his complaint and the investigation was “unsubstantiated.” Fernandez Rundle acknowledged that Lapointe reached out to her after learning about the probe from the Herald “because he didn’t know anything about the investigation.”

Fernandez Rundle, a Democrat and the county’s state attorney since 1993, said she spoke to the FBI and the White House about the decade-old investigation.

“Mark Lapointe would make an excellent U.S. attorney. He is honest and fair,” she said, adding: “I think it’s completely unfair to hold [the complaint] against him 10 years later. I continue to support him because of his qualifications.”

It is unclear whether the decade-old state attorney’s short-lived investigation would harm Lapointe’s nomination for U.S. attorney in Miami.

The state attorney’s probe was unknown to either of the two Republican and Democratic congressional nominating committees that vetted Lapointe before recommending him and a few other finalists for the U.S. attorney’s post last year.

In addition to nominating Lapointe, Biden picked Roger Handberg to serve as the U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Florida, which includes Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville, as well as a third nominee for U.S. attorney in North Dakota.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL, said in a statement that he was a supporter of Lapointe for the position as early as February 2021.

“The president made the right decision by naming Markenzy Lapointe and Roger Handberg to these important positions,” Rubio said. “They have served their communities and country with distinction, and I expect both will respect the Constitution and uphold the rule of law without fear or favor.”

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat, said she was also an early supporter of Lapointe’s nomination as U.S. attorney.

“After two years of interim leadership, this appointment will finally install a tenured and tried attorney to lead the agency with a clear vision,” Wilson said in a statement. “He is a home-grown, community-focused, and experienced attorney. ... This is an important step toward repairing the trust between our criminal justice system and the community it serves.”

If Lapointe’s appointment stalls for any reason, Biden could choose one of the three other finalists who were recommended by the Democratic and Republicancongressional groups that reviewed candidates in the Southern District of Florida. They are Jacqueline Arango, a former federal prosecutor with the Akerman Senterfitt law firm; Andres Rivero, a former federal prosecutor who heads his own law firm; and Michael Hantman, a former assistant state attorney general and longtime civil litigator with the Holland & Knight law firm in Miami.

If Lapointe is confirmed by the Senate, he would replace U.S. Attorney Tony Gonzalez, who took over the position after Trump-nominee Ariana Fajardo Orshan stepped down in March 2021, following Donald Trump’s loss to Biden in the presidential election.