U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly reflects on 20 years of service, will depart in October at White House request

NEW HAVEN — On the wall behind Deirdre Daly’s desk hangs a photo of the her smiling in vivid color with President Barack Obama. On the next wall is a presidential meeting in black and white, President Harry Truman awarding her father the Medal of Honor more than half a century earlier.

The New Haven office will remain U.S. Attorney Daly’s until the end of October. She is among a handful of the 46 Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys temporarily staying on the job after President Donald Trump demanded they resign immediately last Friday. For Daly, a nearly lifelong Fairfield resident and U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut since 2014, the postponement allows her to complete 20 years of Department of Justice service, making her eligible for federal retirement benefits.

“I’m very grateful for the fact that I am able to stay,” Daly said. “If I’d have to have left on short notice on Friday, that would have been very abrupt and disruptive to an orderly transition, so I’m happy to be able to be here for six more months, and I’m confident that there’s a lot I and the office can accomplish during that time. I’ll be all in until I leave at the end of October.”

Daly’s counterpart in northern New York was granted additional time on the same grounds, though dozens of attorneys swiftly resigned last week and Trump fired Manhattan’s Preet Bharara after his refusal to step down. When a new administration takes over, the president generally asks chief federal prosecutors to resign but Daly specified what was unusual about Trump’s request was his lack of notice, alerting many attorneys the same day that was meant to be their last.

Daly’s next step is far from her mind, her focus is still on the job she called “demanding and all-consuming.” She hopes prioritization of combatting violent crime in inner cities, outreach efforts and focus on vulnerable victims — including child victims of human trafficking, elderly victims of investor scams and the environment — will be her legacy.

“The greatest part of this job is that you have an opportunity to do some good for other people, to try to improve the quality of their lives, and at heart I hope that’s what I’m remembered for,” Daly said.

Connecticut’s 51st U.S. Attorney

Connecticut’s U.S. attorney’s office is among the nation’s oldest, its first chief appointed by President George Washington in 1789. It was 225 years and 50 attorneys later, in 2014, that Daly became the first woman to be nominated for the job as well as the first to be confirmed.

“One of the things I find is that I give speeches once in a while and people always respond — men, women, old, young — when I say that I’m the first woman,” she said. “People are very encouraged by that because I think women and men — who have daughters and wives and mothers and sisters — think, there’s opportunity.”

But Daly often found herself in male-dominated sectors of the professional world and often, she believes, benefiting from others’ desire to promote or hire a woman. She graduated from Dartmouth College in 1981, just under a decade after the New Hampshire college began admitting women but when its student body was still predominantly male. She recalls mostly male law school classmates at the Georgetown University Law Center.

At 26, she became a federal prosecutor in New York, again working with mostly men. For a time she worked privately at a small Southport-based firm in criminal defense, a field that remains male-dominated, before returning to public service when former U.S. Attorney David Fein was appointed by Obama in Connecticut and asked Daly to serve as his First Assistant.

She was part of two major cases: a police brutality case against several East Haven officers and arson trial against a New Haven drug dealer who set a fire that killed a child and two women. After those convictions, Daly felt ready to return to private practice, but then Fein stepped down in 2013 and she became the office’s acting chief.

“Life is full of fortuity and timing and luck,” she said. After an interview and confirmation process, Daly shed the interim before her title.

Working under the Obama administration, Daly rolled out its Smart on Crime Initiative focusing on the most dangerous offenders and engaged in community outreach — to assuage tension between police departments and communities of color, to combat the opioid epidemic and to reach vulnerable communities through partnerships with Arab, Muslim, Sikh, African American and LGBT community leaders. She also continued Project Longevity, a deterrence effort to combat gun violence.

But in her final months under a new administration, priorities could slightly shift. The Department of Justice sets national priorities for prosecutors though each office has the discretion to identify top needs in its district. Civil rights groups have cautioned Sessions against a Trump voter fraud probe and expressed concern for transgender rights.

“We will generally follow the priorities that they have, but we also have independence and discretion and resources to make our own priorities based on what we find here,” Daly said. On civil rights, for example, there may be less support from the justice department, she said, but the Connecticut office would still have a trained and experienced contingent of civil rights lawyers that would continue outreach and bringing cases when the facts support them.

Trump’s immigration crackdown could result in justice changes, but whether Sessions will shift focus in that direction remains unknown. There could be more deportations that could involve the civil division, and while the office has historically brought cases against convicted felons that re-enter the country without legal means, there could potentially be a push to try more illegal re-entry cases, Daly said.

She would follow a directive, in the context of her 65-lawyer staff, limited resources, and top priorities, including combatting terrorism and violent crime.

“It would have to be woven into everything else we have to get done,” Daly said.

Fairfield’s Daly family

Throughout the course of Daly’s life and career, she has not wandered far from Fairfield. Born in Ireland while her parents briefly lived abroad, she was raised in town from age one on, attending public schools Timothy Dwight Elementary School and Tomlinson Middle School before enrolling at Greens Farms Academy in Westport.

She left town for college, law school, a clerkship in New York and more than a decade as an Assistant District Attorney for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan then leadership of the White Plains branch. Ready for a change, she went into private practice focusing on white collar criminal defense at Daly & Pavlis LLC, a Southport firm she opened with her husband.

The couple has lived in town for the past 35 years, recently moving into Daly’s childhood home. Their three sons went to Dwight, following the legacy of their mother and grandfather, and now one is in law school, one law school bound and one teaching in Brooklyn.

“I come from a Fairfield family that has a long history of public service,” Daly said. Her grandfather grew up a half-mile from where she now resides, where the colonel who served in both world wars raised his family on a farm. Her uncle served as a federal judge in Connecticut.

Her father, Michael Daly, was awarded the Medal of Honor after he ventured ahead of his company in Nuremberg, protecting the men he led and killing 15 Germans in April of 1945 as the Allies converged on Germany and achieved victory in the Second World War.

He was 19 years old, survived a severe head wound sustained during the war and was draped in the military’s highest decoration by Truman as immortalized in the photo on Daly’s office wall. Returning to the town where he would eventually raise his children, Michael Daly was greeted by a crowd of hundreds at the train station and a parade in his honor.

“That’s very sweet,” Daly said of her father’s homecoming. For her family and Fairfield, she added, “There’s a lot of history.”

lweiss@hearstmediact.com; @LauraEWeiss16