Opioid crisis: a fight on three fronts, new US attorney tells AJC

Byung “BJay” Pak was a state legislator from Gwinnett County before President Trump named him U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia last fall. Pak previously worked in the U.S. attorney’s office from 2002 to 2008 during the time that corruption charges were brought against former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.

AJC reporters J. Scott Trubey and Dan Klepal interviewed Pak in his office Jan. 24. Here are the highlights, edited for clarity and length:

QAttorney General Sessions brought about a new policy as it relates to marijuana enforcement. How will that affect those in Georgia who have been prescribed cannabis oil for medical treatment?

A: It really hasn’t changed in the sense that the Attorney General’s memo…gave us discretion to efficiently use our resources that best fits our district. We target traffickers, people who commit violent crime and trafficking crimes. Mostly Mexican or South American traffickers in the district. We don’t have the resources nor can I foresee us enforcing (marijuana laws) particularly against people who are authorized by state law. As for trafficking marijuana in large quantities and other activities related to that, I think it is fair game.

QA lot of states are putting more emphasis on opioid crisis. Describe your office’s role in terms of addressing this crisis.

A: I’ve directed the AUSAs in our office to focus now on fighting the supply side.

We want to get at the suppliers, where is it coming from, who’s dealing it and how do we best investigate and prosecute them to justice and to prevent or at least fight against the influx of opioids.

When I talk about opioids, there’s actually three tranches of it.

You have obviously the legal prescribers of opioids — the oxycontin and hydrocodone — the doctors and pharmacists.

We prosecute a lot of folks who, without medical necessity, either sell their prescription pad, or dispense medicines — and bypass the checks and balances of the system — to get drugs to dealers and potential addicts.

The second tranche is synthetics: fentanyl, Carfentanil. Our data shows that people dying of fentanyl overdose has exceeded the number of people dying from methamphetamine overdose. That tells you that this is a fast, fast increasing trend.

In order to gain investigative leads we can ask family members to get access to their phones.

People who are revived through the use of Narcan. Not every single person is taken to the hospital. A lot of times they don’t want to go. So, we don’t have an interface with them in the hospital.

Or even if they do want to talk, the federal government does not have enough resources to work the cases from the ground up. We need the help of our state and local partners. Right now, it’s very, very difficult to get those simple (opioid) possession cases, those simple use cases, to get them to cooperate, to get them to work up the intelligence to a level we like.

The third tranche would be heroin.

And heroin goes right back to the Mexican drug traffickers.

In our district we have every single Mexican cartel active in this district. We have their cells operating right here in the metro Atlanta area.

Breaking that chain is very important and you have to fight it on all three fronts.

Q: Public corruption is another big part of your office. In one interview, you said that priority is not just in Atlanta but throughout your district. Did you mean state government as well as local government?

A: That is correct. All levels.

We restructured the office and we bulked up the public corruption unit.

We do get leads all the time related to certain self-dealing and related to certain activities by elected officials or public officials under the color of law. They run the gamut from things like extortion from an elected official, or self-dealing like voting on contracts that benefit their businesses without disclosing the conflict or lying about it.

We are putting a renewed emphasis on public corruption throughout the district, not just Atlanta.

Q:The city of Atlanta in October turned over 1.9 million pages of documents related to contractors Mitchell and Richards who are now in prison for paying bribes. Is it unusual to still be receiving documents 18 months after you’ve issued a subpoena, and after the subjects of the subpoena are in prison?

A: But you are forgetting, it’s still an ongoing investigation. It’s not just about Mitchell’s case. The case is ongoing. It could be related to all kinds of things, other than just Mitchell.

Q:Your top corruption prosecutor, Jeff Davis, called corruption in Atlanta prolific. How would you characterize corruption in the city of Atlanta?

A: I think it was a fair characterization. I stand by his comments.

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