She's put some notorious drug dealers and murderers in prison. But the new U.S. Attorney, in a district from Tampa to Naples, also brings no-knee-jerk decision-making to her job.
Maria Chapa Lopez sat down in a Washington, D.C., boardroom last fall opposite two of the highest-ranking law enforcement officers in the country, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
While the names Sessions and Rosenstein, in national political news, are synonymous with alleged Russian election tampering and special prosecutors, Chapa Lopez was there for something else: a job interview.
A longtime federal prosecutor, Chapa Lopez was a candidate to be named interim U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida. With a headquarters office in Tampa, the district is a wide-ranging territory that covers 35 counties from Jacksonville to Naples. Chapa Lopez brought some high-profile, past-case experience to the interview.
One big case early in her career: She prosecuted 12 U.S. Army drill sergeants in a sexual assault case in Maryland in 1996, when she was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps. In 2006, Chapa Lopez was lead prosecutor for the case, and ultimate conviction, against Joaquin Mario Valencia-Trujillo, who authorities considered a top Cali drug cartel kingpin. And, more recently, Chapa Lopez was part of the team that handled the case against Mexican drug cartel members who ambushed and killed an Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent in 2011. A federal jury convicted two members of that gang, the Los Zetas cartel, last year.
The U.S. Attorney position was open, meanwhile, because Sessions had asked for the resignations of 46 top federal prosecutors, holdovers from the Obama Administration. The list included A. Lee Bentley III, who had run the Middle District.
In a key career lesson, Chapa Lopez says she over-prepared for the interview. She had reams of paper, filled with questions and answers to questions she thought Sessions and Rosenstein might ask. “I wanted to be ready for everything,” says Chapa Lopez.
Sessions went first, followed by Rosenstein. The interview was congenial, says Lopez — and quick. They asked her mostly why questions, such as why she's so passionate about fighting drug cases and why seeing justice for underdogs is important to her. They asked her why, and how, in 15 years of prosecuting criminals, when she was an assistant U.S. Attorney from 2000 to 2015, she never got disillusioned or cynical. The interview was so fast, actually, Chapa Lopez barely touched her notes.
A week before Christmas, Chapa Lopez, then in Mexico, where she was the U.S. Department of Justice Attache for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, received the call of a lifetime. She was being named Interim U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida. She's the first Hispanic woman, in any of the country's 93 districts, to be named U.S. Attorney. “I was honored,” says Lopez. 59. “I was overwhelmed.”
Sessions, in a Jan. 3 statement announcing the hire, cited Chapa Lopez' well-regarded work in a variety of drug cases. “Maria Chapa Lopez has secured convictions of Columbian cocaine smugglers, Tampa crack dealers and doctors and pharmacists overprescribing and illegally dispensing opioids,” Sessions said in the statement. “This is incredible work, and I am convinced it has saved lives. She will undoubtedly keep up this good work as Interim U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida.”
Up next: Chapa Lopez is up to be named permanent U.S. Attorney for the district, a process requiring full U.S. Senate approval.
Chapa Lopez's appointment to many in the Tampa legal community, from judges to attorneys who sat across the courtroom from her in criminal cases, proves that nice people can win, too. Repeat words people use to describe Chapa Lopez include nice, kind-hearted, diplomatic and humble — not always the words used to describe a powerful prosecutor.
And she never interrupts others when they are speaking, says Tampa criminal defense and personal injury attorney Andres Oliveros, who is friends with Chapa Lopez through the Tampa Hispanic Bar Association. “She's always cool, calm and collected,” says Oliveros, who also once represented a defendant Chapa Lopez prosecuted. “And you can rely on her word. When she says she's going to do something, she's going to do it.”
Former U.S. Attorney for the Middle District Donna Bucella, who hired Chapa Lopez as an assistant U.S. Attorney in 2000, says more than being liked, people respect Chapa Lopez. “And don't confuse being nice with being easy,” says Bucella. “She was never a pushover.”
U.S. Middle District Federal Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington, who worked with Chapa Lopez in the early 2000s at the U.S. Attorneys office, says her onetime colleague has an unheralded, but vital intangible: compassion. “She has an instinct on when to show mercy to defendants because of circumstances,” says Covington. “And not every prosecutor has that.”
Born in Chicago and raised there and in Texas, Chapa Lopez says as a young girl she was the type of chatty kid whose mom told her she would be an attorney someday. Her parents, who are from Mexico and didn't have more than a sixth-grade education, are some of what has driven and motivated Chapa Lopez in her career.
Chapa Lopez earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas and her J.D. from the South Texas College of Law. First as a defense attorney and then a prosecutor, Chapa Lopez got thrown all kinds of cases in the JAG Corps. In many of those early cases, says Chapa Lopez, she learned lessons that guide her philosophy today.
In the Aberdeen Proving Ground case, for instance, on the Maryland Army base, 12 drill instructors faced charges in a highly publicized, far-reaching sex abuse scandal. The notoriety of the case, including a captain and sergeant who faced rape charges, only added to the complexity.
That case taught Chapa Lopez patience — not to mention the ability to stand by unpopular decisions. “You can't just go do a bunch of court-martials,” says Chapa Lopez, despite what some people outside the system might have wanted. “You have to know all the facts first. You can't be knee-jerk.”
Go for it
Chapa Lopez took that attitude to her most recent work prior to the interim U.S. Attorney appointment. While working in Mexico City, using her bilingual skills daily, Chapa Lopez worked to connect leaders with the U.S and Mexico on common drug war goals.
Last spring, when Chapa Lopez heard that Bentley was leaving the office, she asked past U.S. Attorneys who they thought would get the job. More than curious, Chapa Lopez planned to return to the office as a prosecutor after her two-year Mexico City gig. She wanted to know who her next boss would be.
Those former U.S Attorneys — Bobby O'Neill, Brian Albritton and Donna Bucella among them — all encouraged Chapa Lopez to apply for the position. Those attorneys have since been a sounding board for Chapa Lopez while she navigates her first 100 days on the job.
Like some of them did when they first started, Chapa Lopez has gone on a districtwide listening tour, to hear concerns in the field, and places for improvement. She's getting to know leadership contemporaries in law enforcement, such as new Tampa agents in charge of the area FBI, DEA and ATF offices. She has also met with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, where part of the conversation focused on opioids — a topic on the minds of many in law enforcement and government.
“Our district has been really hit hard by the opioid crisis,” says Chapa Lopez. “I will use every tool at our disposal to work these cases. A goal of mine is to eradicate this as much as I can.”
Defeating the opioids crisis, much like previous drug war cases Chapa Lopez prosecuted, has something of a drain-the-ocean with a teaspoon vibe to it.
But Chapa Lopez is undeterred.
“She doesn't look for short wins or instant gratification,” says Bucella. “She's in this for the long-haul, and she's not done yet. There's a lot more left she can do.”
Arts and crafts
Interim U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez likes to relieve the tension from her high profile, and often high-pressure, job with several artistic pursuits.
She loves going to art fairs, such as the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, held in early March in downtown Tampa. She went to art festivals often when she worked in Mexico City, too.
Chapa Lopez also has another unique hobby: She makes her own jewelry. “It's my relaxing thing to do,” she says “That's something I really love to do to take away stress.”