Standing in a room filled with city and county officials, business executives and other community leaders at the 1818 Club, U.S. Attorney BJay Pak smiles as Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce members approach him, hands outstretched.
Though Pak knows a number of those attending the Chamber’s On Topic luncheon, even to those he doesn’t know, the chief federal prosecutor for the Northern District of Georgia is warm and friendly, an approachable figure.
As Pak begins his presentation, starting with an overview of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, his genial attitude continues when he cracks a joke, though it quickly becomes clear why Pak was appointed U.S. Attorney: the man knows his stuff.
“BJay’s skillful leadership and superb judgment will lead the office to even greater accomplishments,” Pak’s predecessor, John Horn, predicted of the man in 2017. “(He will) safeguard the tradition of honor and integrity firmly established by those who served in this office before us.”
Nominated by President Donald Trump for the position in July 2017 and confirmed by the Senate in October of that year, Pak is coming up on almost two years as U.S. Attorney.
While he said he’s tackled a number of issues in that time — he made no claims, however, that he’s found a fix-all solution for the “surging opioid crisis” or the recent upward trend in violent crime that he walked into when assuming the role — there’s much more to be done, he said.
But he has plans.
‘Hold yourself accountable’When Pak took office, one of his first tasks, and one he said feels he’s accomplished, was to repair the relationship between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement.
“Because of some of the disagreements with the prior administration’s enforcement policies, the relationship with state and local (law enforcement) was a little bit strained; we had kind of restricted the cases we would accept for prosecution,” Pak said. “I opened that up and really focused on rebuilding the trust with our office. Eighty percent of law enforcement is state and local, and we can’t do this alone.”
Pak has apparently succeeded in his trust-building mission; in addition to Suwanee Police Chief Mike Jones and Deputy Chief Cass Mooney’s attendance at Wednesday’s Chamber luncheon, several other departments sent representatives.
Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Lou Solis and Sheriff Butch Conway also attended, with the Sheriff, who freely admits he rarely speaks at events, commending Pak for his work.
“You’ve done a great job BJay, and we’ve been pleased to work with you,” Conway said. “I want everybody in this room to know BJay has done a really, really good job.”
That job has extended beyond just rebuilding the relationship with local law enforcement, though, Pak said.
“I came in with a surging opioid addiction crisis, and we’ve devoted a lot of resources — not just enforcement — on how to curb the opioid abuses,” he said. “We’ve actually taken a three-pronged approach to solve this. (The first) is, we’ve got to stop people from getting addicted in the first place. One of the drivers of that was, of course, the abundance of pain pills we have on the street, legitimately and illegitimately.”
So far, data shows promising results: since alerting doctors to the Department of Justice’s opioid crackdown, both the number of prescriptions being issued and the medication dosage doctors prescribe are decreasing, Pak said.
“Preliminary data shows the things that we’re doing ... taking down pill mills, prosecuting drug traffickers, (is working),” Pak said. “It looks like we’re seeing double-digit decrease deaths in overdose deaths this year; that means our efforts are contributing to that.”
It’s not just the opioid crisis Pak had to tackle when he took office, however; for the last two decades, violent crime had been decreasing, though from 2015 to 2016, it “ticked up significantly,” he said.
“The Attorney General and the U.S. Attorneys got together and said, ‘We’ve got to come up with a new way to battle this,’” Pak said. “We re-launched a program called Project Safe Neighborhoods that collaborates with state and local (law enforcement) to use data to focus our resources on the areas that really need enforcement, either geographically or a certain number of defendants. It’s (often) a small number of defendants that cause a vast amount of violent crime in a particular area.”
That initiative is well underway, though it’s not immediately clear if there have been any numbers yet showing how well Project Safe Neighborhoods is working.
Pak said that’s something he relies heavily on, though, to gauge progress on any one issue: numbers.
“I like data; I collect a lot of data, I track a lot of data, because how else are you going to see, how else are you going to hold yourself accountable for, your efforts?” he said. “For example, we could prosecute people all day long, but are we really maximizing our resources? It’s better to be more focused by using data and take the worst of the worst off the street, rather than locking people up for a long time. We’re being very smart about the use of our resources.”
The future of crime
In spite of Pak’s successes thus far, there’s a lot more to tackle, he said.
“Going forward, I’d like to focus a little bit more on a couple things; specifically, I’d like to wrap up our public corruption enforcement actions (in the city of Atlanta),” Pak said. “We’re also rolling out the elder justice initiative — we are focusing on crimes that target the elderly, not just here, but internationally — and we’re also focusing on the dark net, the cryptocurrency world. I think that’s where crime is headed, so we’re trying to meet that challenge.”
On the dark net, which is accessible to anyone, a person can find almost anything, Pak said — including drugs and sex.
Because of the way the dark net is set up, however — buyers and sellers can purchase or sell anything from practically anywhere in the world, simply by accessing the internet — it presents a unique challenge for law enforcement to crack down on.
And, Pak said, even when one site is shut down, such as the well-known Backpage.com, which the federal government shut down in April 2018, more pop up.
“When you shut down a large marketplace, it’s like whack-a-mole — we have more popping up,” Pak said. “(Those) have new technologies and new avatars and new encryption, so law enforcement has a great challenge in battling these things.”
All hope is not lost, though, Pak said; through community partnerships, the dark web issue, and others, can be tackled.
“We need the private sector, local governments and average citizens to be smart and not to become a victim of these crimes,” Pak said. “I personally think we need to enforce, and not just on the supply side with human trafficking, for example, but we need to start focusing on the people who purchase this type of illicit product or illicit services.”
That starts by forming those local partnerships, though, Pak said.
“It’s not just my job, but it’s all of our jobs to make sure our communities are kept safe and kept prosperous, as they have been for many, many decades,” Pak said.