He loves Bruce Springsteen and makes a mean bowl of chili, but Andy Luger’s real claim to fame is what he just became: U.S. attorney for the state of Minnesota.
Luger’s confirmation by the U.S. Senate Wednesday makes him arguably the most powerful federal law enforcement official in the state. He replaces B. Todd Jones, who became director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in August.
“My parents instilled in me a commitment to justice,” Luger said Thursday. “I am excited to take on a position that allows me to work with an office of talented professionals to fulfill that commitment.”
A New Jersey transplant, Luger grew up across the bridge from Manhattan, and he has a New Yorker’s style that can be both deadly serious and disarmingly personal. He is well-known in Twin Cities legal and DFL Party circles, but has been mostly out of the public eye since a stinging loss to Mike Freeman in the 2006 race for Hennepin County attorney.
Political observers said Luger was shaken. He’d run a well-organized campaign, secured the DFL endorsement and was confident he’d win. He never saw the Freeman landslide coming.
“I did not expect the result,” he said, but after a couple of weeks he says he got over it. He and his wife, Ellen, sent out a holiday card that winter, picturing the family in a convertible with a headline that said, “We had a great ride.”
After that he turned down appeals to run for the state Senate and House of Representatives. He said no to a run for Congress in the Third District in 2008 when there was no incumbent.
Instead, he set his sights on the U.S. attorney’s office and waited for his chance.
U.S. attorney positions are wrapped up in politics, nominated by the president, recommended by the highest ranking elected state official from the president’s party, in this case Sen. Amy Klobuchar. She and Sen. Al Franken created a bipartisan advisory committee that recommended Luger, but he had the inside track from the start, says one insider.
Luger will supervise 55 attorneys who prosecute white-collar crimes including tax evasion and international terrorism, as well as drug violations and crimes with exclusive federal jurisdiction such as bank robberies and crimes on Indian reservations.
Luger brings experience in white-collar crime, both as a prosecutor and a defense attorney. He also will be a regular presence in the office, which has not had a full-time U.S. attorney for two years, when B. Todd Jones began splitting his time between Minneapolis and the ATF in Washington.
“People are very excited because he will be full time,” said one assistant U.S. attorney. “He has indicated he is not running for higher office, he just wants to be U.S. attorney.”
Twin Cities power couple
In the days before Super Bowl Sunday, Luger got to work in his kitchen in Minneapolis. He and Ellen host a gameday chili feed every year that draws big political names and old friends. About 80 people showed up for the latest one, for which Luger cooked up three large pots of chili — regular, spicy and vegetarian.
It’s one example of the busy social life led by one of the Twin Cities’ power couples. Ellen Luger is executive director of the General Mills Foundation and a vice president of the company.
They met at Georgetown Law Center in Washington, D.C. When they became engaged, college classmate David MacLennan, now president and CEO of Cargill, said he smirked at the irony of Luger marrying an Edina woman. MacLennan had grown up in Edina and said Luger used to make fun of his hometown’s wealthy reputation.
Football captain, fan of the Boss
The youngest of three children from a middle-class family, Luger grew up in Cresskill, N.J. That may help explain his obsession with New Jersey singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen. He has attended about 70 Springsteen concerts.
Luger was captain of his high school football team and delivered pizza as a part-time job, according to his sister, Lorraine Luger, of Waterbury, Conn. He went off to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he earned high academic honors and a reputation for getting involved in causes.
“He was a real firebrand,” recalls Noah Gotbaum, a close friend since college. “He was always an activist and always involved in social justice.”
Luger protested construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire in the late 1970s. He helped organize some “No Nuke” concerts in New York City and opposed Amherst’s investments in South Africa during the apartheid era.
“We’d make fun of him,” said MacLennan, asking him, ‘Where are you going to go to protest today?’ ”
Luger started his career at a law firm in New York, then went to the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn in 1989. One of his first cases was a $700 million tax evasion case, called the largest money-laundering scheme not linked to drugs broken up in the United States. In another, he successfully prosecuted the owners of a Long Island pet cemetery who had given grieving pet owners ashes that were not their pet’s.
“From the day Andy walked into the door in Brooklyn, he was a star,” said Jeffrey Toobin, former assistant U.S. attorney there, now a legal analyst for CNN and the New Yorker. “In terms of his investigative and trial skills, he accomplished things that lawyers at his level did not do.”
In 1992, Luger became an assistant U.S. attorney in Minneapolis, where he won the conviction of Gary Lefkowitz, a developer of low-income housing, for masterminding a $120 million fraud scheme, the largest in the country at that time.
“He was tenacious,” said IRS special agent Lora Tebesch, recalling how Luger would sit on his office floor poring over documents. “He wouldn’t quit.”
Grateful white-collar criminal
Luger went into private practice in 1995, working for Greene Espel, where he put his prosecutorial skills to use defending individuals facing big white-collar criminal charges, according to David Wallace-Jackson, a partner in the firm. “People come to watch when he is courtroom,” said Wallace-Jackson.
Luger and Wallace-Jackson represented James Wehmhoff, tax accountant for Tom Petters in the $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme that is now the largest fraud in the state. Wehmoff became a cooperating witness and was one of only two people indicted in the case to avoid prison, serving one year of home detention.
“He was a great lawyer,” said Wehmoff. “He was always up front me with me. He had a very good rapport with the U.S. attorney’s office.”
Even in private practice, Luger kept his hand in public affairs. In 2009, state Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion asked Luger to help investigate the Metro Gang Strike Force, a police unit accused of misappropriating funds. Luger and retired FBI agent John Egelhof found that some Strike Force members were taking confiscated items for their own use.
Luger was outraged, said Egelhof. “He knows and is friends with a lot of police and is well respected, and he got a view of the real negative side of policing and it shocked him.”
The two men issued a scathing report. “He didn’t hold back,” says Campion. “He did a very good job. He played it right down the 50-yard line. … I’ve got a lot of respect for Andy Luger.”
Luger will be sworn in by U.S. Chief District Judge Michael Davis at 2 p.m. next Friday at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis.