Bill Powell – US Attorney

Article By: Bonnie Williamson
Photos By: Josh Triggs

William J. Powell has only held the office a few months, but he’s already traveling throughout West Virginia on a daily basis and loving it. It’s a lot of hard work, but he says he is more than ready to take it on.

Powell has the distinction of being appointed as the United States Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia. He was nominated by President Donald Trump on August 3, 2017 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on October 3, 2017. He is the top-ranking federal law enforcement official in the Northern District, which includes offices in Martinsburg, Wheeling, Clarksburg and Elkins. Not an easy commute. Traveling from Martinsburg to Wheeling alone can take more than four hours.

Powell has a staff of 50 employees. The district office is responsible for prosecuting federal crimes in the district, including crimes related to terrorism, public corruption, child exploitation, firearms, and narcotics. The office also defends the United States in civil cases and collects debts owed to the United States. Powell adds that administration is a big part of the job.

“I go from east to west in the state. I want to have constant communication between federal, local and state law enforcement,” Powell says. “I’m a big believer in the team approach. I want to make sure our offices are run correctly and doing everything we need to do. ”

Topping Powell’s list of the challenges facing West Virginia are the current opioid epidemic and violent crime.

“The use of opioids is significant,” Powell says. “I said in my acceptance speech that we can’t incarcerate our way out of the opioid problem. Violent crime and guns go hand in hand with the problem. People get involved with crime to support their habit.”

Powell says more money is needed throughout the district to create additional drug rehabilitation centers.

In the area of possible violent crime, people who shouldn’t have guns can get them through what’s called “straw purchases” or one person buying a gun for someone else. This practice is a federal offense. Powell’s office also handles cases where a deported immigrant comes back into the country and commits crimes. Depending on the circumstances, this illegal activity could ultimately become terrorism.

“We don’t make policy. We leave that to other folks,” Powell says.

Powell’s new job does cover a wide territory, not only from a geographical standpoint but also the responsibilities that come with it. However, his distinguished background gives him plenty of experience to handle the job. He has been involved with the law for 32 years. Some of that experience includes serving as the Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Jefferson County, WV; positions as a member attorney at Jackson Kelly, PLLC, Martinsburg, WV; past Assistant United States Attorney in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia; past president of the West Virginia Bar Association; and a former member of the Board of Governors for the West Virginia State Bar.

Becoming United States Attorney for the Northern District of West

Virginia was a long and potentially intimidating process. Powell received endorsements from U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin, both of whom represent West Virginia. Powell had multiple interviews and background checks.
“I approached Senator Capito. I said I was interested in the job and the process started. I was relaxed though,” Powell says. “I know who I am and what I’ve done. I was inspired and excited for the opportunity.”

Not bad for a kid from New York who had never met a lawyer nor wanted to be one until his college years. Currently a Martinsburg native, Powell was born in Manhasset, N.Y. in 1960 and raised in New York City.

“My dad was a mechanic and my mom worked in the post office,” he says. “We were lower middle class.

We just didn’t travel in the same circles as lawyers or people who had lawyers.”

New York City was anything but a peaceful environment when Powell was growing up.

“At the time in the 1970s, crime was rampant in New York City,” Powell says. “There were things going on like the Son of Sam killings.”

David Richard Berkowitz, known also as the Son of Sam, is an American serial killer who pled guilty to eight separate shooting attacks that began in New York City during the summer of 1976. He killed six people and wounded seven others by July 1977.

Powell experienced life out of the city when he went to Boy Scout camp.
“I saw a different part of the country for the first time. I loved every minute of it,” Powell says. “When I decided to go to college in Salem, West Virginia, my family was stunned.”

Powell graduated from Salem College, now Salem International University, in 1982, the first in his family to earn a college degree. He also met his future wife Sharon. She went on to Pittsburgh to pursue her education.

“It was sort of an odd set of circumstances after I graduated,” Powell says. “I had three options: the military, getting my master’s degree in public administration or going to law school. I decided to go to the West Virginia College of Law in Morgantown.” [Morgantown is not that far from Pittsburgh].

Powell says he had always done well in college but was intimidated at first by law school.

His first professor at law school taught by the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method, named after the Greek philosopher Socrates, is defined as a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.

“You had to stand up the whole time while answering questions. It went way beyond anything I had experienced before. It was eye opening,” Powell says.

Powel says law school was hard work. It gave him a deep appreciation for how tough a career in law could be. He eventually received his graduated degree in law in 1985. He also married Sharon. They have been married 31 years and have three sons. His sons have not pursued careers in law.

“They’re following their own paths,” Powell says.

Concerning young people who do become lawyers, Powell says having a mentor can have a positive impact on their careers and make them better lawyers.

“So much of the game is listening. Say fewer things. One thing young lawyers must do is listen. Too often they are thinking of what the next question will be during the trial. They don’t listen carefully to witnesses, other attorneys or the judge,” Powell says.

When asked what he thinks about how the judicial system is portrayed on television in such series as Law and Order, Powell laughs.

“It’s not that theatrical,” he says. “Many questions they ask witnesses aren’t appropriate. They would never get away with that in a real trial. Also, you don’t get the results of scientific tests for eight or
nine months.”

Powell says despite the demands of his new job he considers it “the pinnacle” of his legal career. In addition, he continues to love the style of living in the country epitomized by West Virginia.

“It’s a great place to raise a family. People really appreciate what they have here,” he says.

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