Someone you should know: Stephen R. Wigginton, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois
He once chased down a man who attempted to steal his staffer’s wallet, took him to the ground, and sat on him until police officers arrived. This was right before the President of the United States nominated him to be United States Attorney. He has prosecuted criminals in both Missouri and Illinois. He has won multi-million dollar jury verdicts and settlements including the first jury verdict in the nation finding a Catholic Diocese liable for covering up childhood sexual abuse claims. While this may sound like a catchphrase for the “Most Interesting Man in the World,” it actually refers to Steve Wigginton, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois. And although Wigginton may not be the star of an advertising campaign like the “Most Interesting Man in the World,” he is definitely someone you should know.
Steve was born and raised in southern Illinois, growing up in East St. Louis, Cahokia and Troy. He went to undergrad at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) and attended Saint Louis University School of Law (SLU). Upon obtaining his law degree, Steve took a job with the May Department Stores Company’s Office of Legal Counsel (May), where he had clerked during law school. With May, Wigginton worked in four substantive legal areas: litigation, real estate, employment, and corporate law. While working in the litigation division, Steve became involved in a very high profile case against May brought by the Colorado Attorney General alleging May deceived the public by utilizing fraudulent comparison price advertising tactics. After being part of the trial team that successfully defended May, he knew that he wanted to focus his career on the court room.
Knowing that he could not accomplish that goal in-house, Wigginton took a 50 percent pay cut and joined the City of St. Louis’ Circuit Attorney’s Office as an Assistant Attorney-Felony Prosecutor. Steve said this was one of “the best decisions of his life.” Wigginton worked as a prosecutor for nearly two years during which time he had over a dozen jury trials. He returned to private practice when an opportunity to do white collar criminal defense and commercial litigation arose at Jenkins Kling & Sauerwein, P.C. in Clayton, Missouri. Steve continued to work in the private sector for approximately the next eight years – returning to Kassly Bone Becker Dix Reagan & Young in Belleville, Illinois, where he had also clerked in law school, and working as an associate for Becker, Paulson, Hoerner & Thompson PC in Belleville, a firm formed by several of the partners at Kassly Bone Becker Dix Reagan & Young after that firm reorganized.
In 1999, Steve fulfilled his desire of getting back to prosecuting when he became a part-time Madison County Assistant State’s Attorney for the felony division. Soon after, in November of 2000, Steve partnered with Mike Weilmuenster to form Weilmuenster & Wigginton PC, a general practice firm specializing in litigation, employment/labor, and municipal matters. Here Steve was able to have the “best of both worlds,” i.e., by serving in both the public and private sectors. Indeed, as an assistant state’s attorney, Wigginton handled roughly 60 to 70 active class three or four felony cases at any given time. At the same time, he was also able to gain the experience of operating and leading his own law firm. Among his important civil cases, he obtained the largest single verdict for an individual who suffered abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest.
After the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, Senator Dick Durbin sought to fill the vacancy that existed in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Illinois, which for several years had no Presidentially appointed and Senate confirmed United States Attorney. Senator Durbin formed a bipartisan committee consisting of labor, business leaders, attorneys and non-attorneys. Competing against a number of very qualified candidates in a multiple-interview process resulted in the committee selecting Steve as their choice for United States Attorney. In July of 2009, Senator Durbin called Steve and told him that his name had been sent to the White House as a candidate for United States Attorney.
This began a grueling nomination process that would last for approximately 14 months, until August of 2010 when Wigginton was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. The process involved interviews with numerous officials from the White House and the Department of Justice including an interview with Attorney General Eric Holder. It also involved an intensive background investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, examining every aspect of his life and, in Steve’s case, conducting more than 100 live interviews. But like everything difficult in life, Steve’s says that it was well worth the trouble. It was also during this time when Steve chased down the robbery suspect and held him for law enforcement.
It turns out the robber picked the wrong law office to target. When Steve heard his secretary yell that someone had run off with a staffer’s wallet, Steve and another lawyer at his firm chased the man down as he ran through backyards, tracking the man like a bounty hunter as the man trampled through the neighborhood. Eventually Steve came face to face to with the man and took him down. He then held him down until police arrived. The wallet was recovered nearby, and the man was charged with two counts of burglary. The man disputed the charges and a jury trial was held. Steve testified against the man at his trial, and he was convicted.
When asked how difficult it was to leave a lucrative law practice to work in the public sector, Steve indicated that being able “to do the right thing every day” and “to make a difference” for the area where he grew up made the decision easy. Steve advised that as United States Attorney he has had experiences, including meeting and working with the President and Attorney General, that more than make up for any loss in income. And Steve is certainly doing his part to make the most of his time as United States Attorney. In his two years in office, he has attended more than 350 community outreach meetings and has given more than one hundred presentations and speeches. In addition, his office is operating at the highest productivity in its history, bringing more cases and obtaining more convictions than ever before. Last year, his office broke all previous conviction records for the district, and the office has already exceeded last year’s record-breaking year by late October 2012. When asked about why he seems so urgent to do so much so quickly, Steve said that with this job you are like an NFL coach, the day you accept the job, you know your time is limited. Accordingly, Steve’s motto is that he tries to do as much as he can, while he can, every day that he can. Or as he once heard someone say, “You can ride the merry-go-around or a roller coaster.” Steve said riding a roller coaster is much more fun.
In addition, the United States Attorney is not the only one hard at work. The office is currently handling more cases than ever, despite having fewer resources. Indeed, Steve noted that this lack of resources, more specifically, the current hiring and wage freeze and the reduction in federal agents that has reduced the manpower needed to investigate, were the biggest challenges facing his office. Part of the reason why his office has been able to increase its caseload despite limited resources is because of the men and women who have accepted appointments as Special Assistant United States Attorneys (SAUSAs). Those SAUSAs have agreed to work for the office for a year without compensation. Steve said he has great admiration and respect for the attorneys who take those jobs and that he treats them the same as a full-time paid Assistant United States Attorneys. Steve indicated that while he cannot pay the SAUSAs, the one thing he can give them is great federal prosecutorial experience, one of the greatest assets a young attorney can acquire.
Steve has also brought private practice strategic planning to the United States Attorney’s Office, which involves analyzing the office’s strengths, resources and assets and allocating them in a focused manner to meet the challenges and threats in the district. Additionally, Steve believes that attorneys who represent plaintiffs, part of what he used to do, have a great deal in common with criminal prosecutors in that they are seeking justice for a victim, trying to right a wrong, and have the burden of persuasion.
Steve explained that one of the most difficult aspects of being United States Attorney is learning how to balance priorities among competing demands. For example, Steve has substantial violent crime-related cases, as well as fraud and corruption cases. He must determine which cases he wants to emphasize. Currently, Steve’s four highest initiatives are violent crime, public corruption, a heroin initiative, and protecting children. Specifically, with regard to violent crime, the United States Attorney said his office has focused on the East St. Louis/Washington Park areas through programs such as Project Safe Neighborhoods, a comprehensive, strategic approach to reducing gun violence in America. Steve’s heroin initiative, on the other hand, is one of the most aggressive in the nation, prosecuting drug dealers who illegally distribute drugs resulting in death. With regard to protecting children, his office is involved with Project Safe Childhood initiative, designed to reduce the number of children victimized by sex crimes. Steve believes that his office has the reputation of being aggressive and engages in real-time prosecution, meaning he does not file a 24-count indictment when a four count indictment will do. And while he is known to be aggressive, Steve indicated that he would rather have the title of the most admired United States Attorney’s office than the toughest or most aggressive. This does not mean being soft on crime, just that he would rather his office be admired by all in the civil and criminal justice system, from court staff to the public, than known for simply prosecuting a large number of cases.
In sum, although Steve currently does not have a campaign like the “Most Interesting Man in the World”; if he did, perhaps it would read something like, “While he cannot stop all wrongs, when he sees one, he tries to right it.” One thing that appears true is Wigginton will reach his goal of leaving a legacy as someone who made a difference in the Southern District of Illinois while he had the opportunity to do so. Stay thirsty, Steve. ■
Matthew S. Dionne is a judicial clerk for Chief Judge David R. Herndon at the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. He is a member of the ISBA Standing Committee on Government Lawyers. The opinions expressed herein are solely of the author.