U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe stepping down amid federal prosecutor transition
Despite an intense behind-the-scenes lobbying effort to keep him, U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe will not stay on as top federal prosecutor for the Northern District of Florida.
Keefe, along with several dozen other U.S. attorneys nominated by former President Donald Trump, submitted his letter of resignation at the behest of President Joe Biden.
Keefe, one of the more visible U.S. attorneys to serve over the years in the Northern District of Florida, officially steps down midnight Sunday after a little more than two years in the post.
“I’ve been working with a very elite group of federal prosecutors,” he said in an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat. “And I will miss being in the fight for justice with them.”
Keefe, 59, a trial lawyer from Shalimar and a Republican, hoped to hold onto his job despite the customary transition that follows the election of a new president from the other political party. He had the backing of a number of prominent Democrats, including Congressman Al Lawson, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey.
“I’m old enough to know that life’s a series of constant change,” he said, “but that doesn’t take the sting away of being in the middle of a lot of important things that will certainly go on with out me, with wonderful career folks and whoever my successor is ... but there is some sadness and regret that I wont be able to follow through on some of the things I was working on.”
Keefe’s chief deputy prosecutor, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Coody, will serve as interim U.S. attorney starting Monday. Keefe elevated Coody, a former police officer and longtime federal prosecutor, to the post last October. He’ll serve as acting U.S. attorney until someone is nominated by Biden and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the new U.S. attorney.
“I will sleep well and you all should sleep well knowing that Jason Coody is a solid leader, and he’s trusted and admired and respected by everyone in the district, especially state and local law enforcement,” Keefe said. “I feel very good about where the office is.”
Last month, the Justice Department announced that the transition process had begun for federal prosecutors. He and others were asked to tender their resignations by Sunday. Keefe submitted his letter earlier this week, telling his staff good-bye and thanking them for their service in a Thursday afternoon email.
Rachel L. Rojas, special agent in charge of FBI Jacksonville, said that from Keefe's first day on the job, he made it a priority to develop and foster "deeper relationships" with all levels of law enforcement.
"Some of the largest and most complex cases in the FBI Jacksonville Division’s history have been in partnership with Mr. Keefe and his team," she said in an email. "From counter-terrorism to public corruption matters, and hate crimes to crimes against children, Mr. Keefe has consistently kept an open mind and fought for justice in ways that improve the lives of all people in communities across North Florida.
"The FBI Jacksonville team is proud of the work we have accomplished under his leadership, and we are thankful for his persistence, professionalism and dedication to the rule of law."
Keefe’s tenure overlapped with a number of major cases, including the prosecution of former City Commissioner Scott Maddox and cohorts in a long-running FBI public corruption probe, the investigation into the 2019 terrorist shooting at the Naval Air Station Pensacola and the recent arrest of a Tallahassee man on charges involving threats of violence at the Florida Capitol.
Senior U.S. District Judge Lacey Collier of Pensacola applauded Keefe’s service as U.S. attorney, saying he brought a cohesion to the office and ensured that it was well-run and “always on time.”
“And I do happen to know of a couple of times along the way where he made a real difference in coordinating with all the federal agencies one way or the other,” Collier said. “It’s a cooperation that he seems to engender that has not always been there at certain times in the past.”
Keefe, known to occasionally suit up and hit the streets with police, won over local law enforcement officials including Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, who called him “a cleansing breath of fresh air,” and Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young, who said he “regularly reached out to minority communities” and listened to their concerns.
Mayor Dailey said last week he planned to contact officials in the Biden administration to convey his support for Keefe, called him “an incredible community partner.”
“He has played a significant role in our law enforcement efforts during some of the most trying times,” Dailey said, “and I appreciate his commitment not only to Tallahassee but the Northern District.”
Ron Sachs, founder and CEO of Sachs Media Group, applauded Keefe’s service.
"I’ve had the privilege of working for two great governors, Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles, and many other dedicated officials in elected and appointed offices," Sachs said. “But U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe stands out to me as the most dedicated public servant I’ve ever known for his pure heart and stellar, purposeful pursuit of justice on so many levels.”
In stark contrast to his predecessors, Keefe insisted on making his office more transparent and media-friendly. His office had a contract with Sachs' firm for public relations, allowing maximum payments totaling $429,000 over five years.
Keefe said he doesn’t know exactly what he’ll do in his new civilian life, though he said he does not plan to return to private law practice. And contrary to persistent whispers from the rumor mill, he has no ambition to run for office.
“I really don’t think the elected side of things is really, as some would say, my cup of tea," he said. "I don’t know that that is what I’m wired for or what I’m about.”
Keefe, whose family home is in Shalimar, plans to keep the condo he bought in downtown Tallahassee that overlooks the federal courthouse. He plans to stay involved in a host of issues, including those involving law enforcement and the Black community.
“I’m going to stay in Tallahassee quite a bit,” he said. “This is kind of the center of gravity of the northern part of Florida. It’s the heart of government. I have dear friends here. I have committed that I will be here, I will engage and I will show up.”
Contact Jeff Burlew at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.
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