Conducting law enforcement training, working alongside the FBI, the DEA, and Homeland Security, meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Senegal, and helping catch international criminals is all in a day’s work for Mike Lang ’89. As the Resident Legal Advisor to the U.S. embassy in Dakar, Senegal, Lang serves as the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development Assistance and Training’s (OPDAT) Senegal representative. He is responsible for providing training to West African investigators, prosecutors, and judges, providing legislative assistance, and offering advice to U.S. law enforcement organizations working at the embassy and to the ambassador himself.
“The big picture of OPDAT is, as its title suggests, providing justice sector development by assisting foreign counterparts— primarily, prosecutors, judges, and police—and training them on subject matters related to criminal law. My work is funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Counter Terrorism, so the focus is intended to be counter terrorism. However, to effectively investigate and prosecute terrorism cases, we need to have good investigators, good prosecutors who can tackle any type of case, as well as an effective, transparent, and effiient justice system in place,” Lang explained.
From assisting in the creation of legislation to more easily administer justice to connecting investigators and government officials to resources or information that could help them with their cases, there’s never a typical day in the office, Lang said.
“It depends on the week. I might have a training program, I might be reviewing legislation, or I might be meeting with foreign officials. We have good access to high-level officials here and that’s one thing that is so valuable and unique about OPDAT as an entity,” he said. “I think most of my counterparts have acquired high-level access to their foreign counterparts.
For example, I’ve been here 18 months and I’ve met the Minister of Justice of Senegal probably six times. In contrast, I’ve worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the United States for 13 years and I’ve met the attorney general of the United States twice. So, we get a different level of access in overseas posts, which helps us do our work. This, of course, depends on the country, but in Senegal we have willing government partners, we have strong democratic institutions, and the Ministry of Justice is strong. It’s also a safe country in which to work, which facilitates a strong relationship.”
Lang is currently in his second year as resident legal advisor at the embassy. He serves a one year term, renewable for one year at a time. When not working abroad, Lang serves as an assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, Washington.
Foreign officials aren’t the only ones who benefit from this program, Lang added. The experience and knowledge he gains from working with government officials in other countries has helped him grow as a prosecutor and continues to give him a fresh perspective on the cases that come across his desk.
“At this stage in my career, even though I’ve been a prosecutor for more than 25 years, this overseas experience creates tremendous value for me, and I think in turn for the Department of Justice. I held this same position in Turkey from 2009 to 2011, so this is my second overseas post in a predominantly Muslim county. These assignments have taught me how to work with populations that are minorities in the U.S., and I have learned how to deal with different ethnic groups and different cultures. I bring that experience back to the United States where we are an increasingly global society. That globalization is evident in the courtroom—on our juries, and in our victims, witnesses, and defendants. I can share my experiences with colleagues and the community, so it pays dividends both ways,” he said.
From a young age, helping others was something Lang wanted to do. The son of a high school teacher and a nurse, he said his parents set good examples for him and his siblings about the importance of public service.
“I wanted a career that provided some level of public service, service to the community. Law seemed to be a good match for what I was able to do. I did not mind public speaking, I wasn’t afraid of it, and I was a half-way decent writer, so a legal career allowed me to engage in public service suited to my skills,” he said.
Over the course of his career, Lang has experienced a great deal of success. One of the more notable cases he prosecuted, and for which he was awarded the Department of Justice’s Director’s Award, resulted in the conviction of several Hells Angels members on a slew of charges including racketeering and murder.
“The group was operating in Washington State back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We obtained a federal indictment against them for racketeering, murder, and a variety of other charges. The case went to trial in 2007 and lasted for 10 weeks, resulting in the conviction of five people: four members of the Hells Angels and one associate. The primary killer, Rodney Rollness, was sentenced to life in prison without parole, and the head of the Washington State’s Hells Angels chapter was convicted of racketeering. To our knowledge, this was the first racketeering conviction against the Hells Angels in the United States, so the case was a national success in that respect. We had a team of three prosecutors and several investigators on the case, each of whom brought different skills to the table. That teamwork is another reason I enjoy working for the Department of Justice.”
Lang continues to enjoy that sort of teamwork in Senegal. Recently, Lang teamed up with the Department of Homeland Security to help a Senegalese judge locate a wanted fugitive.
“During a training workshop that I organized and hosted last year, a Senegalese judge approached me and told me that he suspected one of his defendants was hiding in the United States. The man had an Interpol Red Notice (an international arrest warrant), and had been on the run for at least three years. The judge asked for our help to con rm the suspect’s whereabouts. I invited the judge to the embassy where we sat down with Homeland Security agents to work through the case details. Curiously, there was no proof the suspect had entered the U.S. However, the agents worked with their counterparts in the U.S. until they tracked the guy down in North Carolina,” Lang explained.
“They arrested him, he went before an immigration judge, and was removed back to Senegal earlier this year. That case cooperation could not exist if we weren’t on the ground here, and if that judge had not felt he could trust us. The judge didn’t know who to talk to until he attended our workshop, and his information was vague and uncertain. Additionally, by inviting him to the embassy and sitting down in a room together with U.S. case agents, we were able to work through the suspect’s likely hiding place. The judge simply would have had no idea who to contact in the U.S. or how to approach someone at the embassy without a strong law enforcement community here, and unless we were out holding workshops and building relationships.”
The U.S. embassy in Senegal is in a relatively new building that opened for business in the spring of 2013. The new, larger building allowed for an expanded U.S. law enforcement presence in Senegal. As time passes and relations between the two countries grow stronger, Lang said there is a great deal of opportunity for positive growth and more successes like this case.
“The genius of OPDAT’s concept, what I find so valuable about it, and what I think our foreign counterparts find so valuable, is that we take experienced U.S. prosecutors, people who have practical, hands-on experience running complex investigations and prosecutions, and we share it with foreign counterparts who perhaps don’t have that level of experience. We give them a chance to look at their cases in a different way. It’s tremendously valuable in so many ways,” Lang said.