By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Jack Smith, the U.S. special counsel named to investigate Republican former President Donald Trump, has a reputation for winning tough cases against war criminals, mobsters and crooked police officers.
Behind the scenes, however, Smith's former colleagues say he is just as tenacious in his pursuit to get criminal charges dropped for the innocent as he is to win convictions against the guilty.
When Smith isn't busy competing as a triathlete in Ironman races, they said, he is working as a dogged investigator who is open-minded and not afraid to pursue the truth.
"If the case is prosecutable, he will do it," said Mark Lesko, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig LLP who worked with Smith when both were prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York City's Brooklyn. "He is fearless."
Smith recently returned to the United States after working from The Hague in the Netherlands since November while recovering from knee surgery following a biking accident, a person familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday.
Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Smith in November to take over two investigations involving Trump, who is running for president in 2024.
The first probe involves Trump's handling of highly sensitive classified documents he retained at his Florida resort after leaving the White House in January 2021.
The second investigation is looking at efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election's results, including a plot to submit phony slates of electors to block Congress from certifying Democrat Joe Biden's victory.
Grand juries in Washington have been hearing testimony in recent months for both investigations from many former top Trump administration officials.
SEARCH FOR INNOCENCE AND GUILT
Smith, a Harvard Law School grad who is not registered with any political party, started as a prosecutor in 1994 at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office under Robert Morgenthau, who was best known for prosecuting mob bosses.
Smith's friends credit Morgenthau with instilling in him the skills that made him the prosecutor he is today.
"There was just a real emphasis, from Morgenthau on down, on not just going after convictions," recalled Todd Harrison, an attorney at McDermott Will & Emery who worked with Smith in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and later in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn.
"We were praised if we investigated something and demonstrated that the target of the investigation was innocent."
Once, he and Smith "spent the whole night making phone calls" after learning that a jailed suspect in one of their cases was innocent. The suspect was released the next day.
In 1999, Smith started working at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn.
He won a conviction against New York City Police Officer Justin Volpe, a white policeman who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for assaulting Abner Louima, a jailed Black inmate, with a broomstick.
Smith also won a capital murder conviction against Ronell Wilson, a drug gang leader who murdered two undercover New York City police officers, though a federal appeals court vacated the death penalty verdict.
In 2008, Smith left to supervise war crime prosecutions at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He returned to the Justice Department in 2010 to head its Public Integrity Section until 2015.
Most recently, he worked as chief prosecutor for the special court in The Hague investigating war crimes in Kosovo, and won a conviction last month against Salih Mustafa, a former Kosovo Liberation Army commander.
Moe Fodeman, an attorney at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati who worked as a prosecutor with Smith, said his former colleague is known for being methodical and thinking outside the box.
"He is famous for to-do lists," said Fodeman, adding that the lists would be filled "with ideas that, of course, you should do, but no one thinks of."
Smith is also known for being expeditious, and Fodeman predicted the special counsel's investigations involving Trump will probably move swiftly.
"He's not going to be dillydallying," Fodeman said. "He's going to get the job done."
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)