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Farewell to an institution

The concept of American exceptionalism may depend on the durability of public institutions and their many unsung civil servants. One such individual, Stephen M. Schenning, a career lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice, retires this year after decades of service at every level of government in Maryland.

Schenning joined the Maryland Bar in 1974. Since then, he has served as an assistant state’s attorney in the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office; an assistant attorney general in the Maryland Attorney General’s Office; and, as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore for over three decades. Schenning also had a stint in private practice at a Baltimore law firm.

Over his career, Schenning has handled a panoply of criminal and civil cases in state and federal courts, including white collar crime, public corruption, violent crimes, and general civil matters.

For example, in the late 1980s, he prosecuted the then-director of the Annapolis Housing Authority, for demanding and accepting bribes from building contractors. His prosecution of an Allfirst Financial Inc. currency trader in 2002 remains one of the largest, most sophisticated federal bank fraud cases ever handled in Maryland.

In 2011, Schenning’s prosecution of a father and son bail bond business for federal tax, insurance, and wire fraud charges sprung additional high-profile investigations and prosecutions.

Such fraud and public corruption matters have been the hallmark of the office, in no small part due to Schenning’s efforts. He has demonstrated that an institution’s reputation is built one case at a time and one public servant at a time.

A quiet, reliable, common-sense, and steady public servant, he has served in nearly every role within the office, including as acting U.S. attorney. He currently serves as counsel to the U.S. attorney. Through administrations of different political parties, Schenning has been a key strategic counselor, playing a critical role in the office’s most sensitive decisions. But, just as important, he has been a mentor and counselor to attorneys and staff in the office.

Through the years, he has been a living example of the importance of the stability of our institutions and the values for which the U.S. Attorney’s Office stands, namely, justice, accountability, and the rule of law. Reports from Justice Department headquarters in Washington refer to Schenning as the “seat of institutional knowledge for the office and the keeper of the flame of the office’s case-centered culture.”

Our government relies on institutions, such as the nation’s U.S. Attorney’s Offices, to provide stability, independence, and appropriate ability to evolve over time. But it is people like Schenning that make these agencies work. They are full of such individuals who resolutely and consistently discharge their duties without fear or favor, passion or prejudice, and with an eye towards equal justice.

After serving Marylanders for more than four decades, he now begins a well-deserved retirement.

Erek L. Barron is the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland.