The Relentless Damian Williams

The SDNY U.S. Attorney is one of the country’s gutsiest prosecutors — and a potential headache for Eric Adams.

Photo: Hugo Yu
Photo: Hugo Yu
Photo: Hugo Yu

When a jury found the cryptocurrency crook Sam Bankman-Fried guilty of money laundering and fraud in November, Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, did something unusual. Standing in front of the federal courthouse on Pearl Street with a posse of unsmiling aides, Williams departed from his normally reserved demeanor to read the riot act to would-be criminals. “When I became U.S. Attorney, I promised that we would be relentless in rooting out corruption in our financial markets,” he said. “This is what relentless looks like.”

It was a coming-out moment for an official who, after two years of quietly leading the most powerful prosecutorial office in America, is getting comfortable in the spotlight. “There should not be two standards of justice in this country, one for blue-collar crime and one for white-collar crime,” Williams told me, sitting in his spacious office with a grand waterfront view of the Brooklyn Bridge. “I have always bristled at the expectation that white-collar criminals should get white-glove treatment.”

The Southern District of New York is only half-jokingly dubbed the Sovereign District of New York. It has a reputation for acting independently of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., and tackling high-profile cases involving not only financial swindlers like SBF but also terrorist attackers, violent drug syndicates, organized-crime bosses, and ethically challenged politicians — with the last, in particular, lately becoming a significant focus for Williams’s office.

Last year, Williams indicted the sitting lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, for allegedly taking bribes from a Harlem real-estate operator, prompting Benjamin’s resignation. In September, SDNY indicted Senator Robert Menendez on bribery charges. Two months later, Williams indicted an Indian citizen on suspicion of involvement in a scheme by the Indian
government to assassinate a U.S. citizen — a case that could trigger a major diplomatic clash between the two countries.

And in November, FBI agents seized electronic devices belonging to Eric Adams and searched the home of his chief fundraiser in what appears to be a broad investigation of possible criminality in the mayor’s 2021 campaign, including pay-to-play arrangements with foreign donors. The investigation featured a dramatic face-off in which federal agents confronted Adams on a Manhattan sidewalk and ordered his NYPD security detail to stand aside while the FBI hopped into the mayor’s SUV and took two of his phones. While SDNY declined to comment on or confirm its involvement in the investigation, Adams’s chief counsel told reporters in November that they have been in touch with SDNY.

Now, as the city’s political circles brace for a possible indictment of the mayor, all eyes are on Williams, who has used his moment in the headlines to emphasize that while he may speak softly, he carries a big stick. The two men at the center of this potential clash could not be more different — one a disciplined straight shooter, the other a charismatic showman — even if both are pathbreaking Black officials who rose through the ranks of law enforcement.

While Adams has said God long ago revealed to him the date on which he would become mayor, Williams had a single political experience — as a field organizer in Iowa for Kerry 2004 — that convinced him elective office was not for him. “That whole era feels like very distant history, in part because I’ve spent most of my professional life in an institution that’s deeply apolitical,” he said. “Of all the experiences I’ve had, it’s been the least relevant to my actual professional life.”

Born in Brooklyn to Jamaican immigrants and raised in Atlanta, Williams comes across as a smooth professional with a glittering résumé: degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Cambridge, followed by a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. But his life has been full of family tragedy and painful self-doubt.

“I was 5 years old. A little Black boy with a really, really bad stutter, growing up in the Deep South,” he told the graduating class of Columbia Law School earlier this year. Upon taking an IQ test to enter a private academy, he says, he got the second-lowest score the school had ever seen. “Folks told me that I was ‘borderline retarded.’ That was the label I remember.” Williams was allowed to enter on the condition that he take “slow” classes; then he caught up and eventually became a top student.

Still, as he told a group of scholarship students in 2021, “things were pretty crummy at home.” His father left the family: “He was the breadwinner, and we really couldn’t pay the bills. And the lights got shut off at a point in time, and things were just a mess. The only anchor in my life at that point was school — that I could do. That was steady, that was reliable, that didn’t depend on adults and all their drama.”

Williams, who has since reconciled with his father, was days away from entering Yale Law School when his older sister, Tiffani, died from an infection after a routine dental procedure. He began his legal studies in a daze. “I was in the depths of intense grief,” he told me. “You know, shock. I wasn’t really able to function normally like all the other students.” After missing most of the deadlines for summer internships during his first year, he applied to SDNY on the advice of a friend. “It was notable to me how unusual this place was. There were so many young lawyers working on complex, impactful, sprawling investigations and prosecutions with tremendous amounts of responsibility,” he said. “And it was collegial and no sharp elbows and people were happy.”

Williams went on to clerk for Merrick Garland and then for Stevens, but he eventually returned to the place where the lawyers seemed happy.

“I used to tease him a little bit,” says Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, who was a prosecutor for SDNY when Williams began, “because after being a Supreme Court clerk, you can get paid a lot more to stay at a big firm. Obviously a huge incentive to do that, right? Well, I think he was very similar to me in wanting to do public service.”

“I thought he was a superstar from day one,” says Randall Jackson, an attorney in private practice who mentored Williams on one of his first trials. “It’s kind of a mystery coming in: Who is going to be someone who can stand up in a courtroom and communicate in a way that is powerful and persuasive with juries and with judges? And Damian was one of those people. He could just talk to people without it seeming like he’s putting on any airs. It’s a rare talent.”

Williams gravitated to the public-corruption unit as an assistant U.S. Attorney, eventually winning a conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption charges and moving on to securities and financial-fraud cases, in which he convicted former representative Chris Collins for insider trading and lying to federal authorities. When Joe Biden appointed him to lead the department, Williams became the first Black U.S. Attorney in the 232-year history of the Southern District.

Now he might be heading into an ugly fight that could mar his impeccable reputation. But as Adams has surely noted, Williams has taken down several of the state’s most powerful public figures without batting an eye. In front of the courthouse in November, he declared that Bankman-Fried’s conviction was a warning “to every single fraudster out there who thinks that they’re untouchable, or that their crimes are too complex for us to catch, or that they’re too powerful for us to prosecute, or that they could try to talk their way out of it when they get caught. Those folks should think again and cut it out. And if they don’t, I promise we’ll have enough handcuffs for all of them.”

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The Relentless Damian Williams