[Q&A] Todd Newhouse '81 on Extortion, Racketeering, and the Best Mob Movies
UMass Amherst Political Science alum Todd Newhouse ‘81 didn’t mince words during a lunch conversation he had with SBS students as part of SBS Career and Professional Development’s ‘Lunch with an Alum’ series. Still going strong in his 30-plus year career as Assistant US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Newhouse is concise to the point of being deadpan.
“I learned math doing loan sharking,” he said, jokingly, about his time in the Organized Crime and Gang Unit where he investigated extortion and racketeering cases.
You want to have an open mind, and think about as many different things as you can in as many different ways as you can.
Newhouse outlined the benefits and procedures around court-ordered surveillance techniques like wiretaps. He analyzed the evolution of violent crimes and how his office adapts to the changing nature of the law. He even described the pop culture references that best depict his work as a federal prosecutor. (The Sopranos is the best at showing wiretapping; Donnie Brasco, long-term undercover case-building; and Black Mass, on the whole, is very on point.)
But long before he took on gangsters and mobsters, Newhouse was an SBS student with plenty of options but in need of direction. The skills he learned at UMass helped him through law school and informed his work ethic through the ranks of public service.
When I asked him about his undergraduate years as a political science major, he told me in characteristically blunt terms about finding direction, honing professional development skills, and taking on important workplace responsibilities.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.
As a political science major at UMass Amherst, did you know as an undergrad that you wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement?
No and I didn’t have a really good idea of what lawyers did. A lot of people in political science started talking about law school, law school, law school, like almost from the first day. That kind of piqued my interest; that and the class I took with Shelly Goldman, constitutional law, which is a really tough class.
One of my professors, John Brigham, tried to talk me into doing a PhD. Those were kind of the two things that were open and I’m not a great writer and I didn’t think I could publish three books by the time I was three years out of college. So I kind of fell into [law school] and I totally fell into my career; a summer internship turned into 18-months, and then the state DA’s job.
I had some inclination maybe to be a police officer, maybe even at UMass but they weren’t hiring a lot at that time and then when I got out of law school in the DA’s office not making a lot of money, I was applying to both the FBI and I got a job at the Strike Force. And now 30 years have gone by.
What are some important professional development skills you learned here at UMass?
Writing. If you're going to be a lawyer at any level you have to be the best writer you can be.
At a huge university like this, the diversity of classes you can take. I was a poli sci and US history major but you get exposed to a lot of different things, basically anything you want to be exposed to, and the law does that. You want to have an open mind, and think about as many different things as you can in as many different ways as you can.
And the diversity of the student body, in the Valley and how it is, it's a great place to spend four years growing up. A lot of people don't leave and you can see why.
You said you don’t debate or engage in the politics surrounding the work you do. Given that the US Attorney is a political appointee, is it difficult to reconcile internally?
There’s not really a lot of room for debate. The department, my career, some things swing a few degrees but it’s never close to 180. It’s: this is how we’re going to do things, these are our priorities, and when the senior management established a priority, you just do it. It’s not a debate, who wants to do this or who’s in favor of this. It’s coming from a high level, from the Department of Justice down to the US Attorney.
From administration to administration, there have been pretty wide swings in the 30-years I’ve done this. But what we do and what I do at the criminal level investigating violent crime and street crime and organized crime, it’s all just tweaks on how we’re going to do it and who we’re going to go after. So you’re swinging several degrees, not 90, not even 45-degrees.