Billy J. Williams: A U.S. Attorney’s Tenure Like No Other
By Scott Bradford
During the early weeks of March 2015, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams received a phone call from Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney General during the majority of President Barack Obama’s administration. The incumbent U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon Amanda Marshall had decided to step away from her duties. Attorney General Holder said to Williams, “You’re now the U.S. Attorney.” As Acting (and later the Senate-confirmed) U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon, Williams faced unprecedented challenges, starting with the need to right and steady an office roiled by U.S. Attorney Marshall’s resignation. It is likely not a path Williams thought about for himself when he worked in the office as a law school student 28 years earlier.
When speaking of his youth, U.S. Attorney Williams notes that it “gave him an opportunity to grow up early, to learn the value of hard work, to deal with adversity, and to problem solve.” He used elements from these lessons daily throughout his legal career. He grew up poor in rural Washington with challenging family circumstances. He worked his way through high school and college doing physically demanding work on farms and in sawmills. This upbringing shaped Williams’ ability to connect with rural communities throughout Oregon. He understood their way of life and the challenges they faced. He had lived it and he drew on that experience to address the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge (January 2016) and its aftermath.
In November 2017, President Donald Trump formally nominated Williams to be the U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon, and the U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination in March 2018. Later that same year, U.S Attorney Williams led his office and federal law enforcement in Oregon through the longest U.S. government shutdown (35 days) in history, December 22, 2018 – January 25, 2019. During the extended shutdown, Williams faced a challenging situation—balancing furloughs, issues of employee morale, (furloughs and no pay during the holiday season) and using a skeleton crew to address the District of Oregon’s public safety needs
Most U.S. Attorneys may face one or two unique challenges such as a predecessor’s resignation, the Malheur Wildlife Refuge Occupation, or an extended government shutdown, and Williams had faced three during the first portion of his tenure. His tenure’s second portion continued to test his resolve and his knowledge. In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Like all organizations, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon faced novel issues specific to its mission. During a pandemic, how do you investigate crimes? How do you handle civil and criminal court proceedings? How do you support your employees and their needs? Using his problem-solving abilities and his wide-ranging skills in working with others, Williams led the office through the pandemic-related challenges by employing teleworking, virtual court hearings, and a variety of measures to support employees and their needs. After the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, with the pandemic continuing to surge, Portland suffered through over 100 consecutive nights of violent riots, many involving the federal courthouse and federal law enforcement officers. When reflecting on the summer of 2020, Williams took pains to distinguish between the peaceful protests, demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd, support for criminal justice reform, and the violent riots.
Beyond the pandemic and riots, 2020 brought further challenges. Portland continues to struggle with a dramatic increase in gun violence. A mounting issue in Klamath Falls over scarce Klamath Basin water resources brings back reminders of 2001, when tensions over water rights reached a boiling point with the Klamath Tribes and Klamath Basin farmers. Before leaving the office, Williams and his team began working with federal, state, and local law enforcement partners to stem the gun violence. Using his rural roots and his experience as a prosecutor and U.S. Attorney, Williams brought the tribes, the farmers, and Washington D.C. bureaucrats together and diffused a very tense situation.
Williams left the position of U.S. Attorney as abruptly as he came to it. When President Joe Biden’s administration requested the resignation of all U.S. Attorneys effective February 28, 2021, Williams departed. Such is life as a U.S. Attorney.
As a lifelong prosecutor who spent 11 years at the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and 18 years in the U.S. Attorney’s Office (where he served as Violent Crime Chief, Criminal Chief, and First Assistant U.S. Attorney), Williams does not necessarily count case work among his greatest accomplishments. He views serving under two administrations and the hiring choices he made as his greatest legacy. He made diversifying the office at all levels his priority. Of the 65 current Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Williams hired 44. To the end of his tenure, he felt a deep responsibility to the office and its mission, noting, “The U.S. Attorney is not political. It was not my office. It was never about me. It was about the work, the mission, the people of Oregon, and the members of the office.” Since leaving office, Williams spends time with his wife, Teena Fife, and they enjoy traveling, hiking, and cooking.
Williams is keenly aware that members of the community questioned and criticized decisions he made as U.S. Attorney; the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation and its aftermath, the 2020 riots, and he is okay with that. He noted that he “enjoyed” working with those who disagreed with him and believed that working with other points of view improved most situations. It is indisputable, that after starting with a scandal, working through two administrations, the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation, the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 riots, increasing gun violence, and rising tension in the Klamath Basin, he has had quite the tenure as U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon.