Undergraduate & Graduate Degrees in Washington, DC

Theresa Van Vliet ’78, Lawyer

Drugs, Fraud, Money Laundering: Curbing Crime Across Borders

By Julie Clancy Grady ’82

Theresa Van Vliet intended to become a law school professor, but instead accepted a job with the U.S. Attorney in southern Florida that led her to prosecute cartel drug traffickers and money launderers from Columbia.

An English major at Trinity graduating in 1978, Van Vliet went on to receive her law degree from Nova Southeastern Law School in 1982, then clerked for a federal judge for two years. Though she didn’t have any trial experience, she was offered a job in the office of U.S. Attorney Stanley Marcus. It was the mid 1980s, and Van Vliet recalls that, “Florida was awash in drugs coming into the state. The U.S. Attorney’s office was expanding as drugs and the violence associated with it were exploding in Florida.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office was prosecuting a large number of trials, not just for drug cases, but also for fraud and other crimes. As a result, Van Vliet garnered significant trial experience, including one 14-month long trial of a motorcycle gang that involved drugs, rape and murders.

In the early 1990s, Van Vliet became involved in the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), a 200-person task force specially funded by Congress to combat drug crime. There, she had seven to eight lawyers working for her on a multi-district investigation. This new approach resulted in major seizures of drugs in south Florida and HIDTA was very successful in getting indictments on the Columbia cartel, Cali.

“The task force attacked the cartel from ‘root to branch,’” noted Van Vliet. “We wanted to really disrupt them and to do as much disruption as we could at one concentrated time.”

Following the success of HIDTA, Van Vliet became the Chief of Narcotics for the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 1994 under then Attorney General Janet Reno. Here, Van Vliet began to craft and execute national and international drug policy, both in tactical operational functions – helping U.S. Attorneys in the field – and in coming up with large-scale initiatives to attack drug traffickers.

“We were very successful in dealing with Florida as an importation point, then the shift would move toward the southwest border of the United States through Mexico,” she said.

Van Vliet then became involved in another multi-district investigation that resulted in indictments against the major drug kingpins in Mexico.
“Again, it was department-wide, and we worked cooperatively with foreign governments,” Van Vliet explained. “We were taking the same techniques and applying them to a different problem. After you get rid of the cartels, there is a vacuum and other players enter the scene.”

Through her work at DOJ, Van Vliet developed an expertise in working with classified information involved in drug trafficking and terrorism. Just before she left DOJ, Van Vliet was involved in Operation Millennium, an investigation that resulted in the indictment of 40 of the most major drug traffickers in Columbia. She received several awards for distinguished service from the Department of Justice, as well as the Distinguished Service Medal from the government of Columbia for her work against Columbian money launderers and drug traffickers.

Currently, Van Vliet is in private practice, concentrating in white-collar criminal defense and related civil matters, including corporate compliance, international money laundering matters involving financial institutions and general fraud offenses. Though she finds working both sides of the courtroom rewarding, she noted, “I think it is good to have balance in terms of your resume, but also in your outlook on life. Our system of justice is so great because it is an adversarial system: two sides working on the problem. All of this contributes to the same goal, which is the professional administration of justice.”

Van Vliet credits her Trinity education with helping her see all sides of an issue.

“Whenever you have a liberal arts background you are more open to try new things and look at all sides of a given problem or issue. This is critical in the criminal justice system,” she noted. “For our system to work well, they (attorneys) must represent clients within the bounds of the law. They must look at all sides of the issue. In the end we must make sure the law is upheld and justice is done.”

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