Bill Sarno CTLatinoNews.com
When U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz speaks to Latino students at high schools and colleges in Massachusetts, she stresses that dedication and a commitment to a good education are essential to making their dreams come true.
If the students are looking for a role model, none are better than Ortiz, who grew up a nearly half century ago in New York City’s Spanish Harlem, a neighborhood rich in Latino culture and music, but also rife with poverty and crime. Not only did she arise from El Barrio to fulfill her dream to become a lawyer, Ortiz has gone on to become Massachusetts’ first female and first Hispanic U.S. attorney.
Currently, she is leading the prosecution of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is beginning a high profile trial that will draw international attention and take several months to complete.
“Witnessing the achievement Carmen Ortiz has made in becoming the first Latina U.S. Attorney has been a deeply emotional inspiration that no words could truly reveal,” Migdalia Nalls said, a Latina attorney who is vice president of the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys. “The obstacles she overcame are challenges we identify with,” Nalls added.
The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Ortiz is considered one of the most influential Latinos and public figures in New England and oversees more than 200 attorneys and support staff in Boston, Worcester and Springfield.
During her six-year tenure at 1 Courthouse Way in Boston, Ortiz has achieved prominence for the prosecution of criminals such as Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, the vigorous investigation into health care fraud cases and reinvigoration of civil rights enforcement.
Throughout her career, Ortiz has not forgotten her roots. “We here in Boston are lucky to have her close by, to be able to see her front and center at frequent events because she makes herself approachable and connects closely with the Hispanic community in our state,” Nalls said.
Ortiz, in interviews, credits her family with helping her recognize at an early age that she needed a good education if she was to see more and do more than what was available in El Barrio.
This dedication to her studies was evident during her Catholic high school years gained her a scholarship to Adelphi University, where she received a business degree, and eventually earned her a juris doctor degree from George Washington University Law School.
Her vocational choice was inspired by the fictional lawyer character of Perry Mason on television, she recalled in a 2012 interview on NBC Latino. “I thought I wanted to be an actress, but decided I didn’t have enough talent or money to make it in Hollywood without any connections. And being a good arguer, I felt that, as a lawyer, you could act,” she said.
As an attorney, Ortiz has had a diverse career. and established solid credentials in both civil and criminal law, proving herself a thorn in the side of criminals and and unscrupulous corporations.
Ortiz has worked as a senior trial attorney for a law firm, as a grand jury supervisor, as a program associate and training coordinator at the Harvard Law School’s Center for Criminal Justice, and on the Harvard/Guatemala Criminal Justice Project. She also participated in a 1992 congressional inquiry into what role presidential politics may have played in the 1981 release of the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran.
In 1991, on behalf of the National Football League, Ortiz helped investigate allegations of sexual harassment made by a Lisa Olson, a female sportswriter, against the New England Patriots. Three players and the team were eventually fined for the locker room incident.
Ortiz’s prosecutorial skills were honed as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Economic Crimes Unit of the Massachusetts office and as a state prosecutor, in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, where she oversaw homicides, sexual assaults, robberies and other felony cases.
In 2009, U.S. Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry recommended Ortiz when the U.S. attorney post in Massachusetts became vacant. She was nominated by President Obama and the Senate readily confirmed her appointment.
A reputation for toughness that brought her public acclaim in the prosecution of Bulger and other highly visible cases, also has allowed critics to cast her office in a bullying role in some controversial prosecutions. These included the 2011 pursuit of archives interviews with an Irish Republican Army figure at Boston College at the request of the British government, and the prosecution of a computer prodigy for hacking at the behest of MIT.
Overall, however, Ortiz continues to receive positive recognition. In 2011, The Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys awarded her its “Las Primeras” Award at its annual reception where she was the group’s keynote speaker.
“Even with her demanding position, she has taken the time to mentor young Latino attorneys, and attend several of our MAHA sponsored events,” said Nalls, adding, “We know that she also has attended many National Hispanic events and has been a role model throughout the country.”
Among the honors accorded Ortiz are the 2013 New England Women’s Leadership Award, 2012 Community Service Award from the Mass. Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers; honorary doctor of laws degrees; Latina of the Year from El Mundo Newspaper, and Bostonian of the Year from The Boston Globe.
In 2013, the Spanish-language newspaper El Planeta named her one of the “100 Most Influential People for the Hispanic Community of Massachusetts.”
Ortiz is married to Thomas Dolan and has two daughters by her first husband, Michael Morisi, who passed away in 2000.
For the future, the marathon bombing case remains to be prosecuted. Running for office, even governor, once thought by political observers as an option, appears to be in what commentator called a “state of uncertainty.”
When asked about her plans during a panel discussion among influential women set up by Boston Common magazine, she said, “I know I can say I’m not running for office. I really want to work with young women, in terms of teenage pregnancy and in terms of focusing more on education.”
One thing seems fairly certain. Ortiz, who turned 59 on Jan. 5, will remain a role model for the Latino community.
“Along with her solid work ethic, she is a warm person who keeps true to the values passed on to her by her family.” Nalls said.