South Florida

Trump nominates first woman ever to be U.S. attorney in South Florida

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ariana Fajardo Orshan, pictured in 2014, has been nominated by President Donald Trump to be the U.S. attorney in South Florida.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ariana Fajardo Orshan, pictured in 2014, has been nominated by President Donald Trump to be the U.S. attorney in South Florida.

President Donald Trump made a bit of history Thursday by nominating the first woman ever to be the U.S. attorney in South Florida.

Ariana Fajardo Orshan, a Miami-Dade circuit judge whose nomination for the prized position was pushed by prominent Republican leaders Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio, once worked as a state prosecutor but has no experience in the federal justice system.

Fajardo's name rose to the top of the list of potential nominees for U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida after a handful of other candidates, including former federal prosecutors, fell by the wayside because of political or professional reasons.

The U.S. attorney is the top law enforcement official in South Florida, overseeing more than 200 federal prosecutors in one of the busiest districts in the country. The Southern District of Florida, stretching from Key West to Fort Pierce, has a national reputation for prosecuting major drug-trafficking, fraud and terrorism cases.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Fajardo will replace Benjamin Greenberg as the U.S. attorney based in Miami. A longtime federal prosecutor, Greenberg replaced Wifredo Ferrer in March of last year when he stepped down after Trump was elected president. Ferrer had been nominated by President Barack Obama.

The 46-year-old Fajardo, raised in a Cuban family in Hialeah, was appointed by Gov. Scott to the circuit bench in 2012 and elected two years later.. She is a graduate of Florida International University and Nova Southeastern University law school.

After graduating from Nova law in 1996, Fajardo was hired as an assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade and steadily worked her way up from misdemeanors to felonies to special prosecutions. She was described as a “hard working” prosecutor who “has the perseverance and patience to see an investigation through” in her 2001 evaluation.

Six months later, Fajardo resigned to pursue a family law practice with her future husband, Robert Orshan, that would eventually lead to her appointment as a Miami-Dade circuit judge in the family division.

Fajardo received favorable ratings as a judge in the Dade County Bar polls of lawyers. Her career as a state prosecutor was also viewed as positive by her bosses.

Fajardo could not be reached for comment Thursday. Her colleague and friend, Anastasia Garcia, a family law attorney who supported her bid for the U.S. attorney's job, praised Fajardo's credentials and character.

“She’s a woman of tremendous integrity,” said Garcia, who spoke with Fajardo after the president's announcement Thursday afternoon. "She's very excited and really looking forward to the challenge of serving the community in a new capacity."

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, her former boss, also issued a congratulations on Twitter.

Fajardo left the state attorney's office in 2002 but not without some controversy. A year before her departure, a defense attorney in a narcotics case questioned her previously undisclosed relationship with a Miami-Dade County police sergeant involved in the case. Fajardo, unmarried at the time, began dating the officer after meeting him during the undercover drug investigation, according to state attorney's office records.

Recognizing a potential conflict because the officer might serve as a witness, Fajardo requested that the case be reassigned to another prosecutor, records show. It wound up resolved through plea deals. The six defendants — some facing up to life in prison for attempting to kill a police officer — received five-year prison sentences. A seventh defendant got probation.

The romantic relationship, though never made public, was documented in an internal memo. After the case was closed, prosecutors pointed to other reasons for the plea deals, including that witnesses could not identify some voices on undercover recordings and a trial would have risked exposing the identity of a confidential informant.

But at least two defense attorneys involved in the case contacted by The Herald said Fajardo's disclosure wound up helping their clients.

“Common sense should tell anyone who looks at this case that the plea deal was very favorable to our clients because of the predicament they put themselves in,” said attorney Alex Michaels, who represented a defendant who got shot while fleeing from the crime scene.

Other legal observers, including some in the U.S. Attorney's Office, also have raised concerns about her lack of experience in the federal justice system. But even those critics acknowledge her political savvy. She has forged connections to both Scott and Rubio, Florida's most powerful Republican leaders, and boasts staunch support from the Federalist Society, a conservative and influential legal group.

Charles Nanney, chief of the Miami-Dade Police special investigations division, said he worked with Fajardo when she was a state prosecutor and believes she will make a solid U.S. attorney.

"She will hold that office accountable and she will be able to bridge the gap between federal agencies and local and state law enforcement."

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this story.