Excellence in Action

Carol Chen ’96

Photo of Carol Chen

Carol Alexis Chen ’96 has been with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California in Los Angeles, California, for the last 15 years and currently serves as Chief of the International Narcotics, Money Laundering, and Racketeering Section. Carol is the rare federal prosecutor who has been an Assistant United States Attorney in both the Criminal and Civil Divisions, with extensive criminal and civil trial experience, and has directed federal and local law enforcement in hundreds of federal criminal grand jury and wiretap investigations, evaluated investigations for federal prosecutions, and trained law enforcement agents as well as other prosecutors. She has won numerous awards and accolades, including from the Department of Justice and federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, and was named by the Los Angeles County Bar Association, Criminal Justice Section as the 2019 Prosecutor of the Year.

Carol has prosecuted some of the most significant cases of the Department, including multiple large-scale racketeering investigations targeting the Mexican Mafia and violent street gangs, such as the one for which she obtained, after a five-week trial, convictions and a life prison sentence for a Mexican Mafia member who murdered a rival and severely wounded two other individuals, including an innocent bystander (nomination for the second-highest Department of Justice award pending); a large-scale, complex money laundering case which was awarded another high-level DOJ award in 2018; and a 47-defendant prosecution targeting Mexican and Colombian drug cartel members and associates, including for narcotics-based murder charges arising out of the torture, murder, and dismemberment of two victims captured on intercepted video.

She has been an appointed member of various joint federal and local task forces and working groups, including those aimed at combating drug cartels and the drug trade; the opioid epidemic; violent crime including that perpetuated by international organized crime groups and domestic street gangs; illicit firearms possession and weapons trafficking; and transnational border security threats. She has front-line experience in addressing some of the most pressing crimes and criminal justice issues on multiple levels, including helping to devise and implement policies and setting investigative priorities as well as personally prosecuting the cases implicating them.

Since March, 2019, Carol has led the section which targets international and significant domestic narcotics trafficking and money laundering organizations; violent prison and street gangs; traditional and emerging transnational organized criminal enterprises, including those which utilize the dark net and cryptocurrency; and clandestine laboratories and other manufacturers and “dirty doctors,” pharmacies, and other street-level and wholesale distributors of opioids which cause serious bodily harm and death.

Interviewed by Monique Beals • March 9, 2020

TO START, WILL YOU PLEASE DESCRIBE YOUR CAREER PATH FROM UCLA TO YOUR CURRENT ROLE?

After I obtained a degree in political science at UCLA, I went to Yale Law School, which has a robust tradition of encouraging graduates to work as judicial clerks and enter public service. After law school, I did clerk for two federal judges, one on the Ninth Circuit and the other, a district judge who also was a former United States Attorney here in Los Angeles. As each clerkship was for one year only, I went to a large law firm afterward, practicing commercial and securities litigation, and employment and white collar law. I enjoyed the work I was doing especially because I also had the opportunity to do pro bono work, and many of my colleagues had become very close friends. But after a few years, I was looking for a change and decided to apply to the United States Attorney’s Office. Though I had stated a preference for the Civil Division because I had done mostly civil work at the firm, I later found out that what I was seeking — more time in the courtroom and trials — was really in the Criminal Division. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the four years I spent in the Civil Division where I defended the United States in employment, tort, immigration, medical malpractice, and Bivens/civil rights cases. The last case category was the catalyst for my transition to the type of work that I have been doing for the last 10 years. In one of the last civil cases that I handled, I successfully defended several DEA agents who had been accused by a violent gang member of excessive force and various constitutional rights violations. It was during the difficult jury trial that I realized that I really enjoyed working with law enforcement agents and that I wanted to help them protect the community. So, I transferred to the Criminal Division in 2009 and went through the training section which all new rookies in the Criminal Division go through. I graduated into an advanced, “senior” section — my current section, though it had a different name at the time — after completing the rookie training and doing some basic trials. For over the last 10 years, I have specialized in complex, large-scale money laundering, gang, and drug cartel investigations. Along the way, I have held various supervisor positions including in the training section and in March, 2019, I was appointed as the first female chief of my section.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO CHOOSE THIS CAREER PATH?

Some of my colleagues would tell you that from an early age, they dreamed of being a prosecutor. As you can tell, the path to my current role has been a bit more circuitous in comparison, but I have certainly enjoyed every step and turn along the way. My late father had studied law before becoming a foreign diplomat and he and I enjoyed talking about politics and law even when I was a child. Along with my mother, my father truly believed in the power of human kindness and the duty of each generation to make the world better than before they came into it, and had strongly encouraged his children to seek out opportunities to help others. I decided relatively early on that I wanted to be a lawyer because the study of law would intellectually challenge me and also empower me with the voice to speak and work on issues about which I really cared. And I think I hit my stride and found my purpose when I switched over from civil practice to criminal law. I have been an AUSA for 15 years and I still love the job and I still am deeply passionate about the work, in particular, about prosecuting violent criminals and organized crime groups and helping to obtain justice and redress for victims. Such work can be — and has been shown to be — transformative, as they have resulted in steep declines in the crime rate across whole neighborhoods. As I have matured as a prosecutor, I also have realized that it is important to show compassion for individuals and attempt to understand their circumstances which may have provided the motivation for their criminal conduct, and to not give up on them. Ultimately, I believe in redemption and the ability of people to move on with their lives and be productive members of society once they take responsibility for their actions and as a prosecutor, my job is not to foreclose that possibility, but rather promote it. Empathy for both victims and defendants — and remembering that not everyone had the same opportunities as I had — are what I try to bring to every case and the decisions that I make.

HOW DID YOUR UCLA EXPERIENCE HELP SHAPE YOUR SUCCESS?

I have always loved the feel and energy of being on a campus, even to this day, and UCLA was this rich diverse community which offered not only supportive, engaging professors but also exposed me to different types of people and an abundance of social and volunteer opportunities. I think that kind of environment encouraged me to dream big and to feel engaged with the broader world. I am very inquisitive by nature and as a student, I was interested in following up on the lectures and readings by seeking out professors during their office hours. As a result, I got to know very well some of my professors who became mentors to me, who nominated me for awards, who wrote me recommendations, and who overall offered me encouragement and support. I think UCLA also substantively prepared me well for law school and I held my own at Yale, where many of my classmates had been schooled in private institutions and had specialized tutors for much of their lives.

IN WHAT WAYS HAVE YOU UTILIZED THE UCLA ALUMNI NETWORK?

I seem to run into fellow UCLA alumni everywhere and there is this tremendous sense of community and camaraderie amongst us. In law school, there was a contingent of us out there in New Haven shivering in 60-degree weather when no one else would be and we were very proud that we represented UCLA and California. Even though we did not necessarily know each other at UCLA, there was this immediate sense of connection and shared history that brought us together as we supported each other through the law school years, particularly during the tough transition first year. Now, when I meet someone new and I find out that they are fellow Bruins, it is an immediate talking point and we share stories about our experiences at UCLA, which invariably are positive.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR GREATEST CAREER CHALLENGE AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME IT?

Throughout my career as a prosecutor, I have often found myself to be the lone woman in a large room of people, especially as a gang prosecutor where I have directed federal and law enforcement teams of up to 100 individuals, most, if not all, of whom are male. I think particularly as a young prosecutor, that initially was a bit intimidating, when it was clear that for some officers or agents, I was not being taken as seriously as an older, male prosecutor would have been. And it was not just law enforcement, it was fellow prosecutors whether in my office or in other offices. But, I never took it personally, I remained confident in my own abilities, I spoke up, and I continued to be passionate about learning and about performing the job the right way. I never got dejected or angry but rather took that energy and channeled it into being the best, most hard working prosecutor that I could be, and I quickly earned the respect of law enforcement and other more senior AUSAs. I am particularly proud of being selected as the first female chief of my section in the history of the office but it also comes with it a tremendous sense of responsibility.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO UCLA STUDENTS AND ALUMNI INTERESTED IN LAW?

First, if you are currently a student, take advantage of the first-rate education that UCLA has to offer. I took classes on a wide variety of subjects even as I was a political science major. In fact, I took so many history classes that I was several credits shy of being a History major as well. The palette of classes that I took included those on the theory of political violence, the history of prostitution, the politics of many different countries such as South Africa, and courses on weather, astrology, art history, and comparative literature, to name just a few. I took classes that engaged me and exposed me to different worlds, cultures, and experiences, all of which hopefully made me a more well-rounded person. There really is no cookie-cutter curriculum which will prepare you for law school and rather than worrying about that, the key is to just be exposed to different subjects that engage you in critical thinking. Having said that, you should probably take one pre-law course — I remember taking one on constitutional law that was cross-listed as a political science course which I really enjoyed — to get a sense of what law school would be like. You should also think broadly about why you want to go to law school and what you want to do with your law degree. There are so many non-traditional routes that one can take these days once armed with legal training and people should not think that a law degree is valuable only if they want to work at a law firm or in government. Second, whether you are a current student or an alumnus, I would strongly encourage you to find mentors, including in your (former) professors. Cold-call people whom you do not know but would like to follow in their footsteps. Reach out to UCLA alumni who are in the fields in which you are interested. Harness the power of the UCLA network — the power is spread worldwide and it is breathtakingly awesome. I would venture to say that most people are willing to talk to you about their path because no one has ever gotten to their position without the help of others and they are happy to pay it forward. As the old adage says, no (wo)man is an island. Third, dream big and take advantage of the larger world outside of the UCLA campus or your own social circles. Do some volunteer work, be engaged in your community; you will likely be inspired by what you see and the people you meet.

HOW DO YOU PARTICIPATE AND SUPPORT IN THE UCLA COMMUNITY NOW?

I recently had the pleasure of speaking on a panel that was organized by the Alumni Association and afterward, I spoke to a lot of students who told me that they felt inspired because they saw and heard from someone who looked like them — whether they were also Asian, female, or both — or something that I said had resonated with them. They had seen someone familiar in a leadership position in the community. While that was beyond flattering, it also served as a reminder to me that we all have an obligation to pay forward what UCLA gives us and so I have tried to stay in contact with those students and provide mentorship and guidance regarding their potential career and life paths. Moreover, over my entire career, whether as a clerk for my two federal judges reviewing applications of candidates for the following year or at the law firm or at the United States Attorney’s Office, where I am on the Hiring Committee and in a management position, I have tried to support applicants who are fellow UCLA alumni, as I generally know that they would have gotten a first-rate education. I have also organized my office’s participation at public interest fairs held at UCLA Law School where I have met many law students whom I have counseled regarding employment at the office or generally in the public sector.

WHAT MAKES YOU MOST PROUD TO BE A BRUIN?

I am very proud to be part of a long-existing dynamic and diverse community of current UCLA students and alumni who have been making their mark on the world in all different kinds of fields and endeavors for quite some time now. My sister got her PhD from UCLA so we are definitely a very proud UCLA family. My parents have always been very big boosters of the California public education system and my family bleeds (powder) blue and yellow — I think I may have let them down in terms of where I ended up going to law school! I am always proud and happy to see and hear about all of the amazing accomplishments of fellow Bruins, as the UCLA experience, in terms of both the quality of the education and the social opportunities which the school offers, rivals that of any other school, private or public.

AND FINALLY, WHAT’S NEXT?

I don’t really know what is exactly next but I think that’s what makes life so exciting, the uncertainty of it and the ability of people to reinvent themselves. I am trying to stay mindful of, and appreciate, the present, as I have really enjoyed leading my section of over 30 prosecutors and staff members, having the ability to formulate and implement office policies and investigative priorities, and working with a variety of people not just across the Department of Justice, but law enforcement personnel, communities, and governing bodies in different states and across the world. Ultimately, I see my job as that of a problem-solver, where I build relationships with different law enforcement partners and communities to investigate and prosecute crimes which have already occurred so that victims get some form of justice, and to reduce crime and make safer the communities that we serve by deterring others from engaging in similar conduct. As the Central District of California is the largest United States Attorney’s Office in the country, spanning seven counties and serving over 19 million residents, there are many difficult problems to solve and the job is a challenging one, but it is one that gives me a sense of purpose and also empowers me to be a voice for different communities. I do a lot of anti-gang and opioids outreach, including by providing trainings to both parents and children in high-risk, vulnerable communities, and I really love those personal interactions which help to build trust between law enforcement and people who may not have had positive experiences with authorities. I also continue to enjoy training other prosecutors, particularly rookies, on courtroom practice and building investigations, and feel hopeful about growing the next generation of passionate prosecutors who similarly want to make their mark in the world and try to leave it a little better than before they entered it.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.

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