Robert J. “Bobby” Higdon, the former federal prosecutor who played a significant role in bringing former U.S. Sen. John Edwards to trial, has been nominated by the president to be the U.S. attorney for North Carolina’s eastern district.
The White House issued a news release on Friday announcing President Donald Trump’s nominees for chief federal prosecutors in six districts across the country.
Higdon works in the white collar and investigations group at the Williams Mullen law firm, which has offices in Raleigh and Washington, D.C. He moved into private practice after working as a federal prosecutor for 24 years, in two of North Carolina’s three federal districts.
While in the Eastern District of North Carolina – 44 counties that span from Raleigh to the coast – Higdon led the prosecution of Edwards, whose campaign-finance fraud trial in 2012 resulted in an acquittal on one count and the dismissal of five other charges after a hung jury.
In 2013, when Thomas Walker, a Democrat, was the chief prosecutor in the Eastern District, Higdon was moved from his job as head of the district’s criminal division to a senior litigator position after federal appeals court judges issued a blistering rebuke about how prosecutors under Higdon’s leadership had withheld evidence and failed to correct trial testimony they knew to be false.
Higdon oversaw the work of nearly 30 assistant U.S. attorneys and two dozen special assistant U.S. attorneys prosecuting terrorism, drug, violent and white collar crime cases. He was not one of the prosecutors directly mentioned by the appellate judges.
Higdon, who could not be reached for comment on Friday, declined to discuss the cases or the job change in 2013.
The rebuke from federal appellate judges Henry Floyd and Barbara Keenan arose in a securities fraud case that was being heard in May 2013.
“I’ve been an appellate judge for 28 years, and I have never made these kinds of comments to a prosecutor, never,” Keenan told a prosecutor in a courtroom in Richmond, Virginia. “But the increasing frequency from your office of this kind of conduct is really troubling, really troubling.”
The circuit judges followed with a ruling in the securities fraud case suggesting that a prosecutor had ignored false testimony instead of correcting it during trial, among other concerns. The judges said the case further highlighted a troubling pattern of Eastern District prosecutors withholding evidence from defendants. They asked Eric Holder, who was the U.S. attorney general at the time, to review the behavior.
“It’s really gotten to the point, as far as I’m concerned, when I pick up a brief from your office, I’m looking for trouble,” Keenan said. “Two times last term, same thing, misrepresentations from my perspective, not being fully forthcoming. It’s really creating a credibility problem for your office.”
“Mistakes happen,” Floyd wrote in a decision in the security fraud case. “Flawless trials are desirable but rarely attainable. Nevertheless, the frequency of the ‘flubs’ committed” by the Eastern District prosecutor’s office “raises questions regarding whether the errors are fairly characterized as unintentional.”
George Holding, a Raleigh Republican who was at the helm of the Eastern District prosecutor’s office from September 2006 until summer 2011 before he was elected as a U.S. congressman, was the U.S. attorney for the district when some of the problematic cases occurred.
Holding said at the time that his office had a policy of giving a defense team open access to its files, but in some cases, drug cases particularly, prosecutors withheld some information.
“One of the problems with open discovery is you can disclose confidential informants and put people in danger,” Holding said at the time. But none of the cases discussed in the decision highlighting the questionable prosecutor conduct discussed confidential informants.
At the time of the shakeup that moved Higdon from the head of the criminal division, Walker announced new policies that he hoped would bring more transparency to the department while under his administration. Walker, a Barack Obama appointee, resigned in 2016 to return to private practice in Charlotte and Raleigh.
Since then, John Bruce, a veteran prosecutor, has served as interim U.S. attorney.
Higdon, a graduate of Wake Forest University law school, is a Sunday school teacher, choir member and deacon at Colonial Baptist Church in Cary, according to his bio on the Williams Mullen website. He also is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, an organization of men who are descendants of people who served in the Revolutionary War.