The first Hispanic U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, Ortiz has been involved in milestone cases, such as the prosecution of former Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger.

by Samantha Stainburn

As U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Milagros Ortiz has helped send corrupt state lawmakers to jail and increased prosecutions of white-collar crime. Currently, Ms. Ortiz, the first female and the first Hispanic U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, is overseeing the criminal case against former Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, who was captured last June after 16 years on the run.

Ms. Ortiz says she loves the variety of her job, for which President Barack Obama nominated her in 2009. “No two days are alike,” she says. “One day I may come in and be engaged in some high-profile significant case strategy where I need to make certain decisions: Do we immunize these witnesses? Do we agree to a certain kind of plea negotiation? What direction should an investigation take? Other days, I meet with lawyers on priorities. Or I give a talk about what the U.S. Attorney’s Office does, or healthcare fraud, or national security.”

It’s the kind of work she dreamed of doing as early as high school, when Perry Mason movies made her think it would be rewarding to have a legal career where she helped people who’d gone through terrible things. “As an attorney, you can help people solve problems, make sure defendants’ rights are protected, pursue justice,” she says. “It was a way of giving back.” Attending Adelphi on a partial scholarship put her on the path to achieving her ambition of becoming a lawyer, says Ms. Ortiz, who spent her early years in public housing in the Bronx before her parents moved the family to Long Island. “Adelphi provided me with social and academic opportunities that I took advantage of,” she says. “That opened the door to law school and enabled me to be successful in law school.”

Among the opportunities: Living in Earle Hall, where Ms. Ortiz served as a resident assistant (R.A.) in her junior and senior years on campus; a work-study job in admissions; activities like La Union Latina, Adelphi’s Latino student organization, and volunteering on an advice hotline for students. In many of these activities, Ms. Ortiz was joined by Ms. Alicea-Velez, Ms. Perdomo-Ayala and Ms. Melendez, which was how the initial bonds formed among the friends. “We all felt we had come from very humble beginnings and we saw college as our key to success,” Ms. Ortiz says. “It was going to be the path to have a better life than our parents had.”

After earning a J.D. at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Ms. Ortiz worked for the U.S. Justice Department, then moved to Boston to be an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, where she oversaw the District Court and prosecuted homicides, sexual assaults and robberies. She later was a senior trial attorney at a private law firm and then an assistant U.S. attorney in the Economic Crimes Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts.

Over the years, her Adelphi friends have shared in the high and low points of her life, attending events honoring her and going on vacations together, but also supporting her when her first husband, Michael V. Morisi, was ill and then died of pancreatic cancer at age 42 in 2000.

As someone who’s broken barriers, Ms. Ortiz is often called on to give talks to students about how to achieve big goals. One piece of advice she always shares: Surround yourself with individuals who are going to motivate and encourage you, not naysayers who will drag you down. “Even when I was at Adelphi, I’d say, ‘I’m going to go to law school,’ and there were some kids who would say, ‘Why are you doing that? Aren’t you tired of school? Isn’t four years of college enough?’ ‘It’s expensive.’ ‘Aren’t you going to get married?’” she recalls. Friends like Ms. Alicea-Velez and Ms. Perdomo-Ayala, she notes, were the people who said, “Wow, that’s great!” All these years later, she says, she can still counton them for encouragement.

Excerpted from the article “Stand by Me,” published in Adelphi University Magazine, spring 2012 issue

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