U.S. Attorney Ken Parker Strives for Justice With Humanity

The new chief law enforcement official for the Southern District of Ohio is focused on finding the root causes of crime and partnering with communities to prevent those crimes from ever happening.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

When a Southern California drug kingpin and Crips gang member decided in 2000 to expand his crack and meth empire into Zanesville and Middletown, Ohio, he hadn’t counted on coming up against Ken Parker. Then a young drug enforcement lawyer in the federal prosecutor’s office for southern Ohio, Parker wasn’t content with convicting just the little guys on the street. He wanted the big guys in their respectable homes and offices.

Parker’s philosophy is “to make sure you’re not just taking the low-hanging fruit,” says Ben Glassman, who worked with Parker for 14 years in the Cincinnati office. “Ken is a prosecutor’s prosecutor.”

As U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio in 2011, Glassman selected Parker to head his criminal investigations division. Today, at age 49 and with 20-plus years of experience as a federal prosecutor, Parker now runs the office. Appointed in November by President Biden, he oversees the enforcement of federal law for a 48-county region stretching from Columbus to Steubenville and down to the Ohio River. He supervises a staff of 125, including 65 prosecutors, with offices in Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati.

Parker’s colleagues point to that 2000 drug case as proof that the Cincinnati native and Walnut Hills High School alum won’t shy away from going after the criminals at the top, whether they’re drug lords or politicians.

The California drug kingpin was rarely seen in person, even by his closest lieutenants. Instead, he arranged for large quantities of drugs to be shipped to friends and former gang members all over the country. The locals handled the dirty work of drug processing and street sales, then took half the profits and shipped the rest of the cash to his home in Compton, California.

The operation worked smoothly until 2003, when clerks at a Staples store in Zanesville became suspicious of a loose packet someone wanted to ship via UPS to a Compton address. The package had all the signs of a cash shipment, a violation of UPS policy. The clerks opened it and found thick wads of bills wrapped in black rubber bands. They called Zanesville police, and a “sniff dog” quickly detected the reason for the cash transaction.

On July 21, 2005, Parker filed a sealed indictment in Cincinnati’s federal court against those profiting most from the drug network, and the operation’s leader was charged with distributing 15 kilos of crack and more than a kilo of meth. Leading the case at trial, Parker won a jury conviction and a life sentence for him, later reduced on appeal to 30 years.

As the new U.S. Attorney here, Parker doesn’t like to emphasize his prosecutorial side. He would rather talk about what he calls the “big picture” of law enforcement that means “first of all, holding people accountable.” But for Parker it also means finding the root causes of crime and partnering with communities to prevent those crimes from ever happening. He says he’ll encourage his prosecutors to do as he has often done in his career: “get out from behind our desks” and talk to community groups about their challenges and what they can do to help keep their neighborhoods safe.

At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Parker may look like a tough guy, but his most disarming quality is a self-effacing sense of humor. Asked how fast he was in high school when he played defensive end for the Walnut Hills Eagles, he answers with a comedian’s perfect timing, “Oh, that’s easy. Slow.”

Parker’s glassed-in corner office, part of the Justice Department’s honeycomb of rooms without signage in the Atrium One building downtown, has a nice view of Great American Ball Park. He points to the official seal of the U.S. Department of Justice embedded on the back wall. “Like that eagle there, that’s my belief,” he says. “The eagle has two sets of talons. One talon has arrows, the other has an olive branch. They both make up the symbol. That’s how I do my work.

Parker says he learned early on that true justice is balanced with compassion and understanding for the defendant while working as a law clerk for one of his chief mentors, U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel, a president Carter appointee who died in 2014. “It was the toughest job I’ll ever love. He let me know how in the world of law, specifically criminal law, you need to bring in humanity.”

The “big picture” has become a necessary part of Parker’s personal life as well. Diagnosed with Stage IV colon and liver cancer in March 2015, he underwent numerous rounds of chemotherapy and a round of radiation before having extensive remedial surgery. In October 2020, after a recurrence, he received a liver transplant, a procedure that lasted 13 hours.

Except for his hospital stays, Parker seldom lost time at work, wearing his chemotherapy infusion pump under his suit coat while he went about his duties.

“He was determined to continue to do what he loved and to be here for his family,” says his wife Cheryl, a former TV news anchor in Indianapolis whom Parker met while attending law school at Indiana University. She now heads external communications for Cincinnati-based AAA Club Alliance. “He has the most strength, mental and physical, of anyone I’ve ever known.”

Parker says he learned his work ethic from his father Henry, an orthopaedic technician at The Christ Hospital for 40 years, and his mother Betty, a nursing assistant for nearly as long at Cincinnati Children’s  Hospital Medical Center. But from spending his childhood summers at his grandfather Vaughn’s small farm in Charleston, Indiana, he learned that work isn’t really work if you love what you’re doing. “You tell a kid to go clean a tractor. Is that work? Maybe when he’s 17. But like at 8, 9, or 10? He’s like, ‘Wow, I’m glad you’re giving me the responsibility and glad you trusted me.’ I don’t look back on any of it as work.”

Parker puts in long days at the office but, when he’s home, Cheryl says, “it’s all about his family and doing the things we love to do, like having dinner as a family, spending time with our twin daughters.” Leah and Cecelia attend their father’s high school alma mater.

Growing up in Walnut Hills near Evanston, Parker faced the temptations of any young person living amidst the challenges of poverty, gun violence, and drugs. He credits his respect for his father for escaping unscathed. “Whenever I found myself in a particular situation, regardless of the people I was around, my father was my number one person,” he says. “I always asked myself, If he was here right now, what would he want me to do?”

Just how Parker will proceed in the federal prosecutor’s office is of keen interest to Cincinnati residents concerned about the rise in recent years of political bribery and corruption in both city and state government. Three Cincinnati City Council members were arrested on federal corruption charges in 2020, and two have been convicted and sentenced, Tamaya Dennard and Jeff Pastor. The case against P.G. Sittenfeld, a one-time front-runner for the mayor’s office, is set for trial in federal district court on June 20.

Up in Columbus, former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder is accused of running a $61 million bribery scheme that channeled funds from FirstEnergy Corp. to a dark money group that eventually lined Householder’s pockets. In return, federal prosecutors say, Householder passed a $1 billion nuclear power plant bailout in House Bill 6, which was quickly signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine. Aides and lobbyists close to Householder were also charged in the scheme, and FirstEnergy agreed to pay a fine of $230 million for its involvement.

The indictments for those federal corruption cases were handed down in 2020 and 2021, when Parker’s predecessor, David DeVillers, was the district’s U.S. attorney. DeVillers got much of the credit for the crackdown from the local media, but an examination of the indictments shows that the investigations into those cases began during Glassman’s tenure in 2018 and 2019. His chief of criminal investigations at the time just happened to be Parker.

Will Parker continue to press those investigations no matter where they lead? “We are going to go wherever the evidence takes us,” he says, smiling at his use of the standard comment on any individual case. “The prosecutors here, I trust them all that they are going to do that. We’re going to address public corruption, we’re going to address child exploitation, we’re going to address cybercrime, and we’re going to address Social Security and tax fraud. Every case we have, we proceed until it’s closed.”

Parker’s life-long devotion to public service leaves no doubt that he’ll press every investigation to its conclusion, says Ralph Kohnen, who worked with him until leaving in 2007 to join Taft Law. A rarity among federal prosecutors, Parker went straight from law school to his clerkship with Judge Spiegel and then to work for the U.S. attorney’s office in 1999 and has stayed there ever since, despite the much larger income to be made in private law practice.

“This has been a long journey for him, personally and professionally,” his wife Cheryl says of his appointment as U.S. attorney. She believes there’s a good reason her husband has survived late-stage cancer and a liver transplant. “I know this is what he was meant for.”

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