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Derek Champagne

Establishment of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon changed the U.S. government and the nation.

And it changed the job for Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne.

"It's definitely had an impact, bringing more attention to the northern border. There are more Border Protection officers and expanded customs with ICE (Integrated Customs Enforcement), and it's increased our caseloads."

Federal Border Protection officers who make vehicle stops may uncover evidence that a state or local crime has been committed. But because it doesn't rise to the severity of a federal charge, "we get those cases," Champagne said.

MORE BOOTS

Before 9/11, Franklin County had a Narcotics Task Force that concentrated on capturing drug smugglers and dismantling their networks.

But the Task Force's responsibilities have expanded in the years since the terrorist attacks. It is now the Narcotics and Border Task Force and deals with border crime.

"It gives us more boots on the ground," Champagne said. "The intelligence gathering has also changed since those days because we're now looking at every border-related investigation to see if it is a revenue stream for an operation to do harm to the United States or its citizens."

COMMAND CENTER

He said investigations now involve finding out in great detail why a person is in the area "and what they are up to.

"If they are arrested for having 30 pounds of marijuana, we want to know, were they just here to buy marijuana or was the buy a way to make money for some other purpose to harm the United States?"

Task-force operations also include officers from municipal police departments in Malone, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police Department.

The Tribal Police Department had been stripped of its policing powers in 2000. But, in large part due to 9/11 and the new demands for border surveillance, the governor reinstated the department in 2005.

A command center that Champagne established, at a location not publicly disclosed, houses representatives from every branch of federal and state law enforcement and monitors the border, detects and investigates local crimes and those committed over the Internet.

NEW DIMENSION

Investigative information sharing also developed in the past 10 years.

Response to the terrorist attacks "clearly added a new dimension to allow us to connect the dots, where we are able to take a global approach and trace (drug-smuggler) activities. We ask, 'Where are the illegal proceeds going?'

"There was a case in the Buffalo area where the money was tied to a terrorist group," Champagne said. "As an added component, we look at the money to find out what type of organized crime it's going to.

"Before 9/11, our attitude was, 'We'll let the feds worry about border stuff, and we'll worry about Franklin County.' But now there is global awareness. If we don't know who people are and what they're doing, they can do harm.

"This greatly expanded our work conducting investigations, doing background checks and trying to connect the dots," Champagne said.

"It's very rare that it is brought to the public's attention, but we put time and energy into it every day."

 &subhead;MORE NETWORKING

The northern border is giving the region a higher profile with federal authorities, "and the number of meetings, conferences and sharing we do with other agencies has quintupled," the DA said.

"And the attorney general of the United States (Eric Holder) will be coming up to the North Country in reference to a border initiative. When was the last time a U.S. attorney general came to upstate New York? I can't ever remember it happening.

"And the U.S. Attorney's Office has four assistant U.S. attorneys in Plattsburgh now. Before 9/11, they didn't even have an office. There are four assistant U.S. attorneys, and they are all straight out with cases."

IMPACT LINGERS

Champagne was with County Court Judge Robert G. Main Jr. and several others, preparing for court on Sept. 11, 2001. The impact lingers.

"It took away a lot of our innocence, no matter what age group you're in. And it took away our sense of safety and security in America," Champagne said.

"I have fond memories from when I was in high school of going up in the Twin Towers with a good friend.

"And now to see that the Twin Towers are not there anymore, and all of those people died, you really lose your sense of security.

"It can't help but change your perception of patriotism for your country.

"It was a horrible day."

Email Denise A. Raymo at: draymo@pressrepublican.com

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