Surya Saxena, senior associate general counsel at UnitedHealthcare, is a finalist for the U.S. attorney position. Saxena previously served as assistant U.S. attorney in Minnesota. Credit: LinkedIn

To continue reading this article and others for free, please sign up for our newsletter.

Sahan Journal publishes deep, reported news for and with immigrants and communities of color—the kind of stories you won’t find anywhere else.

Unlock our in-depth reporting by signing up for our free newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Surya Saxena, a former assistant U.S. attorney for Minnesota, has emerged as a finalist for the top federal prosecutor post in the state, Sahan Journal has learned. 

Saxena, an Indian American who’s currently the senior associate general counsel at UnitedHealthcare in Minnetonka, joins two other names in the running for the high-profile job. Andy Luger, a former U.S. attorney (2014–2017), is currently a partner at international law firm Jones Day. Lola Velazquez-Aguilu, a former assistant U.S. attorney for Minnesota, is currently a lead counsel for a product line at Medtronic.

Sources have also told Sahan Journal that Velazquez-Aguilu is a finalist for U.S. attorney for Minnesota, which was first reported by Minnesota Reformer. If appointed, Velazquez-Aguilu would be the first Latina to win appointment to the position. Velazquez-Aguilu was not available for comment.

The names of candidates for the U.S. attorney job typically remain secret throughout the selection process. In late February, a seven-person committee led by Ramsey County Attorney John Choi met behind closed doors to compile a short list of candidates to become Minnesota’s next U.S. attorney. 

Some three weeks later, amid political maneuvering in the DFL party, three candidates have entered the conversation in news reports, at the State Capitol, and in Washington.

Sahan Journal learned of Saxena’s status from sources who were not authorized to comment on the potential nominees. Saxena declined to comment.

The state’s U.S attorney prosecutes criminal cases brought by the federal government and leads civil cases that involve the United States as a party. Minnesota’s two senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, are responsible for proposing candidates to President Joe Biden for consideration and approval. The U.S. Senate then gives its consent for the appointment. 

Saxena’s status among the final candidates emerges amid pushback to the finalist list among legislators in Saint Paul. As reported Wednesday morning in Minnesota Reformer, legislators, led by first-year Senator Omar Fateh (DFL-Minneapolis), have introduced a letter to Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith objecting to Luger’s candidacy for a second term as U.S. attorney. 

On March 4, Sahan Journal broke the news that Luger had reached the shortlist that reached Klobuchar and Smith. In turn, almost two dozen legislators signed on to a letter raising concerns about Luger’s decisions related to police shootings and “anti-extremism” programs and prosecutions.

“We are writing to express our serious concern over the potential appointment of Andrew Luger as US attorney for Minnesota, as reported by Sahan Journal,” the letter begins. 

“During the Obama administration, US Attorney Luger failed to bring civil rights cases against police officers responsible for killing black men. His inaction caused further erosion to our black community’s trust in the justice system. He also oversaw the harmful and misguided Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program which singled out Muslims as would-be terrorists by funding community organizations to track the activity of young Muslims, especially black Muslim men.”

So far, a diverse group of DFL legislators have signed on to the letter, including Senator Omar Fateh (DFL-Minneapolis), Representatives Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), Aisha Gomez (DFL-Minneapolis), Jay Xiong (DFL-St. Paul), Fue Lee (DFL-Minneapolis), Esther Agbaje (DFL-Minneapolis), Athena Hollins (DFL-St. Paul), and Samantha Vang (DFL-Brooklyn Center).

More legislators continued to add their names to the letter, shared with Sahan Journal on Tuesday.

Late Wednesday night, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations announced a Thursday-morning press conference to protest Luger’s possible selection. In a press release, CAIR-MN cited the legislator’s letter and cited a handful of supporting organizations, including the NAACP, Racial Justice Network, and the Muslim Coalition of the religious activist group ISAIAH.

Saxena prosecuted cases involving fraud and synthetic opioids

Saxena advises UnitedHealthcare on issues regarding fraud, waste, and abuse. Saxena also collaborates with federal and state law enforcement for healthcare fraud investigations.

Prior to serving on UnitedHealthcare’s counsel team, Saxena served as Assistant U.S. Attorney in Minnesota. In that role, he led attorneys and federal law enforcement agents in a wide array of investigations, including fraud and embezzlement, money laundering, cybercrime, narcotics trafficking, and opioid overdoses.

As an assistant U.S. attorney, Saxena worked on the state’s first federal case involving carfentanil, a highly potent synthetic opioid, Star Tribune reported in 2018. 

United States District Judge Ann Montgomery said Saxena has handled a variety of cases in her courtroom.

“I’ve been impressed with his professional manner,” Montgomery said. “He has a reputation in the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a thinker and a valued team player.”

Saxena was a co-recipient of the Minnesota Lawyer’s attorney of the year award. Saxena and Velazquez-Aguilu, who is also a candidate for the U.S. attorney position, jointly received this award for their successful fraud prosecutions against executives at Starkey Laboratories. In March 2018, two executives at the hearing aid manufacturer in Eden Prairie were convicted of stealing more than $15 million from the company.

Upon receiving the award, Saxena told the magazine that taking time during the trial’s debates “was probably the biggest factor from my perspective in the success of the case.”

Saxena received the same magazine’s diversity and inclusion award in 2019. He also co-chaired a committee of the U.S. attorney’s office tasked with improving recruiting and hiring practices.

Saxena has previously worked as an associate at Dorsey & Whitney, a large firm based in Minneapolis that represents clients in industries such as banking, energy, agribusiness, healthcare, and technology.

Saxena attended law school at Georgetown University Law Center. He received a B.A in political science at the University of Minnesota.

Velazquez-Aguilu involved in judicial selection process, prosecution of police who killed George Floyd

Velazquez-Aguilu is currently a lead counsel at Medtronic, where she works on cases concerning brain modulation, according to her LinkedIn profile.

In July, Velazquez-Aguilu joined Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s team on a pro bono basis in prosecuting the four former Minneapolis police officers charged in the death of George Floyd. 

In 2019, Governor Tim Walz appointed Velazquez-Aguilu to chair a committee tasked with recommending candidates to the governor for vacant judicial positions in Minnesota. She had previously served as a member of the committee and participated in the selection of 13 new Minnesota judges since 2016.

“She is a self-driven and dedicated public servant and an accomplished attorney whose leadership will set the tone of the Commission,” Walz said in a statement announcing her appointment.

Minnesota Lawyer* also gave Velazquez-Aguilu a diversity and inclusion award in 2019 for her work at Medtronic. A total of 25 individual attorneys and groups also received the award that year, including Saxena.

From 2010 to 2018, Velazquez-Aguilu served as Assistant U.S. Attorney alongside Saxena. Prior to that, the two attorneys worked together at Dorsey & Whitney at the same time.

Velazquez-Aguilu has also clerked for Judge Montgomery and former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page. 

Montgomery first met Velazquez-Aguilu a year before she became a clerk. Montgomery said she remembered almost hiring someone else for the position, then coming across Velazquez-Aguilu’s application. So she called Page, she recalled, and asked, “I have another clerk applicant in mind. Am I going to miss out on something if I hire this other candidate?” 

Page’s answer convinced her to hire Velazquez-Aguilu. “We clicked from the start. She’s just extremely pleasant, affable, but bright,” Montgomery said. “I knew we would be a good team.”

After Velazquez-Aguilu’s clerkship ended, she stayed in touch with Montgomery, who describes her former clerks as family.

“It’s been fascinating to watch, because she has succeeded in lots of different environments,” Montogomery said. “I watched her as a successful prosecutor, she’s succeeded in the corporate world now—all while doing lots of outreach activities.”

Velazquez-Aguilu attended law school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. 

This is a developing story. It will be updated when more information becomes available.

Correction: This story has been changed to note that Surya Saxena, if appointed, would not become the first Indian American to take the state’s top federal law enforcement post. Also, Minnesota Lawyer is a newspaper, not a magazine.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.