Shortly after former District of Columbia Councilmember Kwame Brown pleaded guilty to bank fraud and campaign finance violations on June 8, U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. had a message for the city’s elected officials: We’re watching.

In the past year, Machen’s office brought charges against Brown and former Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., both of whom resigned before pleading guilty to their respective crimes and facing jail time. An ongoing probe into Mayor Vincent Gray’s campaign activities has so far netted two guilty pleas from former campaign aides.

In an interview, Machen attributed his office’s success in public corruption prosecutions to a new focus on going after the money early on, instead of waiting until after charges are brought to seize assets.

He created a stand-alone forfeiture and money laundering section and made seeking out opportunities for forfeiture a priority. Machen also set up a public corruption task force to track cases and coordinate efforts within the office.

Before any federal case is approved for indictment, Machen said, attorneys now review it first for forfeiture potential; in previous years, he said, that policy wasn’t as universally applied. “We became very, very aggressive in following the proceeds of illegal activity and trying to seize those proceeds at the same time as the take-down,” he said. In Thomas’ case, for instance, investigators seized assets before indicting him for embezzling more than $350,000 in public funds. “If you don’t seize the assets early on…all the resources will be used up by the defendant and nothing will be there,” Machen said.

The “follow the money” approach has paid off. In fiscal years 2010 and 2011, the office recovered more than $1.5 billion in criminal and civil actions and asset forfeitures, according to data from the U.S. attorney’s office.

“I hope [these cases] send a message that public officials have to act with integrity and honor in carrying out their duties,” Machen said. “There will be consequences.