Study finds mass misconduct by federal prosecutors

March 26, 2014

I’m a bit late to this, but it’s definitely still worth noting.

An internal affairs office at the Justice Department has found that, over the last decade, hundreds of federal prosecutors and other Justice employees violated rules, laws, or ethical standards governing their work.

The violations include instances in which attorneys who have a duty to uphold justice have, according to the internal affairs office, misled courts, withheld evidence that could have helped defendants, abused prosecutorial and investigative power, and violated constitutional rights.

From fiscal year 2002 through fiscal year 2013, the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) documented more than 650 infractions, according to a Project On Government Oversight review of data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and from OPR reports.

In the majority of the matters—more than 400—OPR categorized the violations as being at the more severe end of the scale: recklessness or intentional misconduct, as distinct from error or poor judgment.

The information the Justice Department has disclosed is only part of the story. No less significant is what as a matter of policy it keeps from the public.

As a general practice, the Justice Department does not make public the names of attorneys who acted improperly or the defendants whose cases were affected. The result: the Department, its lawyers, and the internal watchdog office itself are insulated from meaningful public scrutiny and accountability.

During the Clinton Administration, the Justice Department responded to such criticism by declaring that it would make more of OPR’s findings public, including the names of offenders, and it issued a policy statement extolling the importance of disclosure.[1] But the Department’s promise of greater openness had major caveats, and its subsequent track record of disclosing the results of investigations does not appear to have lived up to its rhetoric. The policy statement was scrapped during the George W. Bush Administration and has not been revived.

POGO’s [the Project on Government Oversight] review of the record since fiscal year 2002 raises questions that are difficult to answer without greater transparency: Are the Justice Department and its internal affairs office taking misconduct seriously enough? Or are they pulling punches? And has Justice Department management watered down the results of the watchdog’s probes?

The entire report, including POGO’s recommendations for more transparency and accountability, is well worth your time. And Mother Jones reports that there’s already been some movement toward reform:

A bill proposed on Thursday by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) would overhaul how misconduct is investigated at the Justice Department. Right now, only OPR is allowed to look into ethics complaints, instead of the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, which is widely considered to be more independent. The senators’ bill would move that authority to the IG’s office. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who supports the bill, says: “When Americans pledge to abide by ‘liberty and justice for all,’ that does not mean that those pursuing justice can creatively apply different standards or break the rules to get convictions—it means that in America everyone is held equally accountable.”

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read
Next Story
Radley Balko · March 26, 2014