By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; A13
U.S. attorney's offices around the country are struggling with severe shortages in staffing and supplies, with prosecutor vacancy rates now hovering at 20 percent or higher in Los Angeles and other large offices, according to two House Democrats and government statistics.
In a letter yesterday to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said chronic budget shortages have taken a debilitating toll on the ranks of federal prosecutors, forcing many offices to implement hiring freezes and to charge for photocopies, reuse envelopes and scrounge for binder clips.
Overall, according to the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, full-time vacancies in federal prosecutors' offices have jumped from fewer than 200 in 2004 to 765 as of May.
"According to assistant U.S. attorneys, the lack of staff and resources force federal prosecutors to forego prosecutions in some important cases and to reach plea bargains in others," Waxman and Conyers wrote.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kathleen M. Blomquist laid much of the blame on Congress, saying members have repeatedly rejected administration requests for higher funding and have taken back $120 million intended for prosecutor pay raises and other expenses since 2003. "As this trend has developed, we have urged Congress to support the president's request to fully fund the U.S. attorneys offices so that we can return additional prosecutors to the courtroom," Blomquist said in a statement.
According to a survey by Waxman and Conyers, U.S. attorneys reported vacancy rates of 20 percent in Chicago and Los Angeles and closer to 25 percent in Arizona and Oregon. In Philadelphia, they said, federal prosecutors began charging poor defendants for copies of documents -- and cited budget pressures in defending the policy in court.
In the District, the congressmen said about 40 out of 360 slots are vacant, although one official said the actual total was about 30. Officials in Alexandria and Baltimore referred questions to Justice headquarters, which did not provide statistics for those offices.
The problems are worsening despite an overall increase in funding over the past five years from Congress, Waxman and Conyers wrote, from $1.35 billion in 2001 to $1.6 billion currently.
"Congress has allocated more money for U.S. attorney's offices, but the money doesn't seem to be getting to them," Waxman said in an interview.
Dennis W. Boyd, executive director of the attorneys association, said other costs -- including rising rents and higher personnel costs -- have eaten into budgets despite increases from Congress. Some large offices, such as Los Angeles and the District, struggle to retain lawyers under heavy recruitment from better-paying law firms. "This is a serious problem and getting worse," he said.
Boyd noted that U.S. attorney's offices returned about $3.5 billion to the government through fines, settlements and other forms of restitution -- more than twice what they cost to run.