By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. began a series of personnel moves yesterday in one of the most sensitive and secretive sections of the Justice Department, part of his effort to restore public confidence in the nation's highest law enforcement operation.
The department has attracted ferocious criticism from judges and defense lawyers who have sounded alarms about unprofessional conduct and raised allegations about political interference in prosecutions during the Bush administration.
Holder promised lawmakers at his confirmation hearing this year that he would remove the taint of politics from the department's hiring practices and perform a "damage assessment" of its operations.
Yesterday he took a step in that direction, naming a longtime prosecutor to lead the Justice Department's internal ethics unit, as well as making two other personnel switches. For Holder, who got his start as a young lawyer in the department more than three decades ago, the announcements put his stamp on a building still reeling from the dismissal this week of criminal charges against former senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The department is also facing fresh calls to reopen the cases of other prominent political figures.
In making the appointments, Holder said his selection of career prosecutors with decades of experience, rather than political connections, was meant to underscore the importance of ethics and professionalism in the department.
He appointed Mary Patrice Brown, a well-respected career prosecutor in the District, the new leader of the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which polices misconduct by department lawyers. Brown, who runs the criminal division at the U.S. attorney's office in the District, will become the third chief of the ethics unit since it was established in 1975 after the Watergate scandal.
The move came a day after U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan expressed a lack of confidence in the office, which has been investigating lapses with witnesses and evidence that ultimately demolished the government's case against Stevens. Citing the seriousness of the alleged prosecutorial misconduct, the judge took the extraordinary step of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate six government lawyers involved in the case against the former senator, convicted last fall of ethics violations for accepting gifts from an oil services company executive.
The ethics job is among the most delicate in the Justice Department. Among other issues, the OPR has been examining whether lawyers from George W. Bush's presidency who drafted memos in support of waterboarding and other harsh detainee interrogation tactics followed professional legal standards. Two key Senate Democrats have been advocating for the release of the report on the Bush lawyers.
Lawmakers and former Justice Department officials have criticized the unit for its slow pace in investigating department personnel, an issue Sullivan highlighted this week.
Former colleagues praised Brown's background yesterday.
"She's got great judgment, unimpeachable integrity and a tremendous reputation around town," said Kenneth L. Wainstein, who worked with Brown when he served as U.S. attorney in the District during the Bush administration. "She understands the stresses and strains in litigation, but also understands the importance of following the rules."
James W. Cooper, a former career prosecutor in the District, said that Brown "is a person of the utmost integrity, and I think she will be very effective in that position."
H. Marshall Jarrett, the current chief of the ethics unit, will move over to lead the executive office of U.S. attorneys. In that post, he will have a voice on policy issues during an early stage in the new administration, helping to direct the work of the 94 U.S. attorneys and to referee disputes among them.
Jarrett is a career prosecutor who has led the OPR since 1998. As an official at the U.S. attorney's office in the District, he worked closely with Holder and supervised high-profile prosecutions of former D.C. mayor Marion Barry (D) and former congressman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.).
In a statement, Holder expressed "the highest regard for Jarrett's experience, talents and capabilities."
Jarrett's familiarity with ethics issues sends a message to incoming U.S. attorneys about the importance of professional conduct and could signal a new emphasis on training career lawyers about the rules, said G. Douglas Jones, a top prosecutor in Birmingham during the Clinton administration.
"The attorney general is really making sure that people understand there's a new sheriff in town, and prosecutors are going to have to abide by the rules just like everybody else," Jones said. "It's no secret there have been major problems with the integrity of the Department of Justice over the past eight years, from Washington all the way down to assistant U.S. attorneys. That's why [Holder] has to take such a public stance on this."
Jarrett will replace Kenneth E. Melson, who directed the executive office of U.S. attorneys since 2007. Melson, who was a career prosecutor in Alexandria for nearly 25 years before shifting to department headquarters, will become acting chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The bureau will play a role in the administration's heightened efforts to reduce violence and gun traffic on the southwestern U.S. border.
When she assumes her new job, Brown will have a full plate. The government's trouble in the Stevens case has prompted other defendants to call for new investigations of prosecutors and FBI agents. Defense attorneys for former Alabama governor Don Siegelman (D), for instance, recently sent a letter to Holder asking him to reopen the case for their client, who was convicted for his role in a corruption scheme. The ethics unit is investigating the lawyers who prosecuted Siegelman and was nearing the release of a report, which now may be delayed because of the new leadership within the OPR.