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U.S. Judge Scolds D.C. Over Shoddy Handling of Evidence in 2002 Protest in Downtown Washington

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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009

A federal judge chastised D.C. government lawyers Wednesday for how they have defended lawsuits brought by nearly 400 people arrested during a 2002 protest in downtown Washington.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said at a hearing that he was so shocked by the government's handling of evidence in the cases that he was tempted to launch an independent investigation of the D.C. attorney general's office.

Some evidence, including a key report and portions of radio transmissions, has vanished. In recent days, the D.C. government has also turned over thousands of pages of records and videotapes to protesters' lawyers, some of which should have been produced years ago.

Sullivan ordered D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles to submit a sworn declaration detailing his office's shoddy work and the steps he was taking to fix the problems.

Sullivan said he would impose "severe" monetary sanctions on the D.C. government and urged Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to "settle this case soon."

"This kind of conduct is not acceptable," Sullivan said, calling the actions of D.C. government lawyers "abysmal" and urging the D.C. Council to investigate the attorney general's office.

After the judge's harangue, the District's attorney, Thomas Koger, had tears in his eyes. He declined to comment.

Nickles said in an interview that his agency needed more money to create systems to better manage its records. He said that he has tried to reach a settlement with the protesters but that their "demands are far out of reach."

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the judiciary committee, said he was considering an investigation. "This is very disturbing," Mendelson said.

Sullivan's criticism came during a hearing in two lawsuits that accuse D.C. police of violating the rights of demonstrators and bystanders when officers arrested 386 people in Pershing Park without a warning on Sept. 27, 2002. Former D.C. police chief Charles H. Ramsey eventually issued a public apology for the arrests. Protesting at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the demonstrators were charged with parading without a permit.

According to attorneys for the protesters, the District has lost a key computer record and 12 paper copies of a "running résumé," a police log of the officers' actions that day.

The government has also produced tapes of radio calls that are missing stretches of transmissions during key moments of the arrests, the attorneys said.

Jonathan Turley, an attorney for the protesters, called for an independent investigation of the attorney general's office. Another lawyer for the protesters, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, said she had never seen such "a breathtaking destruction of evidence before."

The government stands to lose millions in the suits and has spent more than $1 million in legal fees for private attorneys representing Ramsey and another top police official, Peter J. Newsham, who has said he ordered the arrests. A handful of protesters settled suits over the mass arrests, costing the city more money.

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