D.C.'s Pershing Park Puzzle

Thursday, August 6, 2009

ON THE MORNING of Sept. 27, 2002, D.C. police monitoring protests at the IMF/World Bank meetings swept into Pershing Park and, without warning or cause, rounded up hundreds of people. Peaceful protesters, innocent bystanders and others hurrying to work were unlawfully arrested, hogtied by police and confined for hours -- their constitutional rights violated. If that weren't bad enough, it now appears that efforts to get a full accounting and redress for those events are being thwarted by what a federal judge characterized as intolerable conduct by city lawyers. These troubling allegations cannot go unanswered.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan last week blasted D.C. officials for mishandling evidence in a civil lawsuit brought by some of those arrested seven years ago. In an extraordinary rebuke that reduced D.C. assistant attorney general Thomas Koger to tears, Judge Sullivan likened the city's "shenanigans" to the kind of prosecutorial abuses he saw in the criminal case of former senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The office of D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles was singled out, but the questions extend to police and other officials.

Plaintiffs allege that critical evidence -- such as the "running résumé" of all events and decisions made on Sept. 27 -- was destroyed or lost. Even more troubling is their rather convincing charge that information was deleted from audiotapes supplied to them during discovery. Judge Sullivan has demanded that Mr. Nickles provide a full accounting of the city's "pattern of shortcomings" and "discovery abuses."

Mr. Nickles told us that he is taking the judge's admonition to heart. He has blamed the city's inability to properly manage records during discovery on a chronic lack of resources, but he said he is reserving judgment on exactly what went wrong in this case until he knows all the facts. It's encouraging that he enlisted former federal judge Stanley Sporkin, who is offering his considerable expertise on a pro bono basis, to advise him.

Judge Sullivan is correct when he asserts that the issues raised by the government's conduct call into question "when, if ever, can anyone trust their government." The problems with this case predate Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Mr. Nickles, but they have persisted into the current administration. Mr. Fenty should heed the judge's advice to get involved and settle this case, if for no other reason than to end the mounting costs of litigation and court sanctions. And, if the judge is not satisfied with the account to be provided by Mr. Nickles, the mayor should welcome an outside look. Because some on the D.C. Council have already prejudged the outcome, the court itself would best provide that oversight.

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