In recent months, as federal prosecutors have attacked crime in the nation's boardrooms, they have choreographed charges against high-profile defendants ranging from Enron Corp. finance wizard Andrew S. Fastow to C. Gregory Earls, whose Internet company struggles led to the resignations of Washington insiders William H. Webster and Harvey L. Pitt.
In these and several other cases -- such as the prosecutions of Taliban sympathizer John Walker Lindh and sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad -- notice of the criminal charges came not from federal grand juries but through sworn statements by FBI agents and postal inspectors. The increasing use of such criminal complaints, tactics usually reserved for drug dealers and killers who might skip the country, are appreciated by prosecutors and condemned by defense attorneys and some civil libertarians.
Complaints have long been used by government investigators in more routine criminal cases and are grounded in federal court rules, according to legal scholars. The documents not only spur a judge to issue speedy arrest warrants, they also help prosecutors to tell a more dramatic story about high-profile crimes to the public. Indictments are supposed to follow within 30 days.
James B. Comey, U.S. attorney in Manhattan, where former WorldCom Inc. and Adelphia Communications Corp. officials are being prosecuted on fraud charges, said business criminals should not enjoy more privileges than average people just because they have the money to hire the best defense lawyers.
"One of the things I'm committed to is that white-collar defendants will be treated the same as anybody else," he added. "Trying to restore people's confidence in the criminal justice system is important to us."
His office has used the criminal complaint process to go after more than white-collar defendants in recent months -- it was used to charge three men who manipulated computer systems to fix the Breeders Cup horse races and another man who allegedly fired shots at the United Nations headquarters this year.
Former organized crime prosecutor John Dowd takes the opposite view. He said he thinks the complaints smear people.
"The Constitution provides for indictment by a grand jury," said Dowd, a Washington lawyer who frequently defends corporate executives. "Complaints are used only when people are at risk of taking flight. To me, none of these people are. They're not going anywhere."
Harvard Law School professor William Stuntz said the complaints are "about sending political signals" that government is tough on crime. He noted that prosecutors' use of complaints against business figures last drew widespread attention when Rudolph Giuliani, then U.S. attorney in Manhattan, employed them to arrest stockbrokers and other Wall Street denizens during the insider trading scandals of the late 1980s.
"It's no accident that the most famous example of this practice happened around the time of the collapse of the junk bond market, and this is happening [again] at the collapse of the dot-com and telecom markets," Stuntz said.
Complaints sometimes exert substantial pressure on witnesses to cooperate with the government through the sheer force of detail they describe, said Mark Rochon, a Washington defense lawyer.
"The way they are approaching these investigations is very similar to the way they approach gang prosecutions -- trying to flip witnesses, going after their assets, and using complaints not indictments as a tool," said Rochon, who defended accused gang members before moving into corporate work this year. "For good or ill, they're taking on the tactics of blue-collar, organized crime."In the past, prosecutors' well-chronicled charges haven't always held up. Stanley Arkin, a New York defense lawyer who was enmeshed in the last great wave of business scandals in the late 1980s, said one of his clients was "arrested one morning and displayed like an animal for the kill" on the orders of then U.S. Attorney Giuliani.
Within two months, prosecutors had dropped insider trading allegations against Richard Wigton, a longtime brokerage official at Kidder Peabody. But by then Wigton, who declined comment, had lost his job and his reputation. Giuliani, who drew flak at the time for some of his media-fueled zeal, went on to serve two terms as New York's mayor.
"Mr. Wigton was a victim of overzealous and politically motivated prosecutors," Arkin said. "Basically it's the same thing that happens today. It's very easy in the populist fervor to say, 'Come on, prosecutors, let's go feast on these Wall Street guys.' "
Rory Little, a professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and a former associate deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, said he thinks it is cynical to argue that politics is motivating the recent use of more complaints.
"It could just as easily be their own internal desire to move these cases along quickly," Little said.
"I think they've been doing a careful job in these cases," he said, noting that prosecutors have followed up with a grand jury indictment and formal charges in the month after they filed a white-collar criminal complaint.