THE PROSECUTORS Inside the Offices Of the Government's Most Powerful Lawyers By James B. Stewart Simon and Schuster. 378 pp. $19.95
NOT EVERYONE is going to like The Prosecutors, by James Stewart, a senior writer at The Wall Street Journal. Attorney General Edwin Meese will not like it (although, from all accounts delivered in this book, Meese is unlikely ever to undertake so much reading). Manhattan U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani will not like it, unless he is so crazed for publicity (as Stewart indicates) that he does not care what is said about him. Indeed, many appointed officials in the Reagan Justice Department will not be pleased; nor, for that matter, will most judicial scholars or legal purists.
That leaves the rest of us.
Stewart has written a highly entertaining account of several of the more notorious prosecutions conducted in this country over the past 10 years. He has done this by focusing on the involvements of the individual prosecutors, most of them young, virtually all of them male. He has attempted to string their stories together thematically, and to bring the often boring details of a well-prepared prosecution within as interesting a framework as possible.
To do this, he has adopted a straightforward, slightly breezy style that occasionally sacrifices substance for clarity. Thus, for example, he makes reference to Supreme Court rulings without providing either citations or the names of the cases that he is discussing -- a transgression that will not easily be accepted by the lawyers who will make up a large portion of his readership. While there can be no denying the tremendous amount of time and effort Stewart must have put into his research, his writing is given to repetition and bits of hyperbole and his information often reflects the biases and perspectives of the sources on whom he relies -- usually the prosecutors themselves.
Still, all is forgiven when one realizes that the purpose of The Prosecutors is not to whitewash or to extol or even to denigrate the lives and actions of our government's criminal attorneys. It is, instead, to examine the system that allows them to operate. On the one hand, federal prosecutors have nearly unfettered discretion in terms of launching investigations that "can have major, even dire, consequences for their targets." On the other hand, their guidelines are intensely political, so that what may be deemed a crime in, say, the Carter administration is merely winked at in, say, the Reagan administration.
Interestingly, those most on the firing line, the assistant United States attorneys who are actually investigating and trying the cases, are the least political. They, for the most part, want to prosecute everything. Their bosses, the U.S. attorneys themselves, are a hybrid of political appointees with attendant political ambitions and go-get-'em trial lawyers. Above the U.S. attorneys stand the officials of the Justice Department in Washington -- friends and confidants of the president. Friends of friends. People with personal predispositions, predilections and prejudices. People with the ability to hire and exile their bureaucratic staffs.
Against this background, six cases are examined: the McDonnell-Douglas foreign bribery conspiracy; the Hitachi "sting" operation; the Morgan Stanley insider trading scandal; the New York City parking lot murders of three CBS employes; the Cayman Islands tax avoidance scheme carried out by Denver entrepreneur William Kilpatrick with the assistance of the Bank of Nova Scotia; and the special investigation of Attorney General Edwin Meese. Each case is introduced by a vignette, a teaser of sorts, much along the lines of those delivered to television viewers before inflicting on them the potentially stuporous details of plot development. The effect here, however, is largely successful in terms of humanizing the stories and creating a degree of suspense.
Each story has its own elements of character, mystery, intrigue and drama. Each stands as an example of what the government can and does do in carrying out its prosecutions. And therein lies the beauty of Stewart's work. For, in getting us to consider with interest how Hitachi executives attempted to steal IBM computer secrets, he also causes us to question the government's role in trying to get those executives to steal the secrets. Could it be that one young prosecutor and his politically appointed boss wanted to make a name for themselves by fomenting an international crackdown in San Jose, Calif.?
Or how about the bust of American industrialists for making payments to foreign officials in foreign lands where such payments are customary? Can the Department of Justice make a crime out of that? Let's turn loose a 28-year-old staff attorney (that's three years out of law school, folks) and see. Let's put him up against Clark Clifford and an array of equally imposing dense attorneys. Let's determine that it is a crime and support our young staffer right up to the time we change administrations, and then let's bring in Rudi Giuliani, second or third ranking member of the new Justice Department hierarchy, to hold secret meetings with the defendants, cut special deals, and then announce that the prosecutor who had devoted four years of his life to the government's effort was a "jerk."
Stewart offers no solutions to his twin concerns of zealotry and politicization, although in the case of the Cayman Islands tax scam he does show how zealotry in particular can come back to haunt a prosecutorial team. Rather, he appears to consider it his role to bring these problems to the attention of the public and to remind the prosecutors themselves that their power must be tempered by the knowledge that they are expected to be public servants more than they are advocates. In that regard, at least, Stewart has done us all a service.
Walter Walker, a trial lawyer in San Francisco, is the author of several novels, most recently "Rules of the Knife Fight."