Federal prosecutors offered a hint Tuesday about a long-secret fiscal matter: the budget for the District’s U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In a press release about asset forfeitures and civil actions, the city’s top prosecutor, Ronald C. Machen, said in a statement that “over the past year, we recovered more than $500 million for taxpayers and crime victims, a sum that vastly exceeds the total annual budget of the U.S. Attorney's Office.”
But what about the exact budget figure? The Justice Department in 2009 denied a Freedom of Information Act request by the Washington Post for that information. On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen declined to provide the figure, saying “we don’t routinely give out our budget information publicly.”
The Obama Administration has said repeatedly that it “is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.”
Machen declined to release the budget figure even though other U.S. attorneys have made such information public in press releases describing their own seizures. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago reported a $34.7 million budget on Nov. 16. And the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan on Nov. 21 reported its budget of $24 million.
The District is in a unique position, as federal prosecutors handle both local and federal crimes. The office has about 330 prosecutors and nearly 300 support staff. Many of the prosecutors work out of D.C. Superior Court, where local offenses, ranging from homicides to theft, are tried.
The office’s secrecy about its budget is likely to irk D.C. officials and those who have advocated for home rule, particularly since other federal prosecutors have released their budget numbers in recent weeks.
U.S. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, for example, has long pushed to have an elected prosecutor handle local crimes and recently re-introduced legislation that would create such a post.
“There is no law enforcement issue of greater importance to D.C. residents, or on which they have less say here, than the prosecution of local crimes,” Norton said when she introduced the legislation in February.
The budget of such a prosecutor would presumably be public, allowing elected leaders and citizens to better scrutinize the office’s priorities and strategies. Abe Rakov, a spokesman for Norton, said the delegate believes the U.S. Attorney’s budget should be made public.
In its press release, the U.S. Attorney’s Office noted that it had collected more than $1.5 billion in “criminal and civil actions and asset forfeitures during the past two years.”
Machen said such seizures were important because “the seizures are important because we are taking the illicit proceeds of criminal activity...It goes into the Treasury. And it’s used for the greater good of the government.”