Former Prosecutor: Disbanding LA USA Public Corruption Unit “Sends A Message”

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Yesterday on TPM, Josh noted a report (sub. req.) in The Recorder, a California legal news publication, that the U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles, Thomas O’Brien, had disbanded the office’s public integrity unit.

The 17 attorneys in that section of the office “will be redistributed among the major fraud and organized crime sections, which now will have a mandate to battle corruption,” the Recorder reported. The office’s spokesman tried to put as bright a face on it as possible, saying “Our view is that it’s a significant enhancement of the public corruption unit. We now have over 70 lawyers who essentially will be able to step up to the plate.”

That’s clearly some weak spin. But I asked a former prosecutor from the office’s public integrity unit to give me a sense of what this means.

That former prosecutor didn’t think the move was “politically motivated,” instead attributing the move to a desire to improve the office’s statistics. U.S. attorneys frequently experience pressure to increase the number of prosecutions as evidence of performance. Remember that Justice Department officials used former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam’s lower immigration case numbers as justification for her firing (ignoring her office’s concentration on busting illegal immigration rings). “Public corruption cases are very difficult and very time consuming,” the former prosecutor explained. “A lot of that doesn’t result in a statistic.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the cases don’t have a disproportionate impact. “The fact of an investigation into the earmark process [i.e. the Duke Cunningham scandal and by extension the investigation of Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA)],” really had a huge impact in opening up debate of how that process has been corrupted by money. That doesn’t happen if you’re not looking at it every day.

“My concern is the message that it sends,” the lawyer continued. “The existence of the section, the fact that talented, smart, aggressive prosecutors are looking at cases, sends a message to public officials that they need to be careful.” Now another message has been sent.The former prosecutor didn’t think that this move would derail any of the investigations ongoing in the unit — such as the Lewis investigation, which has stalled at times. Only a number of the larger U.S. attorney offices in the country have a public integrity unit (like, as Eliot Spitzer knows full well, the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan).

O’Brien has headed Los Angeles’ U.S. Attorney’s Office since July of 2007. The former longterm U.S.A., Debra Yang, left abruptly in late 2006, a departure that frequently aroused suspicion in the context of the U.S. attorney firings’ investigation. O’Brien had been the Chief of the Criminal Division in that office before taking over.

But the importance of such units is in the creation of new cases, the attorney explained: “The corruption cases are driven more by the prosecutors than by law enforcement. The assistant U.S. attorneys are following these issues and call the FBI when they see something and say ‘maybe we should take a look at this.’ Without that core group of prosecutors looking at that stuff, you may lose those opportunities.”

The FBI has made public corruption a major priority (Attorney General Michael Mukasey has been less clear on that points), and O’Brien’s spokesman stressed to The Recorder that “if the FBI has got a good case they want to investigate, there are still plenty of people in the U.S. attorney’s office who will want to run with it.” That may be the case. But all the same, crooked California politicians can breathe a little easier.