Thursday, August 20, 2009
A District of Columbia hearing committee has filed its report in a high-profile bar discipline case against a former prosecutor. The National Law Journal reports:
A former federal prosecutor in Washington was dishonest, interfered with the administration of justice and committed a crime when he doled out thousands of dollars in federal witness money to jailed informants and to individuals who were not in fact witnesses, according to a professional responsibility hearing committee in the District of Columbia.
The two-person Board of Professional Responsibility hearing committee, however, split on its recommended sanction against former assistant U.S. attorney G. Paul Howes, who now works in the San Diego offices of Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins.
Howes, who prosecuted complex drug gang cases in the District during the city's crack cocaine epidemic, was an assistant U.S. attorney between 1984 and 1995. Howes' alleged misconduct has led to reduced prison sentences for at least nine defendants -- several of whom were serving life sentences. The cases at issue were prosecuted while now Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. was U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.
In a 90-page hearing committee report, committee member James Phalen said a two-year bar suspension with proof of fitness before he is readmitted to the bar is appropriate. The other member of the committee, John Barker, said Howes should be disbarred. The D.C. Bar Counsel in 2007 rejected disbarment as a sanction in issuing its recommendation of a two-year suspension. Click here for a copy of the report.
The hearing committee said Howes "was an exceptionally tenacious and talented prosecutor with a strong work ethic, and that he handled some of the office's most complex and challenging matters. On the other hand, we find that this record was marred by serious wrongdoing, and we are not inclined to consider it as a significant mitigating factor in these circumstances."
Investigations into alleged misconduct by Howes has spanned more than a decade. The committee, which released its report Wednesday, heard testimony from the bar counsel, Howes and other witnesses more than two years ago. And a decision on the fate of Howes' bar license is still a ways off. The Board of Professional Responsibility and ultimately the D.C. Court of Appeals will also weigh in. Howes did not return a call seeking comment this afternoon. Howes' lawyer, Plato Cacheris of Trout Cacheris, also did not return a call.
Howes, admitted to the D.C. Bar in 1992, was accused of providing vouchers, which paid typically $40 a day to a witness who testified at trial, to individuals who were not entitled to receive them. Howes was also accused of intentionally failing to disclose the use and misuse of the vouchers to defense counsel.
A 1998 report by the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility found that Howes, over the course of two years, authorized more than $140,000 in payments to 132 witnesses. Some of the individuals who received the money had no connection at all with the Newton Street trials; others who received money had a thin connection to the prosecution, which was one of the largest and high-profile that Howes was assigned.
Howes told Justice investigators in 1997 that he authorized payment for informants who came to the U.S. Attorney's Office or called the office with information about the Newton Street case. Howes also said payment to informants who were released from jail was meant to get a person back on their feet. The DOJ internal report found that Howes used federal witness money as his personal slush fund. DOJ did not recommend criminal charges because Howes did not benefit personally from the payments.
In 2007, Howes admitted six of the eight ethics violations lodged against him, including false statement of material fact to tribunal, failing to timely dislose evidence that tended to negate the guilt of a defendant, and engaging in conduct that interfered with the administration of justice. The committee said the ethics charges are supported by "clear and convincing" evidence.
Howes contested two charges -- prohibited inducement to a witness and committing a criminal act that reflects adversely on lawyer's honesty. The committee found the evidence against Howes did not support the inducement charge but that his actions did amount to false statements -- a violation of federal law.
The committee members said Howes made false statements when he signed vouchers for jailed witnesses who were not entitled to receive federal money; when he used vouchers to pay for two retired police detectives for their work as "case agents"; and when he used the federal vouchers to compensate two children who were not witnesses.
The case is noteworthy in that the hearing committee deliberated for over two years (actually not so rare, but surprising in such a high profile case) and the first committee chair recused himself. The recusal issue was raised by Bar Counsel because the chair had sat beyond his designated term of service. The chair indicated that he did not participate in the decision in order to remove an issue on appeal or create the basis for a remand. Then, the second committee chair recused himself for undisclosed reasons. The recusal was announced in the committee's report. (Mike Frisch)