Saturday, January 13, 2007

Did Too Many White Collar Cases Doom a U.S. Attorney?

A San Diego Union-Tribune story (here) reports that U.S. Attorney Carol Lam has been forced out because under her leadership the office in the Southern District of California did not put sufficient resources into pursuing alien smuggling and gun cases.  When appointed in 2002, Lam said she would emphasize public corruption and white collar crime cases, and her office pursued former Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who is now serving a 100-month prison term for accepting bribes from defense contractors.  Cunningham is cooperating with prosecutors, and rumors have swirled that a former high-ranking CIA official might be charged with a crime.  Lam's office also pursued two trials for Medicare fraud against Alvarado Hospital and its former CEO, with both ending in mistrials before a civil settlement ended the case.  Lam was on the trial team for the cases, and it is rare to see the U.S. Attorney try a case, especially one as time-consuming as a healthcare fraud prosecution.

While weapons and immigration are top priorities for the Department of Justice, Lam's firing (if that's what it is) raises the question whether the federal government should be targeting crimes related to weapons that the state is fully capable of prosecuting.  Many white collar cases benefit from the resources of the federal government, especially when the crime crosses state lines because the U.S. Attorney's Offices are best equipped to deal with multi-state violations.  Corruption cases are particularly apt for federal involvement because of the possibility that a local prosecutor will not investigate officials at the same level, or such investigations may be viewed as tainted by politics.  A case like Cunningham's involved conduct in California, Virginia, and Washington D.C., including searches in different jurisdictions, that would have been impossible for a local prosecutor to pursue.  An interesting question is whether the emphasis on gun cases is designed to generate statistics and good publicity for the federal government.  (ph)

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Check out the article the same paper ran the day after. The sitting head of the local FBI office is quoted saying, "I guarantee politics is involved." Also suggested is the theory is that Lam simply lost too many of her cases to mistrial, misdemeanor and settlement. I find both a lot more convincing than the simple choice to prosecute white-collar crime.

I prefer to believe it was pure politics, combined with her having made herself vulnerable by not reeling off a Spitzerlike string of dramatic wins. That doesn't mean it's true, but I find myself sympathetic to suggestions like these.

Some lawyers theorized yesterday that it wasn't just misplaced priorities that led to her impending ouster. The Randy “Duke” Cunningham case has spawned other corruption probes of Republicans in Washington, leading to conjecture that politics played a part in the decision to force her out.


Posted by: wcw | Jan 13, 2007 5:36:08 PM

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