WASHINGTON — Former chiefs of federal organized crime strike forces warned Tuesday that Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh's plan to merge the special units into U.S. attorneys' offices will lead experienced anti-mob prosecutors to leave the government in droves.
Edward A. McDonald, who headed the Brooklyn strike force for seven years until he entered private practice this month, told the House Judiciary subcommittee on criminal justice that most of his former colleagues in that office "are out looking for jobs" because of Thornburgh's controversial decision.
Jane Serene, a former strike force prosecutor in Boston and a special counsel in the Justice Department's criminal division, said that Thornburgh's move will result in "an exodus of a wealth of talented prosecutors."
The loss of "institutional memory" will lessen the chances that a wiretapped conversation referring to "a mob hit 20 years ago" will be recognized as such by less experienced prosecutors, she said.
But David Runkel, Thornburgh's chief spokesman, said that he has had no indication that any of the 125 strike force lawyers across the country will quit rather than transfer to special organized crime units inside the U.S. attorneys' offices.
"If they are committed to the fight against organized crime, I assume they'll stay," he said.
Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N. Y.), chairman of the subcommittee, said that he was "puzzled" by Thornburgh's announcement of his decision Monday on the eve of the scheduled subcommittee hearings.
"I believed that he would wait until both sides could publicly air their views before finalizing his plans," Schumer said. "Unfortunately, he appears to have made his decision before public hearings can even begin."
Stiff Opposition Likely
The sharply critical testimony and Schumer's dismay over Thornburgh's timing indicate that the attorney general's plan faces stiff opposition. Some senators, including Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Strom Thurmond (R-S. C.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), had urged Thornburgh to hold off on his decision. A joint hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Governmental Affairs permanent investigations subcommittee is expected next month.
Schumer noted that a supplemental appropriation sought by the Justice Department and scheduled to be taken up by the House today bars any reorganization in the department until Oct. 1. Thornburgh has said that he expects to implement the merger no later than Oct. 1.
Edward S. G. Dennis, assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's criminal division, defended the planned merger as a way to end turf wars between strike force leaders and U.S. attorneys and to achieve greater efficiency in the fight against the Mafia and newly emerging organized crime groups.
"The question is are we going to spend 30% of our time arguing over whose case it is or are we going out to make that case," Dennis told the subcommittee.
Strike force attorneys are "professionals," Dennis said, adding: "When the gun sounds, I think we'll all be on the mark."
But Peter F. Vaira, who served as U.S. attorney in Philadelphia and headed strike forces in Chicago and Philadelphia, disputed Dennis' contention that, once the strike forces are folded into special units inside U.S. attorneys' offices, they will be able to maintain the fight against organized crime.
"I guarantee you that three years from now it will take the FBI to find the strike forces," he said.
"A U.S. attorney always needs experienced attorneys to work on priority cases such as local political corruption," Vaira said. "It is only a matter of time until the best and most experienced attorneys will be working on the 'hot' cases and younger, less experienced attorneys will be assigned to develop organized crime cases that require years of work and may be brought in another district."