Two congressmen called Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales to account Monday for severe staffing shortages and cutbacks in U.S. attorney's offices across the nation, which they say have halted prosecution of important cases including bank robberies, immigrant smuggling and tax fraud.
U.S. Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said in a letter to Gonzales that federal prosecutors had been starved of resources although for four years the Justice Department's budget had grown faster than inflation -- from $1.349 billion in fiscal year 2001 to $1.588 billion in 2006.
"The disparity between increased funding for U.S. attorneys overall and drastic shortages in staff and supplies in individual offices raises questions about Justice Department management," they wrote.
In a written statement Monday, a spokeswoman for the attorney general blamed the problems on Congress not allocating resources President Bush had requested.
"In recent years, Congress has funded the U.S. attorney's appropriation at levels below those sought by the president," wrote Kathleen M. Blomquist. Furthermore, she noted, every year since 2003 Congress has rescinded $10 million to $20 million of their initial allocation.
"We have urged Congress to support the president's request to fully fund the U.S. attorney's offices so that we can return additional prosecutors to the courtroom," she said.
In Los Angeles, the largest U.S. attorney's office in the nation, 40 out of 190 positions for assistant U.S. attorneys are vacant, according to the Waxman and Conyers letter. There is a hiring freeze until 2008, several sources from the Los Angeles office said.
"Does it affect the number of prosecutions of bad guys? Absolutely," said one member of the office, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the issue. "There is a feeling main Justice [in Washington] doesn't care."
He said the local FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency were hiring dozens of new agents, but their cases routinely hit a wall due to a lack of prosecutors. "Now we're at the choking point."
At the office in the downtown federal courthouse, basic supplies, like envelopes and binder clips, are scarce.
"It's nickel-and-dime stuff," said another member of the office. "If you want to fly a witness in or travel to interview someone, they're really taking a look at that stuff now."
Attorneys have been advised to remove microwaves and small refrigerators from their offices because high power bills have prompted their landlord, the General Services Administration, to threaten to raise the rent.
Thom Mrozek, spokesman for U.S. Atty. Debra Wong Yang, referred all questions to Washington.
"It's been absolutely demoralizing," said Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson, a former assistant U.S. attorney who maintains close ties to prosecutors in the office. "Given there are more responsibilities with the war on terror, it's a huge disservice to the people in this district."
Levenson called it a "hoax" on the American people that Congress passed new laws like the Patriot Act but "you don't have anyone to enforce them."
Even without these frustrations, the federal offices sometimes have problems retaining exceptional litigators, who can jump to private practice and more than triple their salaries. "They do the job because they love it," Levenson said. "But if you can't do it the way you want to, with good investigative resources and litigation resources, there's no reason to stay."
Other offices around the country have also been hit. In San Diego, the office has 10 vacancies and cannot prosecute all cases of immigrant smuggling -- at time that the Bush administration is sending National Guard troops to defend the border -- the letter said.
Similar staffing problems exist in Washington, Maryland and Chicago. In Philadelphia, the U.S. attorney's office is now charging indigent defendants for photocopies of exculpatory material that the government is constitutionally required to provide, the letter said.
"U.S. attorneys have the crucial responsibility of prosecuting federal crimes and pursuing civil enforcement actions," Waxman and Conyers wrote to Gonzales. "Yet it appears their ability to meet this responsibility is severely undermined."
Dennis Boyd, executive director of the National Assn. of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, said the number of unfilled full-time positions in U.S. attorney's offices nationwide had jumped from 198 in fiscal year 2004 to 765 in May.
"In total, U.S. attorneys are down more than anybody can remember," he said.
He said the shortage had caused billions of dollars in criminal and civil debt to go uncollected and had curtailed efforts to target gangs, violent crimes and white-collar crimes as well as bankruptcy fraud. Prosecutors are not as able to use expert witnesses or to travel to interview witnesses, he added.
"In a serious healthcare fraud case," he wrote in a recent memo, "the targets turned over hard drives with case details; however, conversion of the hard drives to written documents was too expensive and [the case] is now dead."
Boyd said the reorganization that moved the cash-rich Immigration and Naturalization Service from the Justice Department to Homeland Security added to the shortfall, and he said Congress' take-backs had taken a toll.
"We've had some rescissions that have amounted to 10% cuts, which is a big, big hit for a U.S. attorney's office."