U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien is facing sharp criticism from prosecutors within his office who say he is pressuring them to file relatively insignificant criminal cases to drive up statistics that make the office eligible for increased federal funding.
The prosecutors said O'Brien's effort to increase filings amounts to a quota system in which lawyers face possible discipline and other career consequences if they fail to achieve their numbers. It also detracts from their traditional mission of prosecuting complex, time-consuming cases that local authorities are unable to pursue, they said.
O'Brien acknowledged that he had set "performance goals" to reverse years of declining productivity in the Los Angeles office but denied that the goals were quotas.
"This office does not and never will have quotas for its criminal prosecutors," O'Brien said. "To suggest that any attorney in this office must charge a certain number of defendants each year or face discipline is simply not true."
He added that his lawyers "are continuing to do some of the biggest, most complex cases in the nation."
Quotas are controversial because they call into question whether prosecutors are motivated by the pursuit of justice or are merely trying to "hit a number," said Daniel Richman, a law professor at Columbia University and a former federal prosecutor in New York.
O'Brien and Chief Assistant U.S. Atty. George S. Cardona said they initiated the performance goals last year when Cardona was the acting U.S. attorney and O'Brien was in charge of the office's criminal division.
According to several sources, O'Brien spoke passionately at a supervisors' meeting in March 2007 about the need for increased numbers and warned of repercussions for prosecutors who failed to produce. Since then, at least one prosecutor has been transferred against his will and others have received lower performance ratings for failing to meet their numbers, the sources said.
O'Brien declined to comment on any individual's case, citing privacy laws regarding personnel issues. But he said productivity is only one of many factors in a person's review. Others include the quality of an employee's work and the employee's ability to interact with law enforcement agencies and court officials.
Increased productivity is important because it can influence funding levels for the office, which are dictated by the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. Because the numbers in Los Angeles have been on the rise, so has the size of the staff. O'Brien estimates that he has hired 60 new prosecutors over the last year and that the office is approaching its full strength of 267 lawyers for the first time in recent memory.
The Times spoke with 11 prosecutors from various enforcement sections of the office, which employs about 180 attorneys in its criminal division. The lawyers spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals from their superiors. Three former prosecutors who recently left the office also asked to remain anonymous because they were not comfortable speaking publicly about internal matters they were privy to while employed there.
The disgruntled prosecutors in Los Angeles say they are now spending an exorbitant amount of time working on less significant cases -- mail theft, smaller drug offenses and illegal immigration -- to reach quotas. They cited the recent disbanding of the office's public integrity and environmental crimes section, a unit with a history of working on complex police corruption and political corruption cases, as evidence of a shift toward high-volume, low-quality prosecutions.
"It's all about the numbers," one prosecutor said.
One former supervisor put it this way: "I can't remember how they sugarcoated it, but the feeling around the office was, if you got your quota, then you could work on your real cases without being hassled."
The decision to set numeric goals appears to be unprecedented in the recent history of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. U.S. attorneys going back to the early 1990s said they had no such goals.
The move was part of a broader office restructuring to address a severe staffing shortage and steadily declining productivity, which had fallen 30% or 40% from 2001, O'Brien said. He said he wanted to improve service for crime victims and law enforcement agencies, which had grown accustomed to having their cases rejected because of a lack of resources.
"We were literally not even taking cases in the door anymore," O'Brien said. "We were almost becoming irrelevant."
Historically, routine criminal cases referred by federal agents were handled by lawyers who were relatively new to the office. In fact, the general crimes section is known as Rookie Row.