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Shake-up roils federal prosecutors

U.S. attorney in L.A. defends his decision to disband a high-profile unit that specialized in public corruption.

March 20, 2008|Scott Glover | Times Staff Writer

Asked about the recent dismantling of a high-profile unit in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles that specialized in public corruption cases, an office spokesman provided what some saw as a curious justification:

Eliminating the public integrity and environmental crimes section, spokesman Thom Mrozek said, would actually enhance the effort to prosecute such cases.

He explained that the unit's 17 lawyers would be farmed out to other sections in the office and that those types of cases would now be handled by a larger pool of attorneys, instead of by a select few.

But in interviews with The Times, several members of the disbanded unit challenged that explanation, saying the move was intended to punish lawyers for a perceived failure to produce and for bad-mouthing their boss, U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien.

The lawyers described a meeting last week in which an angry O'Brien derided attorneys in the office for working too few hours, filing too few cases and for speaking ill of him to subordinates.

They said O'Brien also threatened to tarnish their reputations if they challenged the official explanation for the unit's dismantling in conversations with reporters. Members of the unit contacted by The Times either spoke on the condition that they not be named or declined to comment. Several said they wanted to talk about the situation but feared reprisals if they did so.

Critics of the move said they were concerned that it would severely limit the office's ability to file long-term, complex corruption cases involving elected officials and other high-profile figures.

In recent years, the unit has prosecuted politicians in South Gate and Lynwood, as well as a gang of rogue police officers and others who conducted home-invasion-style robberies staged to look like legitimate law enforcement raids -- a case that O'Brien himself helped prosecute.

In an interview Wednesday, O'Brien declined to comment on the accusations against him, saying it would be improper to discuss what occurred in a private meeting with his staff.

But he strongly disputed the notion that the change would negatively affect the office's ability to file public corruption cases.

"The whole idea here is to do more, not less," said O'Brien, a former Navy "Top Gun" instructor and deputy district attorney, who took charge of the office last fall. "I guarantee that we will be filing more public corruption and civil rights cases than we have in the past."

To that end, O'Brien said he was arranging for lawyers from the Justice Department in Washington to come to Los Angles and conduct training sessions on how to handle such specialized prosecutions. He said he also planned to appoint "coordinators" to oversee lawyers working on those types of prosecutions.

"The point is I think we can do better," O'Brien said.

During the meeting, held in a conference room on the 12th floor of the U.S. attorney's office, O'Brien displayed statistics showing that the section had produced only one public corruption case since the beginning of the fiscal year, which started Oct. 1.

He said that capped a trend that showed the number of cases declining for several years.

One of the lawyers in the disbanded unit acknowledged that its numbers were not impressive. The lawyer noted, however, that there were several cases in the pipeline and that statistics can be misleading because of the complexity and time-consuming nature of such prosecutions.

"It's not all about numbers," the lawyer said.

The lawyer predicted that the changes implemented by O'Brien might increase filings against postal employees stealing mail and other relatively minor cases, but "don't look for any long, drawn-out City Hall corruption cases."

The lawyers who spoke about the meeting said they and their colleagues had no idea what was in store when O'Brien began speaking and that they were left shell-shocked at the meeting's end.

"We were all scared," one said.

Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office, drew a distinction between O'Brien's decision to eliminate the unit and the way he allegedly went about doing so.

"There may be merit in his decision -- I don't know," Levenson said. "But if there's a legitimate reason to disband the unit, then why do you need to issue the silence order?"

"People in that office are not used to being intimidated," she added. "He may not have a performance problem on his hands anymore, but he'll have a morale problem."

Robert McGahan, a respected fraud prosecutor who left the U.S. attorney's office this year, said he had no knowledge of what was said at the meeting or about whether the public corruption statistics were up to snuff.

But he applauded O'Brien's decision to break up the section because he didn't think there were enough public corruption cases to warrant having a specially designated unit in the first place.

"I would call it a sensible and long overdue step toward efficiency," he said.

Mrozek, the office spokesman, said he was not aware of any other U.S. attorney's office in the country that had an entire section of lawyers specializing in public corruption cases.

"Our office structure is now in line with other offices from around the country," he said.

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scott.glover@latimes.com

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