The Justice Department has long been accused of whitewashing misconduct of its own prosecutors and rarely acting on acts of prosecutorial misconduct, including common complaints of federal prosecutors withholding evidence and making misrepresentations to counsel or the courts. Even in high profile cases of misconduct, the Justice Department often drags out investigations only to later quietly end them without sanctions. One of the few sanctions meted out by the Justice Department came with attorneys responsible for the disastrous prosecution of former Senator Ted Stevens where their misconduct not only led to reversal of the case but the waste of millions of dollars. Now, however, an Administrative Law judge has overturned the suspensions of two federal prosecutors.
The Justice Department imposed the suspension after finding that the two prosecutors had engaged in reckless professional misconduct. Notably, this finding excused the prosecutors of intentional misconduct, a finding ridiculed by many in a case of clear prosecutorial abuse. The penalty came years after the misconduct and only involved a suspension without pay. Joseph Bottini was suspended for just 40 days and James Goeke was suspended for just 15 days. Even that is now dismissed under the ruling of Judge Benjamin Gutman. The reasoning gives an insight into why it is so difficult to get the Justice Department to mete out even mild punishment for prosecutorial misconduct.
Gutman ruled that the Justice Department had violated its own procedures, which require a rank-and-file lawyer to decide whether professional misconduct had occurred. There is an obvious culture of protection and insularity at the Justice Department. Attorneys are loathe to find other colleagues guilty of misconduct. Moreover, such findings have a clear impact on all of the attorneys at the Department in setting an enforceable standard and precedent in future cases of misconduct.
In this case, a line attorney, Terrence Berg, found that any mistakes by the attorneys did not rise to the level of sanctionable professional misconduct. That finding was reversed by his unit’s chief, Kevin Ohlson. Gutman found that this change by the supervisor violated how the department handles such matters.
The result is that even this mild punishment will now be tossed out in one of the Department’s most damaging scandals. With the earlier sweeping DOJ finding in favor of the litigation team, the result is all too familiar for those who watch the department. Since the suspensions were viewed as laughable by most objective viewers, the ruling is not going to generate much discussion. What should be the focus is the continuation of the Justice Department’s record of insulating its attorneys from discipline for even the most egregious forms of misconduct. The result of such cases sends a clear message to the rank and file attorneys that they have little to fear from allegations of misconduct.