No Comment — September 24, 2010, 4:15 pm

An Ethics Meltdown at the Justice Department

USA Today offers an extraordinary multi-part study of prosecutorial misconduct at the Department of Justice over the last decade, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. The stories generally show prosecutors out to support the political agendas of their bosses. They also indicate a systematic evasion of the requirements of prosecutorial ethics and a collapse of ethics training and enforcement within the Justice Department, where an ethos of “victory at all costs” now controls.

USA TODAY spent six months examining federal prosecutors’ work, reviewing legal databases, department records and tens of thousands of pages of court filings. Although the true extent of misconduct by prosecutors will likely never be known, the assessment is the most complete yet of the scope and impact of those violations. USA TODAY found a pattern of “serious, glaring misconduct,” said Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman, an expert on misconduct by prosecutors. “It’s systemic now, and … the system is not able to control this type of behavior. There is no accountability.” He and Alexander Bunin, the chief federal public defender in Albany, N.Y., called the newspaper’s findings “the tip of the iceberg” because many more cases are tainted by misconduct than are found. In many cases, misconduct is exposed only because of vigilant scrutiny by defense attorneys and judges.

The study quotes former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh, who headed the Justice Department in the first Bush administration and who was harshly critical of the collapse of ethics standards in the second Bush Administration. Thornburgh surveys the record of the past decade and states that “No civilized society should countenance such conduct or systems that failed to prevent it.”

What does Thornburgh mean by “systems that failed?” The focus of his ire is plainly a culture within the Justice Department that promotes abuse and fails to deal with abuse when it is publicly exposed. Despite his promises to clean the situation up, Eric Holder has done nothing other than arrange some ethics training courses. The Department steadily resists disciplinary action against prosecutors who misbehave and attempts to block public exposure of their misconduct through congressional probes with claims of prosecutorial immunity. Holder refuses even to take questions on the subject at public events (as occurred just this week at an event marking the fiftieth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird in Alabama). The U.S. attorney who is perhaps the worst single Bush-era offender remains in her position as Republican senators block efforts to appoint a replacement, and the Justice Department continues to stonewall an investigation into some of the most serious cases of abuse. In recent testimony before the House, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine has acknowledged (PDF) the damage these disclosures have done both to the Department’s morale and to its reputation. Fine’s own office has revealed significant evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, particularly in political cases. Moreover, his reports often show how even his internal team is often blocked from getting to the bottom of abuse stories.

The USA Today study includes a database reviewing 201 cases, interviews with some of the Justice Department’s innocent victims, and summaries of some of the searing criticisms of prosecutors run amok from federal judges. What it covers is only a tiny fraction of the systematic abuses that scar the administration of justice in this country. Still, the USA Today effort is substantial and impressive, and clearly puts the publication in Pulitzer territory.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2016

Unhackable

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Imperium

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fighting Chance

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Front Runner

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Habits of Highly Cynical People

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Elisabeth Zerofsky on Marine Le Pen, Paul Wachter on the quest for an unhackable email, Rebecca Solnit on cynical people, Andrew J. Bacevich on truth and fiction in the age of war, Samuel James photographs E.P.L. soccer, a story by Vince Passaro, and more

I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Front Runner·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The F.N. asked to be sent to an institution whose legitimacy it did not accept, and French voters rewarded the party with first place in the election."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson
Memoir
I Am Your Conscious, I Am Love·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A paean 2 Prince
"And one thinks, Looking into Prince's eyes must be like looking at the world."
Photo ©© PeterTea
Article
Stop Hillary!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As wacky as it sometimes appears on the surface, American politics has an amazing stability and continuity about it."
Article
Plexiglass·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

Photograph (detail) by Karine Laval

Age at death last March of the sturgeon Nikita, Khrushchev’s gift to Norway, after an accidental immersion in salt water:

38

There were new reports of cannibalism in North Korea.

The Finnish postal service announced it will begin mowing lawns on Tuesdays.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today