Tag: doj

CADC Rules DOJ Discovery Blue Book Off-Limits…For Now

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (CADC) ruled that the U.S. Department of Justice Federal Criminal Discovery Blue Book for prosecutions were exempt from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) filed the suit to make the book public, and for good reason.
 
For background, criminal discovery is the process by which a prosecutor’s office turns over evidence to the defense team that is relevant to the criminal case before trial. Particularly, evidence that might be helpful or exculpatory to a criminal defendant must be turned over under Brady v. Maryland (1963) and subsequent cases. For example, if investigators independently found an eyewitness that supports a defendant’s alibi, or discovers that a witness or police officer has a history of dishonesty, that information must be turned over to the defense counsel in the furtherance of justice. Such evidence is known as “Brady material.” 
 
The origin of NACDL’s case dates back to the bungled prosecution of the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK). A federal judge threw out Stevens’ 2008 conviction for corruption because the DOJ hid evidence from the defense team, including contradictory statements by a star witness that were crucial to proving Stevens’ alleged criminal intent. Furthermore, the judge ordered an independent inquiry into the handling of the case that resulted in a damning 514-page report that faulted the DOJ for its mismanagement and “egregious misconduct” in the case.

When Should Courts Defer to White-Collar Prosecution Settlements?

Deferred prosecution agreements and their close relatives non-prosecution agreements (DPAs/NPAs) have become a major tool of white-collar prosecution in recent years. Typically, a business defendant in exchange for escape from the costs and perils of trial agrees to some combination of cash payment, non-monetary steps such as a shakeup of its board or manager training, and submission to future oversight by DoJ or other monitors. Not unlike plea bargains in more conventional criminal prosecution, these deals dispense with the high cost of a trial; they also dispense with the need for the government to prove its allegations in the first place. DPAs may also pledge a defendant to future behavior that a court would never have ordered, or conversely fail to include remedies that a court would probably have ordered. And they may be drawn up with the aim of shielding from harm — or, in some other cases, undermining — the interests of third parties, such as customers, employees, or business associates of the targeted defendant, or foreign governments.

So there was a flurry of interest last year when federal district judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C., declined to approve a waiver, necessary under the Speedy Trial Act, for a DPA settling charges that Fokker Services, a Dutch aerospace company, sold U.S.-origin aircraft systems to foreign governments on the U.S. sanctions list, including Iran, Sudan, and Burma. While acknowledging that under principles of prosecutorial discretion the Department of Justice did not have to charge Fokker at all, Judge Leon said given that it had, the judiciary could appropriately scrutinize whether the penalties were too low.

Arab and Muslim Americans: The New “Others”

Over the last month, GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s counterterrorism policy prescriptions have included creating a database of Arab and Muslim Americans, and more recently, a call for a ban on all Arab/Muslim immigration to the United States. While he has yet to call for the creation of WW II-style ethnic/religious concentration camps for our Arab/Muslim American neighbors, at this point nothing seems beyond the pale for Trump. Unfortunately, as I have noted before, when it comes to stigmatizing–if not de facto demonizing–Arab/Muslim Americans, he’s getting some help from DHS, DoJ, and the legislative branch.

Indeed, in the ongoing legislative battle to pass dubious cybersecurity legislation, House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-TX) is being wooed to support the revised cyber information sharing bill with a new carrot: the inclusion of his “countering violent extremism” (CVE) bill in the FY16 omnibus spending bill–a measure condemned earlier this year by civil society groups from across the political spectrum.

To date, McCaul has been opposed to the Senate’s approach to cybersecurity issues in the form of the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), and, keeping that in mind, House and Senate supporters have largely excluded him from their negotiations over a final cyber bill. By dangling the inclusion of his CVE legislation in the omnibus is a clear effort to get McCaul to drop his opposition to CISA by giving him one of his priorities: Passage of CVE legislation would create yet another bureaucracy in DHS to essentially monitor the Arab/Muslim American population for signs of extremism. 

The fact that a similar CVE effort in the U.K. failed miserably has not deterred Congressional boosters like McCaul from pursuing that same discredited approach at the expense of the civil and constitutional liberties of a vulnerable minority population. Additionally, the expense of American taxpayers is likely to be at least an additional $10 million per year for the proposed DHS CVE office. 

As former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw reminded us this week, Arab and Muslim Americans have died for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have paid for our freedom with their blood and their lives. Proposals that would strip them of their rights and attempt to turn them into political and societal lepers should be repudiated–vocally and forcefully. Those who propose such un-American and unconstitutional discrimination are the ones who should be shunned and permanently confined to the unhinged fringes of American political and social life.

New Policy On White Collar Prosecution Risks Scapegoating

Last week, the Department of Justice announced a new policy regarding its approach to corporate criminal investigations.  Instead of focusing first on the company and, having resolved that portion of the investigation, turning to the task of identifying potential individual criminal suspects, prosecutors are now directed to build their cases against individual wrong doers from the start.  Media coverage of this policy statement has focused on criticism levied against the administration for being too soft on Wall Street and too cozy with corporate donors.  The New York Times trotted out the old complaint that no one went to jail in the wake of the financial crisis (even though, to my knowledge, no one has ever identified a criminal law the violation of which caused any part of the crisis).  While the administration’s rhetoric about equal justice before the law is admirable, the policy memo and its surrounding coverage have a distressing whiff of scapegoating about them. 

An Unnecessary Indictment of Dylann Roof

Today, the Justice Department indicted Dylann Roof on 33 federal hate crime charges for the killings of nine people at Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston last month. This indictment is entirely unnecessary.

Hard as it may be for some to imagine now, there was a long time in this country when racially and politically motivated violence against blacks was not prosecuted by state and local authorities. Or sometimes, as in the case of Emmett Till—the young boy from Chicago who was lynched in Mississippi for allegedly being too forward with a white woman—prosecution was a farce and the perpetrators were acquitted.

Getting Government Out of the Mortgage Business, DOJ-Style

Yesterday Bloomberg reported that Federal Housing Administration (FHA) purchase loan guarantees “plunged” compared to a year ago. Part of that plunge, of course, was an expected decline in refinance activity. Currently, FHA endorsement activity is almost 80 percent purchase, whereas a year it ago it was just over half for purchase. Looking at trends in purchase endorsements, the decline looks a lot more moderate.

Even so, there has been a modest decline. Many in the banking industry, as expressed to Bloomberg, believe this is because FHA and the U.S. Deparment of Justice have been too tough on lenders, making them take back soured loans and assessing damages. JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon recently asked, because of the legal risk, “should we [JP Morgan] be in the FHA business at all?” 

Personally, this sounds like little more than jawboning. As illustrated by FHA’s recent credit reports, lenders are still dumping an awful lot of junk onto FHA. The average credit score is around a 680 FICO, meaning about half of FHA’s recent business is subprime. Beyond that, even subprime borrowers typically face downpayments of only around 5%, and then there’s the high debt levels witnessed. Lenders should be held responsible for making loans of such poor credit quality.

If DOJ fines on poorly performing FHA loans are chasing banks away from FHA, then I say “great.” That’s one of the reasons I helped get FHA new powers against fraud back in 2008 (see Section 2129 of HERA). As Congress is unlikely to ever scale bank the various mortgage subsidies, perhaps our only hope is that DOJ makes those subsidies so unattractive that lenders won’t use them. But then I could also see DOJ sue lenders, under fair-lending, for not using FHA.

DOJ vs. School Choice

Claiming that private schools in Milwaukee are discriminating against students with disabilities, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) demanding that private schools participating in the Milwaukee school choice program comply with Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act. As Professor Patrick Wolf explains over at Education Next, the DOJ is wrong on the facts and wrong on the law.

Wolf is part of a team of researchers that has studied the Milwaukee school choice program over five years. Their statistical analysis “confirmed that no measure of student disadvantage—not disability status, not test scores, not income, not race—was statistically associated with whether or not an 8th grade voucher student was or was not admitted to a 9th grade voucher-receiving private school.” This is exactly what the law requires. Wisconsin law forbids discrimination on the basis of disability and requires schools participating in the voucher program to accept students on a random basis. 

Moreover, the DOJ is wrong on the law in treating private schools participating in the program as though they were government contractors. As Wolf explains:

Private organizations normally are exempt from Title II of ADA but the DOJ argues that the law applies to private schools in the MPCP because the government is contracting with them to provide a public service (the education of K-12 students). This claim flies in the face of the facts and case-law surrounding the program. The voucher program does not involve any contracts, of any kind, between any government organization and the participating private schools. Students need to meet certain eligibility restrictions to participate in the program, as do interested private schools. Once both are deemed eligible by the state, students choose schools and government funds flow to the private schools based on the choices families have made and consistent with the laws governing the program, not based on any “contract.” In fact, the Wisconsin State Statute that governs the MPCP, §119.23, is entirely separate from Wisconsin State Statute §119.235 entitled “Contracts with Private Schools and Agencies.” Nothing could make the point clearer that the MPCP is not a case of government contracting for education services.

Wolf suspects that the DOJ’s letter came as a result of the Wisconsin DPI’s report that 1.6 percent of choice students have a disability. Since the DPI is not authorized to collect that information, they estimated the number of students with disabilities using the number of choice students given accommodations on the state accountability exam. However, as Wolf explains, that is a highly flawed proxy since only a minority of students with disabilities are given such accommodations. Wolf’s team of researchers estimated that the number of choice students with disabilities between 7.5 and 14.6 percent, with their best estimate being 11.4 percent.

The DOJ’s overreach may be unsurprising in light of other recent scandals, but it also sets a terrible precedent. Parents choosing to use their vouchers at private educational institutions do not render those institutions “government contractors” any more than grocery stores become “government contractors” when citizens use their EBT cards to purchase food there. The Obama administration’s unlawful and misguided attempt to hamper school choice programs with additional red tape should be vigorously resisted.