Tuesday, December 20, 2011

House Ethics Committee Dismisses Fundraising Complaint Against Don Young

Los Angeles, California--

The U.S. House of Representatives Ethics Committee has announced that Rep. Don Young (R.-Alaska) will not face sanctions based on a complaint about fundraising for his legal defense fund.   The panel did, however, announce that the case had triggered a change in the rules to prevent future violations of the spirit of the restrictions.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Several U.S. Senators Call for Justice Department to Fire Prosecutors and Apologize to Family of Ted Stevens


In the wake of the bungled prosecution of then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, several U.S. Senators called for the Justice Department to apologize to the family of their late former colleague and fire the prosecutors responsible for failure to turn over evidence to the defense as required.

The strongest statements came from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R.-Utah, a close friend of Stevens who served as a character witness during the five-week trial in 2008.   Hatch told the newspaper The Hill that the Justice Department prosecuted the case against Stevens "vindictively" and urged the disbarment of the government lawyers responsible.    Hatch said the prosecutors ignored exculpatory evidence that "should have said to them, 'This man should never have been indicted to begin with.'" 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., said that "If you look at the particulars of that case, the system melted down and trophy-hunting became sort of the focus."  

The Hill noted that some Senators contacted by the newspaper would not offer public comment on the Stevens case but suggested that the failed prosecution had "made the agency gun-shy to go after other lawmakers accused of wrongdoing."   

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Appellate Court Determines that Judge's Finding of Contempt Against Ted Stevens Prosecutors Was Civil, Not Criminal


Ruling that the contempt in question was civil rather than criminal, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the trial judge did not err in finding that two prosecutors in the Ted Stevens case had committed contempt without providing the pair the procedural protections required when charging someone with criminal contempt.   U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan had made the contempt finding against William Welch and Brenda Morris--two attorneys who formerly supervised the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section--during post-trial litigation over discovery failures in the case.

The contempt finding was previously lifted, and this litigation over that finding appears to be over.  


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why Did Rod Blagojevich Get Sentenced to 14 Years in Prison?


When my wife—a nurse—saw yesterday that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich got a 14-year sentence for public corruption, she said “Is that all?”   When her former prosecutor husband heard the same news, I thought “That sounds like a long time for a guy society cannot be afraid of.”   Here’s an explanation which attempts to reconcile those different reactions.

This sentence will turn out to be longer than you might think—there is no parole in the federal system, and a defendant sentenced under federal law must serve 85 percent of the sentence.   That means that Blagojevich will serve almost 12 years of that 14-year sentence.

This was a significant victory for the prosecution, which simplified its presentation for the jury on a retrial after the first trial produced a hung jury as to most counts.

The length of the sentence reflected a number of factors.    The former Governor stood convicted of serious offenses:   18 felony counts that included wire fraud, bribery, attempted extortion, conspiracy, and lying to the FBI.   Blagojevich tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Barack Obama.   He shook down the CEO of a children’s hospital.   And it’s never a good thing for somebody being sentenced when the judge concludes that that the defendant committed perjury (“The jury didn’t believe him, and neither did I”).  

Also going against Blagojevich was his state’s sad history in this area.  Illinois has been a cesspool of public corruption for decades, with three previous Governors being convicted of such crimes over the past 40 years. (A fourth went to prison for felonies committed after he left office).   Indeed, Blagovevich’s immediate predecessor as Governor is serving a 6.5-year sentence, a term in prison that was apparently insufficient to deter the next man to fill the chair.

Blagojevich had a lot of opportunities to learn the contours and consequences of public corruption—he served as a prosecutor, state legislator, and Member of the U.S. House before becoming Governor in 2003.

Most people sentenced in most courtrooms have nothing to do with public corruption, making it difficult to evaluate sentences by ordinary standards.   There is no need to keep Blagojevich in prison to prevent him from abusing the public trust again, so isolation or restraint for public safety is not a factor in sentencing him.    If society is not locking up Blagojevich because we are scared of him, why a 14-year sentence?  

The judge imposed that length of sentence to set boundaries to show the public what public corruption is and to scare other public officials away from committing acts of public corruption.    “The harm here is not measured in the value of property or money,” U.S. District Judge James Zagel said.   “The harm is the erosion of public trust in government.”

The judge accepted the logic of the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum.    That document quoted a legal decision’s statement that “Government corruption breeds cynicism and mistrust of elected officials.   It causes the public to disengage from the democratic process because…the public begins to think of politics as ‘only for the insiders.’”

The average annual cost of incarceration of a federal inmate now runs well over $25,000 per year, so keeping Blagojevich will set back the taxpayers well over a quarter million dollars.    I recognize the unusual nature of Blagojevich’s case, but financial considerations in imprisonment should play more into our thinking about sentencing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Non-Profit News Outlets Will Help NBC-Owned TV Stations to Dig Deeper and Smarter


Brian Lamb said three years ago that I was a sign of a trend, and news from yesterday makes the C-SPAN founder look even more prescient.

The Los Angeles Times reported that local TV stations around the country are teaming up with non-profit news organizations to increase the stations' investigative, enterprise, and analytical journalism.   The 10 local stations involved are owned and operated by the NBC network.  

The collaborations between the commercial TV stations and the non-commercial outfits like public broadcasting stations and the on-line investigative operation ProPublica are aimed at getting at more serious and complicated stories.   Examples of what ProPublica calls "deep dives" could include examinations of the quality and finances of public schools and conflicts of interest involving doctors and drug companies.

Brian Lamb's reference to me as a harbinger for the media came shortly after my stay in Washington, D.C. covering the Ted Stevens trial for five weeks in the fall of 2008.   I was lucky enough to be able to stay with friends who had just rented an apartment about a mile from the courthouse, and they were kind enough to have a dinner waiting for me when I got back each night.   I posted my coverage of the trial on this blog, and I made just as much money covering that trial as I have from modeling and stand-up comedy combined.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Legislation to Toughen Federal Laws Against Public Corruption Moving in Congress


The Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives reported out a bill yesterday that would address a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued last year on the honest-services fraud statute.    The legislation is H.R. 2572, "The Clean Up Government Act of 2011."

You can find a transcript of yesterday's hearing here.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Have We Reached Peak Lawyer? (Is Law School a Good Idea for Many of the People Pursuing It?)


This blog post assembles the evidence that the demand for legal services in America is declining while the number of people who want to go law school has stayed high.   Specifically, the number of law school graduates each year is approximately double the number of available legal jobs, a number of which will be taken by experienced attorneys who are now unemployed.   Law school for many entering students is now a consumer fraud, particularly for those going to lower-ranked schools and especially for those who end up taking on tens--or hundreds--of thousands of dollars of debt to attend.   It may even be true--as this post suggests--that a law degree may make some law school graduates generally less employable than they would be if they had not slogged through those three years in school.

A big part of the problem is delusion on a mass scale.  Too many people hear the stories of newly minted attorneys making $160,000 the first year out of law school and see themselves in that picture.   There are people like that, just like there are attorneys working at large law firms for more than a decade who feel pressured by their partners to bill $600 per hour for their work.   But the reality is that the attorneys raking in those kind of big bucks are a minority that is facing strong pressure and resistance from clients who are increasingly refusing to pay those high hourly rates.   Set aside questions of whether even high-income lawyers find the work excessive or boring, on a purely financial level the reality is that there are a significant number of unemployed lawyers and a large number of lawyers with some work who are struggling to get by.   

Going to law school was a good decision for me, and it might be a good decision for others.   But caveat emptor, folks.

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan, who provided some of the title of this blog post.   

[UPDATED for clarity and to correct a number.]