A year after a major public corruption sting in New Jersey, Justice Department investigators have determined that public comments made by New Jersey’s former acting U.S. Attorney did not violate DOJ regulations, the Star-Ledger reported.
The department’s internal ethics probe centered on remarks in a news conference made by Ralph Marra Jr., as well as the former head of the FBI’s Newark Division, Weysan Dun. Democrats claimed the two unfairly politicized the sting to help the political chances of Marra’s ex-boss, Chris Christie, the former N.J. U.S. Attorney who successfully ran for governor last year.
Christie, the Republican challenger, defeated Democrat Jon Corzine last November.
The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility issued a letter last week, which was obtained by the Star-Ledger, clearing Marra and Dun of any wrongdoing in the wake of the high-profile corruption case.
“Based upon the results of our investigation, we concluded that you did not violate any professional obligation and thus did not commit professional misconduct or exercise poor judgment in this matter,” wrote Mary Patrice Brown, the office’s acting head.
The comments in question were made at a July 2009 news conference announcing the arrests of 44 people — 29 of which were public officials — in a far-reaching federal corruption probe.
In response to questions about state corruption, Marra said: “There are easily reforms that could be made within this state that would make our job easier, or even take some of the load off our job. There are too many people that profit off the system the way it is and so they have no incentive to change it. The few people that want to change it seem to get shouted down. So how long that cycle’s going to continue I just don’t know.”
Department guidelines restrict prosecutors from making “extrajudicial comments” that may have the effect of “heightening public condemnation of the accused.” In addition, critics argued the remarks implicitly endorsed Christie.
Corruption became a central issue in New Jersey, and Christie, the state’s former U.S. Attorney, leveraged his law-and-order background in the aftermath of the sting. His campaign vowed to clean up corruption, and he later associated Corzine with the sting despite the fact that the then-governor was not implicated in the case and had announced proposals for ethics reform.
Former Democratic assemblyman Louis Manzo, who was netted in the sting, also accused the FBI and federal prosecutors of choreographing the operation to propel Christie into office.
Upon winning the race, rumors surfaced that Christie would nominate Marra to be the state’s next Attorney General — an appointed position in New Jersey.
In fact, Christie nominated Marra for his current position as senior vice president for legal and governmental affairs at the state’s Sports and Exposition Authority — with a reported paycheck of $195,000.
Nine other former colleagues have also been bumped into the Christie administration since he became governor, including:
- Marc Larkins to be the executive director of the New Jersey School Development Authority Board
- Robert Hanna to be the director of the Division of Law in the Attorney General’s office.
- Stephen Taylor to be the director of Criminal Justice in the AG’s office.
- Deborah Gramiccioni to be director of the Authorities Unit in the AG’s office.
- Jeffrey S. Chiesa to be Christie’s chief counsel.
- Kevin M. O’Dowd to be deputy chief counsel.
- Charles McKenna to be head of the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.
- Michele Brown to be appointments counsel.
- Lee Solomon to be the president of the board of public utilities.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said the ethics allegations were “ridiculous.” Instead, he pointed to the question of who leaked word of the internal probe to the press last August.
“Ralph Marra was a professional, highly regarded federal prosecutor for more than 20 years,” Drewniak told The Associated Press on Sunday. “More offensive was that the allegations — now shown to be patently false — were leaked by officials in the Justice Department itself. To our minds, that raised much more serious questions about politicization of an important and successful criminal investigation.”
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The White House and the Justice Department are vetting the head of the Office of Professional Responsibility, Mary Patrice Brown, for a federal judgeship, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Brown, a well-regarded career prosecutor, is expected to secure a nomination to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, assuming she clears her FBI background check and American Bar Association review, the people said.
Brown was tapped to lead the Justice Department’s ethics unit in April, amid a high-profile probe of former Office of Legal Counsel lawyers whose legal opinions paved the way for waterboarding of terrorism detainees. Her office reportedly determined that the lawyers — John Yoo, now a law professor, and Jay Bybee, now a federal judge — violated professional standards in blessing some of the Bush administration’s most controversial national security policies.
The Justice Department official who oversees OPR in the Deputy Attorney General’s office, David Margolis, softened the report to say the lawyers were guilty of “poor judgment” but not of professional misconduct — a finding that would have warranted referrals to state bar associations, Newsweek reported.
The issue would almost certainly be raised in Brown’s Senate confirmation hearings. Many Republicans strongly oppose disciplining Yoo or Bybee for their work during the Bush administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, while many Democrats have called for them to account for approving an interrogation method that Attorney General Eric Holder and others have equated with torture.
Brown, just the third OPR counsel since the office was created in 1975, came from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, where she was chief of the Criminal Division. The Justice Department announced the move the day after a federal judge criticized OPR for dragging its feet in an investigation of possible misconduct in the botched prosecution of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. The events were unrelated.
The judge, Emmet Sullivan, took the extraordinary step of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate government lawyers for possible criminal contempt. Sullivan’s actions also set in motion a series of reforms designed to ensure that prosecutors meet their obligations to turn over evidence to defendants. (Brown would be Sullivan’s colleague on D.C.’s federal trial court, among the most prestigious in the country.)
The OPR investigations of the Stevens prosecutors and of the former OLC lawyers elevated the profile of Brown’s office. Rarely do OPR findings see the light of day, much less become the subject of congressional inquiries, as the OLC probe has. As a result, the office has received more complaints, Brown has said.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton sent Brown’s name to the White House, along with eight others, for three vacancies on the court. (The names were generated by Norton’s nominating commission, the same group that interviewed candidates for U.S. Attorney in the District.) The White House appears to have pared the list down to three names, and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy has been assisting with the vetting since December, the people said.
The lawyers being considered for the other two vacancies are Venable LLP partner Robert Wilkins, former special litigation chief for the D.C. Public Defender Service, and D.C. Superior Judge James “Jeb” Boasberg, who was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in District before his confirmation in 2002, the people said.
Brown could not be reached for comment. Wilkins and Boasberg declined to comment.
The court has a fourth vacancy as of late December, when U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman took senior status. It’s unclear whether the White House will select a nominee from Norton’s list, ask for more names or conduct its own search.
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The Obama administration wants to expand the staff of the Office of Professional Responsibility, the Justice Department’s internal disciplinarians, to handle an “increasing number of special investigations.”
The president’s budget proposal asks for $488,000 to add five positions, including three attorneys, and notes that “several investigations were opened at the request of congressional oversight committees or members of Congress.”
In a well-publicized example, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf, asked Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine to probe the circumstances surrounding dismissal of voter intimidation charges against members of the New Black Panther Party. Fine referred the case to OPR. That inquiry is ongoing.
OPR currently has 29 positions, including 21 attorneys. The office, which is led by veteran prosecutor Mary Patrice Brown, saw an increase in the pace of complaints filed in 2009. As of May, the office had received nearly 700 complaints, while about 800 complaints were filed in all of 2008.
In a meeting with representatives of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Brown attributed the uptick to OPR’s increased visibility. She cited its investigations of high-profile matters, such as the conduct of prosecutors in the botched Ted Stevens trial and of the Bush administration Office of Legal Counsel lawyers whose legal opinions paved the way for waterboarding.
The OPR report on the Office of Legal Counsel is going through declassification now, in preparation for public release. It was more than four years in the making.
Newsweek reported last week that OPR originally found the former Office of Legal Counsel lawyers had failed to to meet professional standards in crafting a 2002 memo blessing the use of harsh interrogation techniques. Those lawyers were Jay Bybee, now a federal appellate judge, and John Yoo, now a law professor.
But Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, who conducted the final review, softened the report to say they showed “poor judgement,” Newsweek said.
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The Department of Justice’s internal ethics watchdog is looking into the circumstances surrounding the dismissal in May of voter intimidation charges against members of the New Black Panther Party, a case that has sparked outrage from conservatives.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, revealed the inquiry in a news release today. Smith has been a vocal critic of the Obama DOJ’s decision to dismiss charges against two one members of the black separatist group, who stood outside a Philadelphia polling place last November in military-style fatigues and beret. The DOJ won an injunction against a third another New Black Panther, who’d carried a nightstick.
“I am pleased that someone at the Justice Department is finally taking the dismissal of the New Black Panther Party case seriously,” Smith said in a statement. A copy of the letter from Office of Professional Responsibility chief counsel Mary Patrice Brown can be viewed here. It says OPR is conducting an “inquiry,” a preliminary step that indicates the office found more grounds to explore the complaint, while stopping short of opening a more formal investigation.
According to OPR’s 2006 annual report:
OPR reviews each allegation and determines whether further investigation is warranted. If it is, OPR determines whether to conduct an inquiry or a full investigation in a specific case …
In some cases, OPR initiates an inquiry because more information is needed to resolve the matter. In such cases, OPR may request additional information from the complainant or obtain a written response from the attorney against whom the allegation was made, and may review other relevant materials such as pleadings and transcripts.
“Our take on it is, there’s enough for an inqury, which is a good sign,” a House Judiciary Republican staffer said. Smith had asked DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine to investigate, but Fine said the matter fell under OPR’s purview and referred it to the ethics office.
In the news release Smith said:
“The Justice Department’s decision to drop a case against political allies who allegedly intimidated voters on Election Day 2008 reeks of political interference. The Justice Department’s refusal to provide Congress with an explanation for the dismissal only further raises concerns that political favoritism played a role in this case. Voter intimidation threatens democracy. These cases must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law without political considerations. I look forward to seeing the results of the Department’s investigation.”
Acting Civil Rights Division chief Loretta King recommended dismissing most of the complaint in April, after the New Black Panther members and the party failed to respond. The complaint had been filed in January, in the waning days of the Bush administration. Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli approved her recommendation to dismiss the complaint, The Washington Times has reported. Read the notice of dismissal here.
Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ron Weich wrote Smith in July, saying the DOJ concluded the evidence did not support the allegation that the New Black Panther Party had directed its members to block polling places across the country. ”[F]actual contentions in the complaint did not have sufficient evidentiary support,” Weich said. The DOJ also had concerns about First Amendment issues, Weich said.
Republicans haven’t accepted the Obama DOJ’s explanation. Conservative bloggers and commentators, including Rush Limbaugh, have condemned the decision to drop most of the case. And Smith has called on Senate Republicans to block the nomination of President Obama’s choice to the head the Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez, over the matter, although it appears Perez has enough votes to win confirmation.
The Washington, D.C.-based New Black Panther Party is not related to the 1960s New Black Panther Party founded by Huey Newton and other “black power” activists. The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified the New Black Panther Party a hate group for its anti-white rhetoric.
The article has been corrected.
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Mary Patrice Brown, the new head of the Office of Professional Responsibility, spoke at a confernece this morning at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. It was her public debut after Eric Holder appointed her last month to lead the troubled internal DOJ ethics office.
She promised more transparency for the office, which has come under assault for turning into a kind of black hole for ethics probes, according to this report by the BLT. She said the office receives abotu 1000 complaints a year, but mostly about DOJ lawyers accused of making misrepresentations or not complying with regulations. The allegations of Brady violations — which have been center stage recently in the Sen. Ted Stevens case — are lower down on the list of complaints, she said.
She had some advice for prosecutors:
“If your gut is telling you you do not want the defense to have this, then that tells you you must turn it over. That’s how we were trained. People who don’t do that, and hold things too close to the chest, those are the people who run into trouble,” Brown said. “In a white-collar case, the way I was trained, was for heaven’s sakes, turn it all over. What are you hiding? It’s easier that way.”
In dismissing an indictment against Stevens last month, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said he lacked faith in OPR’s ability to serve the public interest. Sullivan ordered his own investigation into whether DOJ prosecutors intentionally withheld exculpatory material from the Alaska Republican’s defense. Members of Congress are pushing for DOJ to release a much-anticipated OPR investigation into the whether former Office of Legal Counsel lawyers Jay Bybee, Steven Bradbury and John Yoo violated standards in writing legal memos authorizing brutal interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects.
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The National Law Journal’s Joe Palazzolo has published more details from Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks federal judges at a meeting in Washington on April 21. The gathering was closed to the press. Holder addressed concerns that the Office of Professional Responsibility, the DOJ’s internal ethics watchdog which hasn’t issued a public report on its activities in four years, has become a black hole.
Holder said his new choice to head the ethics office, Mary Patrice Brown, a veteran of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, would shake things up. Brown’s appointment was announced a day after U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan dismissed an indictment against former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and ordered his own investigation into whether prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence, saying he didn’t have much faith in OPR. One judge who spoked to Palazollo on conditon of anonymity said of Brown: ”She sounds like she’s really a ball of fire.”
Holder also said Deputy Attorney General David Ogden would chair a working group to examine federal sentencing and corrections policy, Palazzolo reports. Judges had complained about disparities in leniency shown to defendants who cooperate with government investigations, with some districts granting more substantial sentence reductions than others.