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DC Court Disbars Former Federal Prosecutor for Misconduct

On March 8, 2012, for the first time in over ten years, a former federal prosecutor was disbarred for “egregious” misconduct during the prosecution of several high-profile murder cases in the 1990s.

According to a 2010 investigation by USA Today, at that time there had been “201 documented cases since 1997 in which courts found that federal prosecutors had violated laws or ethics rules ... [but they] faced little risk of being punished.” USA Today reported that “only six federal prosecutors faced any kind of discipline from the state offices that oversee legal ethics, and none was disbarred.”

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney G. Paul Howes was accused of misusing more than $42,000 in witness vouchers in gang and murder cases nearly sixteen years ago.
According to an internal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, Howes had wrongly authorized payments to relatives and girlfriends of government witnesses and two retired police detectives, presumably to secure their favorable testimony. The vouchers were intended to be used to reimburse witnesses for costs incurred when testifying in court.

In deciding to disbar Howes, the D.C. Court of Appeals wrote that beyond misusing the vouchers, he had “compounded this initial misconduct by failing to disclose the voucher payments to either the court or opposing counsel, pursuant to District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 3.8 (e), Brady v. Maryland, and Giglio v. United States, even though such payments were relevant to the jurors’ credibility determinations of key government witnesses’ testimony.” Further, he had “intentionally misrepresented to the court that such disclosures had been made.”

As a result of its investigation into Howes’ misconduct, the Justice Department agreed to significantly reduce the federal prison sentences of nine convicted felons, including seven convicted of murder.

“[Howes] exhibited a consistent, aggressive disdain for statutes, rules and procedures as a prosecutor, which resulted in his use of the voucher system as a discretionary fund to be distributed at his will,” the Court of Appeals stated. “A prosecutor who violates ethical rules and exploits his broad discretion and access to government resources to misuse public funds, both undermines the legal profession and calls into question the fairness of the criminal justice system within which he operates.”

Notably, the court’s disbarment ruling went against the DC Bar’s Board on Professional Responsibility, which had recommended merely suspending Howes. “Disbarment is the only appropriate sanction where [his] disregard for the laws of our jurisdiction affected the liberty interest of many and the safety of our larger community,” the Court of Appeals wrote. See: In re G. Paul Howes, District of Columbia Court of Appeals, Case No. 10-BG-938.

Howes’ disbarment occurred around the same time as the release of a report that examined various violations of evidence disclosure rules and other ethical violations committed by the Justice Department during the 2008 prosecution of former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens. Largely as a result of his conviction, Stevens lost his Senate seat. The charges were dismissed in 2009 but Stevens died in a plane crash the following year.

These developments increased pressure on U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. to account for serious ethical lapses in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which has the duty of upholding the laws of the United States.

Holder testified before a Senate subcommittee investigating the Stevens report in March 2012, and said the findings were “disturbing.” The Justice Department found that two federal prosecutors had engaged in “reckless professional misconduct” in the Stevens prosecution by withholding evidence, but they were not fired because their actions were not intentional. Rather, the two Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Joseph W. Bottini and James Goeke, were suspended on May 23, 2012 for 40 days and 15 days, respectively.

Holder said all federal prosecutors had undergone training to ensure that such problems do not happen again, and noted that he had dismissed the charges against Stevens. However, attorneys who represented the former Senator called the suspensions of Bottini and Goeke “pathetic,” and said the Justice Department had “demonstrated conclusively that it is not capable of disciplining its prosecutors.”

Sources: USA Today, ABA Journal, Washington Examiner, New York Times

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