Prosecutors

Mindy Kaling and Preet Bharara at the Harvard Law School commencement.

The legal world doesn’t have too many “crossover celebrities,” figures who are big enough to be known outside our little corner of the world. We can all think of a few — Alan Dershowitz, Judge Judy, Supreme Court justices (arguably) — and not all of them are awesome (cough cough, Nancy Grace).

One of the youngest crossover celebrities is Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He’s been on the cover of Time magazine. He’s attended the Vanity Fair Oscars party.

Bharara is best known for his crackdown on Wall Street abuses and insider trading, but he’s a fun person underneath the prosecutor’s dark suit. Yesterday the New York Times ran an interesting profile of Bharara. Here are some highlights….

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Former White House press secretary and gun regulation activist James Brady died last week. The coroner has apparently ruled Brady’s death a homicide. Nothing new happened, the coroner is simply saying that the bullet to the head that Brady took 33 years ago killed him. As murders go, this was an extremely long-tailed killing. Crim law professors of the world rejoice: life just delivered your next issue spotter.

But can a death three decades after a shooting open the door to a murder prosecution?

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No one has getting indicted on their bucket list. No one sends word of their indictment to their alumni magazine.

That said, if you’re going to get indicted, it’s a whole lot better to be charged in state court in New York than in federal court anywhere else in the country, in at least one way.

The criminal case about the implosion of Dewey & LeBoeuf shows why. Last week, the folks charged in the Dewey meltdown filed a number of motions to dismiss the indictment. Everyone but Zachary Warren filed an omnibus motion to dismiss. Steve DiCarmine filed his own motion that was so, well, something that it contained Above the Law’s quote of the day. Zachary Warren filed a separate motion. There’s some great stuff in all of the pleadings about the government’s case.

What’s perhaps less obvious to those of us who do white-collar criminal defense but don’t normally practice in state court in New York is that, according to the law as set out in these papers, New York state is a magical Shangri-la of due process compared to federal court.

How?

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Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Reason enough why no country should ever engage in the practice of Affirmative Action again. This could be the result. Where would she be if she didn’t hit the quota lottery? Here’s a hint: “Would you like to supersize that sir?”

– Florida Assistant State Attorney Kenneth Lewis, in a message expressing his love for Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Facebook. Lewis also posted messages suggesting that “crack hoes” get their tubes tied for Mother’s Day, and in support of Donald Sterling and the right to free speech.

Some people go to law school not in the hope of making buckets of cash, but to bring justice to their communities. With long hours and low pay, being a government attorney is a noble pursuit. The catch is that some of these poor souls didn’t know just how poor they’d actually be.

To that end, they certainly didn’t expect that they’d be paid a lower salary than the courthouse custodian, and they had no clue that they’d be members of the working poor.

Which state is allowing entry-level government attorneys to live in squalor?

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As Chief Judge Alex Kozinski recently wrote, “There is an epidemic of Brady violations abroad in the land. Only judges can put a stop to it.”

But judges need to know about prosecutorial misconduct in order to do anything about it. The public needs to be made aware of this important issue as well.

Last week, I interviewed Sidney Powell, a former federal prosecutor who has written a new book — a book that pulls no punches when it comes to her former colleagues at the U.S. Department of Justice….

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The criminal justice system has all sorts of problems. Far, far, far too many people are in prison. Hell, lots of them are downright innocent. Most of those inmates are drawn disproportionately from the poor and minority population while the more affluent and white receive better treatment for the same crimes. And the wealthy, mostly white people who caused widespread economic pain not only avoided prosecution, but made healthy sums.

But one big problem with the criminal justice system that we’ve harped on before is the broad, largely unchecked power of federal prosecutors to bully the accused.

A prominent federal judge thinks it’s gone too far and he’s got a proposed solution.

Too bad it’s far too sensible for anyone in a position of power to actually adopt….

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Do you think I whipped him enough?

– a question allegedly asked by Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants of his current wife after the attorney allegedly struck his son with a belt more than 10 times. After his ex-wife filed a criminal complaint, Plants was charged with misdemeanor domestic battery. Plants is trying to get the charge dismissed because he claims he was “acting within a constitutionally protected right to control his child.”

The indictment of Zachary Warren is troubling for a lot of lawyers because, well, he seems like one of us. His post-Dewey path to a great law school, two cool clerkships, and an offer from a great law firm, is something we, as lawyers, can identify with.

What’s most frustrating about Zachary Warren’s situation is that it looks like he was charged largely because he decided to talk to law enforcement without hiring a lawyer first.

Most of us would like to think that, as lawyers, we’re smart enough to make the right legal moves if we’re in a place where we need to. Yet Warren talked to law enforcement, when most of us know that’s the wrong move (and, if you don’t know that’s the wrong move, there’s a short video on my firm’s webpage explaining how we look at it). What’s up with that?

As Lat mentioned earlier this week, there’s a dispute about what happened. Some of Warren’s friends say he was essentially duped about his status or the nature of the interview he participated in. The Manhattan D.A. has pushed back, through spokeswoman Erin Duggan Kramer: “The facts [in this New York Times piece] are incorrect. The claim that an attorney with a federal clerkship could have any misunderstanding of what it means to speak with and agree to meet with the D.A.’s office is preposterous.”

Kramer’s point makes seems intuitively compelling. Why would a smart lawyer talk?

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There are so many interesting parts of the Dewey criminal charges, it’s hard to count them all.

For starters, there are the emails laid out by the SEC in its complaint, such as:

  • “I don’t see how we’ll get past the auditors another year.”
  • “I assume you [k]new this but just in case. Can you find another clueless auditor for next year?”
  • “I don’t know anything about [the contracts] and I don’t want to cook the books anymore. We need to stop doing that.”
  • “I don’t know. He’s starting to wig a little. Maybe he’s hearing and seeing too much . . . .”

Sadly for people and happily for prosecutors, regrettable emails are simply a fact of modern electronic life. Still, “I don’t want to cook the books anymore” has to be pretty high on the list of things that one is likely to regret putting in an email.

(These emails, and more, are collected in the Bloomberg piece by Matt Levine wonderfully titled “Law Firm Accountants Were Bad at Accounting, Law.”)

But, probably more interesting than these regrettable emails is what the Dewey prosecution can tell us about white-collar prosecutions in New York more generally….

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