WASHINGTON – Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Mike Lee of Utah today called on the Justice Department to investigate allegations of misconduct by federal prosecutors in cases related to the 2007 Moonlight Fire in California. The officials in question allegedly failed to provide relevant information in the cases, retaliated against a colleague who disclosed documents that were originally withheld and targeted prosecutions for the sole purpose of raising revenue.
According to media reports, officials from the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California made false statements, withheld 5,000 pages of information and failed to correct a calculation error that would have reduced potential liability in another case by $10 million. The lead investigator claims to have been removed from the case after disclosing documents that were withheld. Another federal prosecutor alleged that the investigation was directed squarely at raising revenue. Plaintiffs in a state court case were ordered to pay more than $32 million in attorney fees as a result of the potentially corrupt practices, and a $55 million settlement that was reached in 2012 in a federal case may be overturned.
“Accountability for prosecutors fulfills a basic expectation from the general public that the government will be held to the same standards as everyone else. If anything, United States investigators and prosecutors—who occupy positions of public trust and exercise significant discretion afforded them in enforcing the law—should be held to a higher standard,” the senators wrote in a letter to Acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
The letter follows Grassley’s correspondences last September to the director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys and the Government Accountability Office questioning oversight and discipline practices of U.S. Attorney’s Office staff who may have broken the law.
A signed copy of the letter is available here. Full text of the letter is below.
March 27, 2015
VIA ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSION
The Honorable Sally Quillian Yates
Acting Deputy Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
Dear Acting Deputy Attorney General Yates:
Last September, Senator Grassley wrote to the Justice Department’s Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concerning a report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) that the Department had declined to prosecute three separate cases in which federal prosecutors apparently broke the law. We write today with similar concerns relating to the Department’s handling of attorney misconduct in two lawsuits arising out of the “Moonlight Fire,” which burned 65,000 acres in California in 2007.
According to the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, a California judge and two Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSA) involved in the case have exposed serious wrongdoing by officials at the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California. The misconduct includes the withholding of 5,000 pages of documents, false statements about where the fire started, and the failure to disclose an error in the damage calculation of another case which would have reduced potential liability by $10 million.
Disturbingly, according to reports, the AUSA who led the Moonlight Fire investigation claimed in a 15-page sworn statement that he was kicked off the case when he disclosed one of these documents, even though he had consulted with the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) before doing so. A second federal prosecutor reportedly stepped down after discovering “prosecutorial abuse directed squarely at raising revenue.”
As a result of the “corrupt and tainted” investigation and discovery abuses, the plaintiffs in the state court case have been ordered to pay more than $32 million in attorney fees, and the $55 million settlement reached in 2012 in the federal case may be overturned.
Accountability for prosecutors fulfills a basic expectation from the general public that the government will be held to the same standards as everyone else. If anything, United States investigators and prosecutors--who occupy positions of public trust and exercise significant discretion afforded them in enforcing the law—should be held to a higher standard.
Accordingly, by April 10, 2015, please have your staff provide a briefing to the Committee on this matter and please also provide written responses to the following:
1. Has OPR initiated an investigation of any of the Justice Department employees involved in this case? If not, why not?
2. Has the Justice Department initiated an investigation of any of the U.S. Forest Service employees in this case? If not, why not?
3. The Department recently announced changes to its asset seizure program in response to concerns that it incentivized law enforcement to police for profit. Given the similar concerns raised in this case, how will you ensure that fire investigations and prosecutions are not “directed squarely at raising revenue?”
Should you have questions, please contact Jay Lim at (202) 224-5225 or Benji McMurray at (202) 224-5444. Thank you.
Charles E. Grassley
cc: The Honorable Michael E. Horowitz
Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice
The Honorable Monty Wilkinson
Director, Executive Office for United States Attorneys, U.S. Department of Justice
The Honorable Gene Dodaro
Comptroller General, U.S. Government Accountability Office