San Diego Union Tribune

March 14, 2007

Lam's numbers bolster backers of her ouster

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE


 
 
 

WASHINGTON – During the past five years, former San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam put 88 people behind bars for federal crimes involving firearms.

Yet for every gun-toting criminal that Lam got convicted, her counterpart along the southern border of Texas put away almost a dozen.

Lam's detractors insist that her record on firearms and immigration-related prosecutions was responsible for her recent ouster as San Diego's top federal prosecutor, and a look at Justice Department statistics indicate that her critics might have a case.

But Lam's supporters – which six months ago included the Justice Department official who now defends her firing – have argued that Lam devoted half of her resources to prosecuting criminal alien cases. She focused on offenders who posed the greatest threat to the region while allowing the district attorney to pursue gun-related crimes, backers say.

The recent firings of Lam and seven other U.S. attorneys have created a political firestorm. Democrats are alleging that the dismissals were payback for the attorneys for either investigating Republicans or failing to investigate Democrats. Lam's signature prosecution resulted in the conviction of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Rancho Santa Fe, on charges related to bribery.

Democrats are calling for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who said yesterday that his Justice Department mishandled the firings.

The Bush administration has said all but one attorney was dismissed for performance-related reasons and added that U.S. attorneys are political appointees who may be fired for any or no reason.

Lam, who left office last month, publicly admitted during congressional testimony last week that she was confused by her firing in December, was never told of failings that might warrant her dismissal and that such actions could have “a chilling effect” on other U.S. attorneys.


 
NADIA BOROWSKI SCOTT
/ Union-Tribune
Carol Lam, shown about a month before she left office in February, served as San Diego's U.S. attorney for just over four years.

During a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., produced prosecution statistics from Lam's office that he said demonstrated that Lam's “policies were too restrictive in the kind of cases” she would pursue.

From fiscal 2002 through 2006, Lam's office sentenced 88 people for firearms crimes, according to figures the Justice Department provided Sessions. Those numbers track closely with figures from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency under the federal judiciary system. The commission defines firearms violations as illegal possession, transportation or trafficking of firearms or their use during a felony.

During the same period, 946 people were sentenced for the same crimes in the Southern District of Texas, 894 in the Western District of Texas, 897 in the District of Arizona, 437 in the District of New Mexico and 439 in the Southern District of Alabama, where Sessions was U.S. attorney for 12 years and which he contends had one-fifth of Lam's resources.

In fact, while firearms prosecutions accounted for nearly 12 percent of U.S. attorneys' prosecutions nationwide in 2006, they accounted for less than 1 percent of Lam's prosecutions that year.

“It doesn't take that many resources to prosecute a (firearms) case,” Sessions told Lam last week. “I mean, you bring the charge and most of them plead guilty.”

Lam came to her job in 2002 pledging to make white-collar crime a priority. She said last week that San Diego's district attorney helped her prosecute firearms cases under the federal-state program Project Safe Neighborhoods. She said local law enforcement agencies told her they were “very satisfied with the gun prosecutions – because it was very well handled by the district attorney.”

A spokesman for the San Diego County District Attorney's Office said his office has loaned a state prosecutor to the U.S. Attorney's Office to work on federal firearms cases. That person, who is cross-deputized to handle state and federal prosecutions, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Sessions also pointed out that from fiscal 2002 through 2006, Lam's office prosecuted an average of 1,711 immigration cases a year, which he said hit a low of 1,411 prosecutions in 2006. During that year, 4,132 immigration cases were prosecuted in the Southern District of Texas, 2,669 in the Western District of Texas, 2,193 in the District of Arizona and 1,361 in the District of New Mexico.

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The commission defines immigration violations as being in the country illegally, illegally trafficking or acquiring U.S. entry documents, or cross-border smuggling.

But the sentencing commission reports that immigration-related crimes accounted for nearly 54 percent of the sentences won by Lam's office last year. Drug-related crimes accounted for 37 percent of sentences and white-collar crimes for 1.7 percent.

Concern about Lam's prosecution rates came to Sen. Dianne Feinstein's attention last summer, when Border Patrol agents complained that despite their high border apprehension rates, Lam prosecuted few such cases. In a June letter to the Justice Department, Feinstein, D-Calif., asked for Lam's prosecution figures.

Feinstein received a reply in August from William E. Moschella, an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department, who wrote that his office was satisfied with Lam's performance. He explained that Lam devoted “substantial resources” to prosecute cases involving immigration violations, human smuggling and border corruption – focusing on criminals who posed serious threats to the community and national security.

That was the defense Lam gave Congress last week.

“The immigration prosecution philosophy of (Lam's office) focuses on deterrence by directing its resources and efforts against the worst immigration offenders and by bringing felony cases against such defendants that will result in longer sentences,” Moschella wrote to Feinstein.

Feinstein spokesman Scott Gerber said Feinstein concluded from Moschella's reply that Lam's “priorities were fine.”

It was Moschella who criticized Lam's record last week. “Her gun prosecution numbers are at the bottom of the list,” he told a House Judiciary subcommittee. “On immigration – her numbers for a border district just didn't stack up.”

Lam said higher-ups never raised this concern with her.

 

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