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,
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
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.
NADIA BOROWSKI SCOTT
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
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
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
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.