Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ex-prosecutor may face disbarment

Regulators asked the District of Columbia's highest court Tuesday to strip a former federal prosecutor of his law license for his "illegal and unethical" conduct during a series of high-profile murder cases in the mid-1990s.

If the D.C. Court of Appeals decides to disbar former assistant U.S. attorney G. Paul Howes, it will be the first time in at least a decade that judges anywhere in the USA have disbarred a federal prosecutor for ethics violations in a criminal case. Disbarment is the most serious punishment that state officials in charge of policing legal ethics can impose on a lawyer.

A USA TODAY investigation last year documented 201 cases since 1997 in which courts found that federal prosecutors had violated laws or ethics rules. Although the abuses represent a small fraction of the tens of thousands of cases filed in federal court every year, each was so serious that judges overturned convictions or rebuked prosecutors for misconduct.

Even so, USA TODAY found, the prosecutors faced little risk of being punished: Only six federal prosecutors faced any type of discipline from the state offices that oversee legal ethics, and none was disbarred.

Tuesday's hearing came 15 years after Howes was first accused of misusing thousands of dollars of witness vouchers in high-profile homicide cases here. The vouchers are supposed to be used to reimburse witnesses for costs associated with testifying in court, but Howes authorized payments to relatives and girlfriends of informants, an internal Justice Department investigation found.

The informants helped him in an investigation of a gang implicated in a series of murders in a neighborhood 3 miles from the White House. As a consequence, the Justice Department agreed to significantly reduce prison sentences for seven convicted murderers.

Elizabeth Herman, the district's deputy bar counsel, urged judges Tuesday to deal sternly with conduct that did "tremendous harm to the criminal justice system." She said that if prosecutors here are disregarding their ethical duties, disbarring Howes "would be an important message to send to that office."

Howes' lawyer, Paul Knight, said Tuesday that what Howes did was not improper. "This is the way the United States attorney's office puts together cases. ... It's a common practice. Homicides are solved all the time that way," he said. He said Howes was a "public servant who worked night and day for the District of Columbia."

The Justice Department's internal investigation concluded in 1998 that Howes committed misconduct. Bar investigators did not become aware of the issue until 2002. Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman said the delays in hearing the Howes case show that "bar discipline is not very effective" for deterring prosecutorial misconduct. He said it might not be fair to disbar Howes so long after the alleged misconduct took place.

The Justice Department declined to comment. The court is likely to reach a decision this year.

Original report here

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