Fed-up Feds

Will the "temp" United States Attorney exile dissidents to the border?

Federal prosecutors, armed with the law and an intimidating investigatory arsenal, would hardly seem in need of public sympathy or job protection. However, in recent months, many lawyers assigned to the United States Attorney's Office in Houston profess to work in fear and loathing of their temporary boss, acting United States Attorney Jim DeAtley.

In the eyes of these prosecutors and some federal judges, DeAtley pumps up statistics by dumbing down the quality of prosecutions. He floods courts with so-called "nickel-and-dime" cases that would previously have been considered below the federal radar, such as small drug busts, social security fraud or mail fraud. The new emphasis, they claim, is designed to create glowing, and highly misleading, statistics that will come in handy for the department at budget time and for the Democratic administration in campaign year 2000. The irony of a Democratic appointee coming down hard on small drug- and immigration-law violators, who are largely from minority groups, is mentioned repeatedly by DeAtley's critics.

Assistant United States attorney discontent boiled over during a recent Department of Justice evaluation of the Houston office, as an estimated 20 to 25 dissidents vented about DeAtley and his policies. According to prosecutors, who could comment only confidentially to the Insider, the acting United States Attorney and his lieutenants Greg Serres and Fred Dailey have targeted malcontents and have retaliated with demotions, transfers and veiled threats of exile to border postings, particularly Laredo. Staff morale, never considered high during the tenure of predecessor Gaynelle Griffin Jones, has gone into the tank.

Among the first targets of the purge was former magistrate George Kelt, the major-crime section chief who was demoted to the appellate section with a hefty salary cut. A transfer of veteran fraud prosecutor John Braddock to a routine line prosecutor position was viewed similarly.

"This office now has the most experienced trial section handling appeals of any office in the country," snipes a lawyer who regularly works in the Houston federal courts.

Complaints about DeAtley's efforts to pump up the number of cases processed by the Houston office are not new, but they have increased in intensity as delays keep the expected presidential nominee for United States attorney, Mervyn Mosbacker, cooling his heels in Brownsville. The situation bears a remarkable resemblance to DeAtley's last posting as a three-year interim United States attorney in San Antonio. Incoming nominee Bill Blagg was left on hold there while DeAtley pushed the same program of boosting statistics while infuriating subordinates.

DeAtley's style, as well as his substance, has alienated subordinates. "He completely demeans the lawyers professionally and personally and always plays himself off what he describes as the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the people under him," says one attorney. "Starting off when he came to Houston, he communicated publicly to people around the country and within the department that the office was poorly run and lawyers were inefficient and inadequate."

According to DOJ sources, DeAtley is strongly allied with, and protected by, Donna Bucella, director of the Executive Office of United States Attorneys in Washington. Bucella's office has taken an inordinate amount of time vetting nominee Mosbacker. Some believe that delay is intended to allow DeAtley to carry out a shake-up in Houston before the new man arrives.

"The Houston office is in horrible shape," says a former longtime government lawyer here. He explains that many prosecutors came from the district attorney's office but are now having to handle cases that they never would have assigned to their lowest ranking assistant D.A.'s. "It's not challenging, it's not what they signed on to do, and they're way overpaid to be doing small, petty cases for a clearly transparent purpose of getting the stats real high."

DeAtley has been on reserve duty as an Air Force colonel and did not respond to a request for an interview. In previous Press articles on his policies, he dismissed the complaints that his office is jacking up minor cases to pad statistics.

Earlier he credited the shift in prosecution policies with a focus on violent crime. "If I believed that prosecuting what some people are calling minor cases was impacting our ability to do the more complex white-collar and drug cases, I would take another look at it." DeAtley said he doesn't believe that's the case.

A justice department lawyer based in Washington claims that's exactly what's happening in Houston and that it has made the office a national joke among prosecutors. "Individual United States attorneys like to bump their numbers, and DeAtley's known for that. They don't want any part of complex, challenging white-collar cases, because there are too many risks."

Concern about the internal dissension and DeAtley's bean-counter policies slowly has been building even outside prosecution ranks. Federal judges' patience may be wearing thin. With DeAtley sitting atop a rumbling bureaucratic volcano, the question is whether the justice department can get his permanent successor in place before the mountain blows its top.

A group of veteran federal prosecutors from other regions in Houston met to evaluate the United States Attorney's Office in January. At that point DeAtley had been the "temporary" head of the office some 15 months. As a professional DOJ temp, DeAtley had the reputation for boosting prosecution stats through a combination of more generous plea bargaining with accused felons, splitting multidefendant indictments into individual cases, and lowering the bar for cases meriting indictment and trial. For example, state courts used to handle bank frauds involving less than $50,000. Now tellers who embezzle $5,000 make the cut for federal prosecution.

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