Fed-up Feds

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

In the course of his Houston stay, DeAtley also has provoked the federal judiciary. Judge Vanessa Gilmore, the liaison between the judges and prosecutors, issued a written complaint about his trend to indict related defendants separately rather than grouping them into one case. Gilmore noted that such tactics clog dockets and violate a court rule requiring that judges be notified of litigation linked to other current cases.

Judge Melinda Harmon fumed about DeAtley's last-minute deal-making with defendants in a huge drug-conspiracy case. Harmon's unusually blunt statement from the bench stunned courtroom listeners: "I just want to say on the record I know something very odd is going on in the United States Attorney's Office, as shown by the way this case has been handled, and that I'm aware of that."

Judge Lynn Hughes, the senior federal jurist here, believes DeAtley's policies are designed to inflate statistics and justify agency budgets. He compares the policies to those of another United States attorney, Henry Oncken, who ran afoul of the judiciary by filling the courts with small cases.

"We had a United States attorney 15 years ago who thought everybody in the district should go to prison, and he just didn't have enough resources to get us all," recalls Hughes. "DeAtley's [policies] are more finely crafted for their bureaucratic purposes. Oncken just took a bulldozer to the problem, and it may have helped the agencies with their budgets, but I don't think he was particularly sensitive to that. He just liked to prosecute."

When the DOJ evaluators began talking to judges and prosecutors about DeAtley, they were stunned by the quantity and acidity of the complaints. They spent a week conducting interviews that were supposed to be confidential. The process concluded with exit interviews of DeAtley and his executive staff.

Even though no one on staff saw the evaluation, some section chiefs soon made comments indicating that the identities of the complainers were no secret. And the problems supposedly identified by the evaluation were not DeAtley and his policies; they were instead several "hot points," including the low number of cases handled by prosecutors and the high number of malcontents on staff. More ominous, a section chief also told staff that DeAtley and Bucella discussed budgeting funds to buy the Houston homes of low-producing attorneys and transfer them to the Valley, where plenty of drug and immigration cases awaited.

A week later, criminal division head Fred Daily put a slightly more diplomatic spin on the matter. Prosecutors reported that Dailey explained to them that case statistics were low in Houston and high in the Valley, and a plan was afoot to transfer a number of prosecutors to the border, particularly Laredo.

Several assistant United States attorneys say they'll take DeAtley to court if he tries to forcibly transfer them from Houston, and a veteran prosecutor figures the threat of a forced march to the bleak outpost of Laredo is more bluff than anything else.

"My own personal view is that's a hollow threat, getting people to think, 'My God! If I don't do something and run up my stats and get on someone's good side, I'll wind up in Laredo tomorrow.' The cost to the government of that sort of thing would be pretty severe and, under the circumstances, would probably be contested by certain people and would be an ugly situation. So I don't see it happening."

While the pressure builds inside the Houston office, future United States attorney Mervyn Mosbacker continues his work as chief federal prosecutor of the Brownsville office. There is no indication when he'll be coming to Houston, despite monthly rumors that his appointment is pending.

"Well, I don't have an update," said Mosbacker when the Insider called, "but I'm not concerned about it. I hope it's soon, but I don't have an estimated time."

Mosbacker is a Hispanic whose nomination is being pushed by the Texas Democratic congressional delegation. He clerked for Brownsville federal Judge Filemon Vela. Before joining the feds, he served as an assistant district attorney in the Valley. Although his experience is mostly with the kind of drug and immigration cases pushed by DeAtley in Houston, he's credited with good prosecutorial skills and is eagerly awaited by the same assistant United States attorneys who detest DeAtley.

Mosbacker is keeping a diplomatic distance from the office disputes in Houston. "Well, I wouldn't want to talk about internal stuff in the office or comment on anything concerning personnel," he says.

A spokeswoman for Bucella's office in Washington cautioned the Insider that there were impending developments to be announced concerning Mosbacker's appointment. But that was three weeks ago.

By most accounts, the lengthy delay for Mosbacker has been caused by foot-dragging in the justice department rather than at the White House. A DeAtley supporter figures that the department bureaucracy in Washington is just more comfortable with DeAtley and is in no hurry to disrupt what Bucella and others see as a necessary clear-cutting of office deadwood.

"There's nothing wrong with Mosbacker, other than the people in Washington like DeAtley and they know him," says this prosecutor. "They trust him. They don't know Mosbacker, and they don't know what to do with him."

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