Sound the Retreat!

When the going gets hot, federal prosecutors head south

During the national emergency early last week, law enforcement agencies were in a state of high alert chasing every possible lead on terrorist activities in Texas and the rest of the country. And more than 140 staff lawyers of the U.S. Attorney's Southern District of Texas division were also on the move.

Incredibly, these attorneys headed to a resort hotel in Corpus Christi for a three-day management seminar and retreat -- complete with drinks and dining at social mixers, capped by a group photo session.

The calls from irate federal employees started trickling in to The Insider even before the exodus to the beach began.

"Unbelievable," exclaimed one member of a federal agency whose staff was working around the clock during that same time, tracing the past movements of terrorism suspects and searching for possible supporters.

"They should have been here in support of all the federal agencies who have formed task forces to combat this thing," complained the source. "We've got every agency known to man here in our command center running leads. What if the U.S. had started bombing this week? Who knows what kind of retaliation could have occurred. And those assholes are down there drinking champagne."

The retreat included U.S. attorney staffers from 43 Texas counties stretching from Bryan-College Station to Laredo. They had been scheduled for South Padre Island until an errant barge severed a section of causeway shortly after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Rather than canceling the event because of the disasters, acting U.S. Attorney Greg Sears simply moved the retreat to the Omni Bayfront Hotel in Corpus. Needless to say, there were no problems getting hotel bookings on a short-term basis as thousands of grief-stricken citizens across the nation canceled air travel and resort reservations.

According to a Houston federal attorney, "these are times where it seems a little inappropriate to be at what could be considered a vacation hotel when we've got this crisis."

Sears did not return a call from The Insider seeking an explanation.

His subordinates heard the official reasoning for going forward with the event: Retreat money already had been budgeted for the fiscal year that ended September 30, and it needed to be spent. It was also an opportunity for the federal prosecutors to get continuing legal education credits via a series of seminars held at the hotel.

"I didn't want to go," one participant explained. "But you had to have an absolute good reason to get out of it. You're forced to come unless you had a court setting or something like that. But a number of people are not going to the mixers and things like that. There's a lot of discontent here."

Sears is in the process of handing over his acting U.S. attorney role to Bush administration nominee Mike Shelby. So the decision to hold a management seminar for outgoing managers seemed doubly inexplicable to some staffers. Sears did get an extension on his interim acting appointment from the local federal judiciary last Thursday. Shelby is cooling his heels at the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix, awaiting confirmation by the Senate to the Southern District post. Shelby did not return an Insider call for comment.

One attorney figures the gathering was Sears's last chance to strut his stuff as head of the Houston-based Southern District.

"We do this annual portrait, and there's some sense that Sears wanted to do this so he could pose in the middle of a picture as U.S. attorney and all that fanfare and bullshit.

He just wanted to have a party on his watch and be in the middle as the boss."

Sears also is taking some flak for his appointment of major crimes section chief Don Calvert as the district representative on the national terrorism task force. Calvert, in the eyes of some judicial sources, does not have the high profile or the experience the position demands.

The day after the terrorism strikes, Calvert sent an e-mail to U.S. attorney offices around the state telling them he had consulted with a golf pro to extend registration for an office tournament.

Another federal source put the blame squarely on Sears for taking attorneys out of their offices when they could have been processing warrants and assisting investigators with court preparations for terrorist-related searches.

The anger over the retreat's timing is fueled by simmering resentment between personnel of different federal law enforcement agencies who believe that the terrorists' conspiracy might have been cracked before the attacks if agencies had shared intelligence information.

"Do you think for a moment Mike Shelby, a former marine who fought in the Gulf War in 1991, would say, 'Shut everything down, we're heading to Corpus in the middle of a war?' " scoffs one lawman. "If there was a statute for impersonating a federal prosecutor, we'd be working on those guys right now."

 
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