So I’m done with all the “platform” stuff.
If you’ve browsed the “pages”, you either think I have the experience to talk out of an orifice other than my ass, or you think I’m just another wannabe pundit, like the seeming thousands of “former prosecutors” on cable TV, who qualify as legal “experts” by virtue of the fact that they say so.
A few things converged to inspire my inaugural “pissed off” entry.
First, I finally had the opportunity to watch “The Wire”. Or at least the first season. It’s every bit as good as I’ve been told, and on so many levels.
I won’t give away too much in case you haven’t seen it, but the main character, a cop named Jimmy McNulty, expresses the frustrations and what at times seems to be the futility of working in law enforcement. Ambitious, self-serving bosses, many of whom couldn’t find their ass with both hands. The political hacks to whom they answer. No-load “colleagues” who show up for a paycheck and feel threatened by those with an ounce of initiative or balls.
Secondly, it’s election time. I’ve been in Vegas lately. Some of the political ads are particularly vicious, even for Sin City. Many of the candidates, most of whom started as “lawyers”, were useless if and when they practiced law at all. You could see from a mile away that some were feathering their nests from Day One, knee pads at the ready to serve the right people, but terrified to piss off the wrong ones; manipulating their way to some position that would presumably satisfy their wildly exaggerated egos.
The third and final motivation for this rant is the recent announcement of the impending departure of the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder.
The dirty politics depicted in “The Wire”, my recent constant exposure to political attack ads, and memories of Mr. Holder’s tenure, as well as my one personal interaction with him – which smacked of politics – all seemed to come full circle.
Let’s take a trip back in time.
In July, 1999, Eric Holder was the Deputy AG under President Bill Clinton. On July 7, he visited the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Las Vegas, ostensibly to be briefed on a firearms initiative I had come up with as Chief of Narcotics and Violent Crime. The idea germinated when mid-level brass at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department approached me. When I arrived in Vegas in 1990, the historical relationship between the Feds and the locals (the cops and the DA’s Office) was horrendous. If you’ve heard anything about rancher Cliven Bundy in the news recently, that storyline is a lesson in the long held animus many Nevadans harbor for the Federal Government.
However, I had made some inroads with Metro after successfully prosecuting the Wynn kidnapping case, one of the biggest in Nevada history, in collaboration with them. Now they actually trusted me.
So a few Metro bosses came to me complaining that felons arrested in possession of firearms were routinely getting a slap on the wrist in state court. Violent criminals, the last people cops want walking around armed – about 500 each year – were routinely getting pleas to misdemeanors from the DA’s Office and sentenced to probation.
We approached the DA about taking the “worst of the worst” federally, where sentences were much stiffer. Making a very long story short, we were rebuffed. So we took the fight directly to the cops. I put a Powerpoint presentation together that demonstrated the superior tools we had to offer: heavy sentences for felons who carried guns or even a round of ammunition. Enhanced prison time for possession in relation to another crime. And stiff – some would say Draconian – mandatory minimum sentences for possession of controlled substances for sale.
Myself and an ATF agent went to EVERY roll call, for each shift, for every local department – Metro, Henderson PD, North Las Vegas PD, even State Probation. There were many other advantages, both investigative and otherwise, which took about an hour to present in capsule form, so I won’t belabor them here.
The cops responded by bringing their cases directly to us – that is, ATF and me. This was not making the DA look good; that fact and some federal grant money finally brought him around, and the program took off.
Back to the meeting, a few of us (the federal prosecutors) but primarily me, briefed the Deputy AG. Several top law enforcement leaders were also present. He seemed genuinely interested and impressed.
After the briefing, we (the federal prosecutors) were excused, and as we exited the conference room, to my shock, a large contingent of the press entered, along with Representative Shelley Berkeley (D-NV). Holder and Berkeley then proceeded, in our absence, to hold court regarding our program.
The next day I read quotes from Holder in the local papers, praising our program. “This is not something you see in other parts of the country”. Wow. Nice that the Deputy Attorney General had our back and supported charging violent felons in possession of guns and drugs in federal court. In fact, I got a big award for starting the thing up – the “Director’s Award”. (P.S. I skipped the very formal ceremony at the Hall of Justice at DOJ in Washington – not big on pomp and circumstance, So my award was presented to me by the mailman).
However, the newspapers also reported that “his visit was at the urging” of Representative Berkeley. As far as I knew, the good Congresswoman had known nothing of my program before that day. And I was never contacted by her – before or after.
We were obviously being used by Washington to prop up Berkeley as a pro-law enforcement Democrat. Business as usual I suppose, but I was pissed off. While I had no illusions of grandeur, I didn’t enjoy playing the pawn.
But here’s the kicker. The next day, July 8, happened to be the day before a sentencing for a particularly violent crime – the type we were lauded for pursuing by Mr. Holder during the July 7 dog and pony show.
On that day, July 8, the federal District Court Judge who was to impose sentence on the 9th received a letter from from none other than Representative Shelley Berkeley, on official Congressional letterhead. The letter was “on behalf of” one of the defendants, who was to be sentenced for his part in a terrifying, violent takeover style bank robbery, in which he wielded a 12 gauge shotgun while his accomplice held a handgun. They wore horror masks – from the movie “Scream”. They got everyone on the floor, and our boy clocked the operation with a stopwatch. When time was up, they politely bid all to “have a good day”.
However…per the letter, it seems that the defendant’s father and Berkeley had attended UNLV together; he “played basketball” while she “participated in Student Government”. How heart warming. Hence the letter “as a private person” – but with an illustration of the U.S. Capitol and “Congresswoman Shelley Berkeley” printed at the top of the page.
So the crime-fighting Congresswoman had – in my view – abused her office for personal reasons on behalf of a thug. And both she and the future AG got a little mileage out of my gun program.
And like Jimmy McNulty from “The Wire” , I went back to the task of coming up with ideas to make the public safer while trying my best to avoid stepping on a landmine or being stabbed in the back. This is the fate of any career prosecutor who actually does the job.
Fast forward to today’s Eric Holder, President Obama’s Attorney General.
Putting it mildly, he has been a consistent and profound disappointment as AG to practically every career prosecutor I know. However, this column is not only about Eric Holder. He and his legacy are also offered as context to make a larger point.
After being sworn in as THE Attorney General of the United States in February 2009, Holder addressed the Department. I was watching it live on TV. After a nod to terrorism, he stressed that we must reinvigorate DOJ’s “traditional missions”: fighting “crime”; promoting civil rights; preserving the environment; and ensuring fairness in the market place.
What? Generic “crime”? Civil Rights? The market place? I mean, all important matters, but aren’t there other agencies tasked with protecting the environment? These are now the priorities of the nation’s prosecutors?
Had his new boss failed to brief him regarding a slight drug and gun problem in his hometown of Chicago and other major cities? Was this 1965, or 1950? Were Civil Rights violations at epidemic levels in 2009? What about the rights of people being murdered in scores over a weekend in Chicago?
Was this the same guy I met in 1999?
From my perspective, Attorney General Holder will be remembered as follows: the first AG to be held in Contempt of Congress; the man who called America a “nation of cowards” when it comes to race; a leader who opposed legitimate voter identification laws (which he likened to a poll tax), while fighting against voter suppression (unless the suppressors happened to be armed Black Panthers and the suppressed voters Caucasian); a leading voice against “racist” crack laws, who helped to drastically minimize the sentences therefore (while ignoring the very same penalties for methamphetamine, the racial demographics for which he apparently found less offensive); and most recently, the man who dispatched an army of 50 FBI agents to try to gin up a case against the cop who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, while ignoring virulent black on white crime (as well as the most common breed of violence – black on black crime – see Chicago).
Even after the stunt with Berkeley, I preferred the 1999, Deputy Attorney General version of Eric Holder.
Today’s Holder seems to be a man whose policies are dictated by his personal politics. Or those of his boss.
His 1970 participation in criminal behavior at Columbia University in taking over a campus building to (successfully) have it renamed in honor of Malcolm X suggests the former.
In any event, Eric Holder seemed to have lost sight of the infestation of drugs and resultant violent crime which is destroying our cities. Soon places like Detroit and Chicago will be abandoned by all but the most desperate citizens, who lack the wherewithal to escape. He seems to prefer targeting our police, rather than supporting them.
The top law enforcement official in our country should not craft the agenda of the agency he leads – the Department of Justice – around a framework of personal political biases.
It’s Election Day.
A day to celebrate Truth, Justice , and the American Way.