Problem Identified – Solution Sought – Situation Not Hopeless!
Way back when – in late 1997 – Las Vegas Metro officers approached me about violent criminals, and particularly gun crime. They were entirely dissatisfied with the handling of these cases by the Clark County District Attorney’s Office.
When I’d arrived in Vegas in 1990 there was no love lost between the Feds and the locals.
However, in my first few years in Vegas, I established credibility with the cops by prosecuting several high profile cases (eg. kidnapping of Steve Wynn’ daughter, violent takeover robberies of casinos, banks, and jewelry stores by LA gang members) that could only have been done federally due to the interstate activities of the defendants.
Our First Assistant U.S. Attorney, Howard Zlotnick, and I came up with an idea which we thought might offer substantial Federal assistance to the locals. We pitched it to Lt. Larry Spinoza who, like me, was from Long Island. He was more than receptive, so Howard, Spinoza, and I were fired up to kick this thing off.
And we immediately confronted our first obstacle.
First Obstacle – the DA.
Presumably insulted, Clark County DA Stewart Bell, a career defense attorney on his way to a judgeship, wanted no part of a collaboration with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
But with Metro on board, the cases began trickling in.
However, I had to screen each case carefully, and diplomatically explain my reasons for declining many (questionable searches, poor investigation and/or evidence handling, etc.). Fed – local relations always require walking on eggshells.
This initiative would not have been possible without the support of the U.S. Attorney, Kathryn Landreth; the Las Vegas ATF bosses, first RAC B.J Zapor and later RAC Keith Heinzerling; and their boss in San Francisco, ATF SAC John Malone, who detailed several additional agents to Las Vegas so we could pull this off.
Starting in early February, 1998, as a way of promoting the program (which would be given a new name every few years) I began putting together periodic newsletters, reciting our accomplishments and giving due credit to the cops, agents, and AUSAs – by name and in bold – who had worked the cases. We’d distribute them hoping the bosses would be aware of the great work their guys were doing. The following is but one example.
*As it happens, this 2002 edition would be the last newsletter I authored before newly appointed U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden insinuated himself into the program we’d started in 1997, and I was unceremoniously relieved of that duty. Much more to come on that.
When Zapor arrived in Las Vegas in the summer of 1998, he jumped on board with both feet. In October of 1999, Zapor, who brought with him a background in Public Relations for ATF, schmoozed a local TV station into doing a feature on our program. Coverage of the Project Safe Neighborhoods was featured on Channel 3’s “Crime Trackers” series on October 21, 1999.
So the program was running along, taking the “Worst of the Worst” offenders to federal court.
In January of 2000, I gave a presentation at the Indian Springs Correctional Facility. The audience was a group of inmates getting close to release. I used a Powerpoint to illustrate the perils of possessing firearms as convicted felons. We got their attention by not only making them aware of the much harsher penalties they were now facing in federal court, but also by including a few case studies. The group clearly recognized a few of the faces, as they would laugh and elbow each other when the mugshot of a former colleague appeared on the screen.
Starting in March, 2000, I began giving a more lengthy version to the police, including a segment on handling evidence, courtroom basics, and so on. As a consequence of the DA’s Office pleading almost every case out, most of the cops had rarely, if ever, testified in their careers! We threw in a few cool pictures of explosive devices and other prohibited weapons and included the Channel 3 Crime Stoppers segment. The cops ate it up.
I offered to make this presentation to every Command at every turnout. During these presentations – always done in tandem with ATF Special Agent Jim Balthazar – I encouraged the cops to call me directly if they had a bad guy with a firearm or dope or other category of federal offense that would be applicable. Again – it had to be a bad guy. I didn’t want to hammer, for example, some poor slob who might be prohibited from possessing a firearm under mitigating circumstances, and had a gun only to protect himself or his family.
Moreover, I emphasized that in federal court we would have to “eat what we kill”, that is, if a case was problematic there were no misdemeanors to plead them down to (as, I was told, was the practice at the DA’ s Office, to the cops’ consternation). An additional concern was earning the ire of our federal judges if we brought shoddy cases before them.
We expanded our training and did the presentation for both the Henderson and North Las Vegas Police Departments, as well as other select law enforcement personnel.
So now we were just going around the DA, and as a consequence were bombarded with requests to take cases federally.
As our program expanded, people at DOJ began thinking like us:
“Launched in 2001, the Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) program is a nationwide initiative that brings together federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement officials, prosecutors, community leaders, and other stakeholders to identify the most pressing violent crime problems in a community and develop comprehensive solutions to address them. PSN is coordinated by the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices in the 94 federal judicial districts throughout the 50 states and U.S. territories. PSN is customized to account for local violent crime problems and resources. Across all districts, PSN follows four key design elements of successful violent crime reduction initiatives: community engagement, prevention and intervention, focused and strategic enforcement, and accountability.” U.S. Department of Justice
Federal grants for locals were now becoming available, and because we’d been essentially implementing PSN before it even existed, we were able to secure the maximum grant – $480,000 – for the Clark County DA. Suddenly, he became a believer, and our office was awarded 3 new AUSA positions for the program.
We now had a de facto Task Force made up of AUSA’s and Deputy DA’s, as well as Metro officers and Malone’s ATF agents.
We would meet each Thursday and review all new arrests for violent crime and gun possession by a crook worthy of our attention. Some were declined, some accepted, and some were tagged as “pending” and shelved while further investigation was done. I was the “Honest Broker” who made the final decisions.
I thoroughly enjoyed the meetings; there was always a dose of “cop humor” involved, but the discussions would sometimes get a little heated. Metro would have preferred that every case be taken federally, but ATF did not have the resources to comply with all the bureaucratic demands of the federal Government to take them all. I was always mindful of not taking a case with any hair on it before our federal judges. As I said, there were no misdemeanors to plead shaky cases down to.
By June 2001, we had convicted 295 hard core criminals since we rolled out the program in late 1997. In November, 2001, I was given a prestigious Director (of DOJ’s Executive Office) Award for my efforts. The shadow box plaque is presented by the Attorney General of the United States (John Ashcroft) at a ceremony held at DOJ’s Hall of Justice in DC. I shocked many by declining to attend. So another fellow Government employee presented the award to me – the mailman.
I did run into AG Ashcroft later, at a PSN Conference in Philadelphia. By then I’d left Vegas and returned to my old DA’s Office (Suffolk County, New York). I was assigned to the Special Investigations Unit and also served as the PSN liaison to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of New York.
Next Obstacle – Senator John Ensign
As I said, there were challenges out of the gate. The biggest would come a week before the Director’s Award ceremony, with the confirmation by the U.S. Senate of Daniel Bogden, a journeyman AUSA in our Reno branch office, as U.S. Attorney. The senior Republican in Nevada at the time, Senator John Ensign, was behind what turn out to be the Bogden Debacle. Ensign would later resign the Senate in disgrace due to an affair with Cynthia Hampton, who worked for a PAC supporting his campaigns, and financial “irregularities”. Her husband, Doug Hampton, was a close friend of Ensign and worked as a top administrative staffer in his Washington, DC office. This chain of terrible judgment in Nevada politics was nothing short of astounding. Stay tuned.
Obstacle Begets Obstacle Begets Disaster
Bogden had nothing to do with our program. Yet, as soon as he was appointed U.S. Attorney he moved to Vegas and attempted to co-opt it. The ATF boss, by now Keith Heinzerling (Zapor had left Vegas during the summer) was so put off by Bogden injecting himself into our project that he eventually transferred to Florida!
Parenthetically, this was small potatoes compared to what Bogden’s loyal underling, Sue Fahami, did while minding the store for him as Branch Chief in Reno. ATF had such deep contempt for her that they closed shop – the agency actually left the city of Reno!
This was widely reported in the media and was investigated by Senator Charles Grassley and the Senate Judiciary Committee. Bogden, an acute judge of character, had put this seriously abrasive women in charge of our Reno office, only to drive a federal agency out of town.
An example of her Fahami’s own judgment was demonstrated when it was revealed – via indictment – that her husband, Ely City councilman Steve Marich, had embezzled at least $3.7 million and perhaps more than twice that amount from the First National Bank of Ely over the course of a decade or more. Because of the obvious conflict, the case was handled by the Eastern District of California. Marich was convicted and sentenced to six and a half years in prison and ordered to pay $5.9 million in restitution. Incredibly, Fahami was apparently an even worse judge of character than either Ensign or Bogden – if that were possible!
The Debacle Has Dire Consequences
Not too long into his tenure, the Heavy Hitters of the Office began to abandon Bogden’s ship. John L. Smith, longtime Las Vegas journalist and author, took note in his Las Vegas Review Journal column on March 23, 2003. It blared “Assistant U.S attorney joins parade of those leaving local office”.
The piece focuses on the departure of Howard Zlotnick, calling him “one of the most experienced prosecutors” in the office. He mentions that “…some federal courthouse observers have raised the specter of division in the ranks”, and mentions three other AUSAs who have already left.
– In October, 2002, Matt Parella (would go on to become San Jose Branch Chief and Computer Crime Chief, Northern District of California).
– In February, 2003, myself.
– In March, 2003, Peter Ko (now Senior Litigation Counsel in the Southern District of California).
– In May, 2003, Howard Zlotnick, the All Time MVP of the Las Vegas U.S. Attorney’s Office (would go on to become Branch Chief of the Newport News Office of the Eastern District of Virginia).
All of us gone in a span of 7 months.
At the risk of immodesty, this is like a baseball team losing the guys who hit 1 through 4 in the batting order.
When I left, my favorite of the many plaques I received from the various agencies was this one from Metro. The “Stone Cold, Hard Core” reference is actually not about me – it was the standard line from a great cop named Joe Kelly, who in an effort to persuade me that EVERY new case presented at our Thursday meetings should go federal, invariably described the target as “stone cold and hard core”.
Alas, poor Dan Bogden would be fired – not once – but twice. OK, to be fair, the second time he was asked to resign.
By the time of his first termination in 2007, our program had been run into the ground.
The Las Vegas Review Journal reported in 2007 that “ATF in Nevada refer suspects for criminal prosecution at one of the highest rates among the 90 federal districts of the United States. But the percentage of such cases accepted for prosecution by the U.S. Attorney has been among the lowest in the nation for years and was dead last in 2007”.
The article goes on to state that the statistics were based on the years 2003 (the year I’d left, in January) to 2007 (the year Bogden was fired).
I had not intended this post to be an expose of just how dysfunctional Nevada had become, and would remain, for years. It just unfolded that way.
So…… getting around to the $64,000 Question…. is there a solution?
YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS – AND THERE ARE SOLUTIONS TO AMERICA’S CRIME WAVE!!!EPILOGUE
Here it is: focus on the BAD guys, lock them up, hammer them in court, and warehouse them in prison. Don’t waste your time trying to deprive law abiding citizens of guns. We were able to get hundreds of BAD guys out of circulation for significant periods of time.
We could have accomplished much more had the DA been on board from the get-go, but DOJ’s support, once it established PSN (via their $480,000 bribe) was immensely helpful in getting our reluctant locals motivated.
So, law enforcement agencies, put away your egos and dedicate yourselves to the mission. It’s called “cooperation”, and it’s your duty.
Do you think the current United States Department of Justice, under Attorney General Merrick Garland, can appreciate this reality?
Well, sorry, Virginia – but I sincerely doubt it.
I retired from DOJ in November 22, 2013. Exactly 50 years to the day that JFK was assassinated.
In my little farewell speech, I focused on Dallas Officer J.D. Tippett, who was also murdered, execution style by Oswald, and tipped my hat to local law enforcement.
I did a lot of work with ATF up there, specifically with Special Agents Dennis Larko and Bob Patrizi.
On my last day, the 45th federally charged defendant in Operation Garlic Press, a massive undercover sting operation, pled guilty. The 46th, a fugitive, would plead when ultimately arrested. (There were a total of 118 defendants charged in all. We worked jointly with the DA’s Office, the Gilroy Police, and a superb CHIP undercover officer.)
The Garlic Press Team
Garlic Press press conference – I think someone needs a refresher course
I received a very nice letter from the Director of ATF, B. Todd Jones.
I suspect he had a little help from the aforementioned Larko and Patrizi, as well as my go-to ATF guy in Vegas, the Very Special Agent Terry Clark.
It was a good run.