ACRU

Coverup: Federal Appeals Court Blasts DOJ Misconduct in Police Prosecution

Judge's gavel

This column by ACRU Policy Board Member J. Christian Adams was published August 19, 2015 by PJ Media.

A federal appeals court has blasted misconduct by Justice Department lawyers in a civil rights prosecution against New Orleans police officers. The case arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s grant of a new trial because Justice Department lawyers —- including those responsible for protecting the civil rights of the defendant police officers —- engaged in an anonymous blogging campaign to taint the defendants during the trial. The court noted that Justice Department lawyers stoked a “mob mentality” against police officers.

The federal appeals court took note that one of the Civil Rights Division lawyers responsible appears to have gone unpunished. For sure, one lawyer is still employed and earning in excess of $157,000 per year with her government salary and benefits.

As the court described:

In the anarchy following Hurricane Katrina, a group of heavily armed New Orleans police officers were dispatched to the Danziger Bridge in response to an emergency call reporting shots being fired at police. There, amid chaos, they shot and killed two unarmed men, one of them developmentally disabled, and wounded four other unarmed civilians.

The notorious Civil Rights Division then brought a criminal prosecution against the police officers (just as many are now clamoring for the same DOJ unit to launch such prosecution against other police departments). The federal appeals court described what happened next:

No less than three high-ranking federal prosecutors are known to have been posting online, anonymous comments to newspaper articles about the case throughout its duration. The government makes no attempt to justify the prosecutors’ ethical lapses, which the court described as having created an “online 21st century carnival atmosphere.” Not only that, but the government inadequately investigated and substantially delayed the ferreting out of information about its in-house contributors to the anonymous postings. The district court also found that cooperating defendants called to testify by the government lied, an FBI agent over stepped, defense witnesses were intimidated from testifying, and inexplicably gross sentencing disparities resulted from the government’s plea bargains and charging practices.

Read the full outrageous opinion here.

The exact same Justice Department unit which engaged in this misconduct is also investigating police departments across the nation —- including in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.

One such lawyer who engaged in misconduct according to the court was Karla Dobinski. She posted anonymous comments online about the police during the trial in New Orleans. Yet her job was to protect the police officers: ”Her responsibility in the course of the prosecution was to protect indicted police officers’ civil rights,” said the appeals court.

“Dobinski remains in federal employment with only a bare reproof for her online commenting,” the court said. Dobinski remains employed today at the Justice Department Civil Rights Division, the very same unit that prosecutes police officers.

Karla Dobinski

When the federal court at trial asked the lead DOJ prosecutor if DOJ lawyers were posting anonymous comments, the judge didn’t get the truth:

Additionally, the DOJ’s chief prosecutor in this case, Barbara Bernstein, represented to the district court that no member of “the trial team” had commented online. The district court acutely observed that its concern about leaks and publicity was not limited to the “team” but extended to all of the federal government.

Repeated inquiries by the federal judge about the extent of the anonymous campaign against the police officers by DOJ employees met with more false responses. Even after Bernstein revealed that DOJ lawyers based in New Orleans were posting anonymously, Bernstein never gave up the goods on Karla Dobinski.

Bernstein receives award from Holder and Perez after New Orleans police trial.

So why did Dobinski receive quarter during the court’s investigation of DOJ misconduct?

Dobinski and Bernstein share the same Washington, D.C., office and have worked closely together for years.

Dobinski is also known to share ideological allegiance with the Obama administration. One former supervisor of Dobinski’s told me: “Having spent significant time talking to Dobinski and her colleagues, it is clear that she has strongly held liberal political viewpoints.” The federal appeals court, despite Bernstein’s representations, said that the online campaign was “widely known within” Main Justice in Washington, D.C.

Bernstein even received an award from Attorney General Eric Holder and now-Labor Secretary Tom Perez for her work after the New Orleans police trial where she made statements to the federal judge later proved to be false.

Not only did the DOJ lawyers engage in an anonymous internet campaign against the police, the Justice Department engaged in a broader abuse of power in the prosecution. Again, the federal appeals court:

[A]t least one cooperating defendant felt coerced into pleading guilty, that the sentences meted out to defendants were shockingly disparate, that FBI Agent William Bezak had used coercive tactics against a defense witness, and that the defense was deprived of live testimony by at least three witnesses who refused to testify at trial when DOJ targeted them for possible perjury charges. Three years after trial, however, not one of those people had actually been charged with a crime.

This behavior demonstrates the outrageous conduct of the Civil Rights Division staff will engage in to convict cops. It might have worked, too. The appeals court noted that seven of the twelve jurors were aware of the online campaign by DOJ attorneys.

The failure of the Justice Department to ever come clean to the court resulted in the decision to order all new trials for the accused police officers. In other words, the Holder-run Justice Department did what it does best —- delay and deny justice. It didn’t tell the truth to a federal court just as it didn’t tell the truth to Congress about a wide range of inquiries. The court:

And because the government refused to adequately investigate its errors, covered up what it knew to be misleading omissions, and in some instances lied directly to the court, the district court could neither uncover the extent of the prosecution’s transgressions nor determine the severity of the prejudice suffered by the defendants.

Has the Eric Holder-Loretta Lynch-run Justice Department done enough in response to the misconduct? Again, the federal appeals court doesn’t think so as “the full consequences of the federal prosecutors’ misconduct remain uncertain after less than definitive DOJ internal investigations.”

This is not the first time Karla Dobinski engaged in misconduct as a Justice Department lawyer. She had been the subject of previous discipline as an attorney at the Justice Department regarding her failure to report to her office for work. Texas Senator Ted Cruz asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch during her confirmation hearings what she intended to do about Dobinski’s misconduct and continued employment. Lynch gave no substantive answer.

The court noted that Dobinski contributed to a “mob-mentality” against the police.

These prosecutors created an air of bullying against the defendants whose rights they, especially Dobinski, were sworn to respect.… Just as a mob protesting outside the courthouse has the potential to intimidate parties and witnesses, so do streams of adverse online comments. The impact is felt not only by the defendants but by codefendants pressed to plead guilty or defense witnesses dissuaded from testifying. Preventing mob justice is precisely the goal of prosecutorial ethical constraints.

We’ll learn shortly if Attorney General Lynch takes the side of the mob working for her, or takes the side of justice for police officers.