Fault Lines
21 August 2017

The Amazing Power of Federal Prosecutors

June 4, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — By all accounts, federal prosecutors had a remarkable week last week. And each of their feats came with a flurry of media attention.

First came the announcement by the Department of Justice that the city of Cleveland, agreed to a settlement that would force it to come under purview of federal authorities, to correct and prevent a “pattern and practice” of unconstitutional policing. That’s language from a federal statute authorizing such investigations and agreements, perhaps the only good thing to come out the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the disastrous federal crime bill, signed by Bill Clinton, that fueled America’s carceral system.

Then came the move that made Loretta Lynch an international superstar: the arrests, in conjunction with Swiss authorities, of high-ranking FIFA executives at a five-star Zurich hotel — the kind of raid that’s sure to make it into a film sometime. Lynch still faces a long road ahead to secure the extradition and arraignment of the officials. But the groundwork was laid, and a parallel investigation into the World Cup bids by Russia and Qatar, plus a new round of indictments, will surely exalt Lynch in the eyes of fútbol fans worldwide.

On Thursday, federal prosecutors indicted Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, on charges of lying to the FBI and “structuring,” a crime originally intended to punish drug dealers, money launderers and tax evaders seeking to skirt federal reporting obligations. Hastert arguably did none of that, but he was indicted anyway. And the case is complicated further by media reports from anonymous sources that a nasty past sexual liaison with a minor may have driven Hastert to structure small cash withdrawals to keep the whole affair under wraps.

Lastly, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara scored a big win when a Manhattan federal judge sentenced Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind behind the sinister Silk Road enterprise, to life in prison. That sentence went wildly above and beyond what Bharara had sought — he requested something “substantially above the mandatory minimum” of 20 years — though he probably won’t appeal the judge’s excess. Bharara wanted to make an example of the 31-year-old, to “send a clear message to anyone tempted to follow his example” of leading a clandestine marketplace of drugs and death.

Federal prosecutors wield amazing power. They can dangle the Constitution over a troubled police department. Their arms stretch across the oceans to bring disrepute to alleged sports mafiosos. They’ll keep witnesses anonymous and elicit lies to ensnare politicians. They’ll ask for the highest penalty for a thirtysomething who, at worst, allowed a novel digital enterprise to run amok.

This is only a few of the things federal prosecutors can do. Much of it goes largely unquestioned by both the press and the public. But the tide seems to be turning. People are beginning to pay attention. When federal prosecutors have a week like this, how could they not?

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