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Justice Department Lawyers Who Engage in Misconduct Sometimes Escape Discipline, Watchdog Finds

Within a year of being disciplined for violating professional standards, some Justice Department attorneys have been promoted or given financial rewards for good performance, a government watchdog agency reported Thursday.

In addition, when the Justice Department determines that its lawyers should be disciplined for misconduct, it has not ensured that the discipline is actually carried out, the Government Accountability (GAO) said.

The GAO concluded that the Justice Department could do more to hold federal prosecutors and other employees accountable for misconduct.

This conclusion is similar to one that the Project On Government Oversight came to after its recent investigation. In a March 2014 report, POGO highlighted a lack of accountability and transparency when the Justice Department investigates its own. And, the same day the GAO issued its new report, POGO disclosed evidence that a federal prosecutor had brought politics into an investigation of former Alabama Governor Donald Siegelman, who was later convicted of corruption and sent to prison. As POGO reported, when the Justice Department investigated prosecutors’ actions in the Siegelman matter, it downplayed the significance of its own findings.

The GAO study was conducted at the behest of Congress and follows the collapse of major federal prosecutions as a result of prosecutorial violations. In 2009, for example, the conviction of then-Senator Ted Stevens (R-Ala.) unraveled because prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that would have helped Stevens’ defense. In 2013, based on prosecutorial violations, a federal judge in Louisiana overturned convictions of five New Orleans police officers alleged to have shot unarmed civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the GAO noted.

The GAO report adds to the picture. The agency, an investigative arm of Congress, found instances in which prescribed disciplinary actions had not been implemented.

 “DOJ does not have a mechanism in place to ensure that component management actually implements discipline once it has been imposed,” the report said.

The GAO also found that some attorneys who had been cited for misconduct also received performance-based rewards such as $2,000 in cash or 22 hours of time off from work.

According to the GAO report, the Justice Department said “there is nothing inconsistent with receiving a performance award for outstanding or exemplary performance, yet previously being disciplined for misconduct.” A Department official also told the GAO “that these awards are of modest amounts and serve to boost morale and recognize good performance in a timely manner.”

The GAO said accountability is important.

“Disciplinary action is not only punitive, but preventive, as it sends a message to attorneys across DOJ that there are consequences for misconduct,” it said.

By: David S. Hilzenrath
Chief Investigative Reporter, POGO

David Hilzenrath David Hilzenrath is the Chief Investigative Reporter for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Government Accountability

Related Content: Prosecutorial Misconduct, Department of Justice (DOJ)

Authors: David S. Hilzenrath

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