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Veteran defense lawyer Plato Cacheris has been quietly representing controversial former federal prosecutor G. Paul Howes for nearly two years in an effort to keep his client from losing his law license. Howes, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the District, is currently under investigation by the Office of D.C. Bar Counsel for alleged misconduct while prosecuting a violent D.C. crack cocaine gang a decade ago. The bar probe was opened after an internal Justice Department investigation concluded that Howes improperly steered thousands of dollars to government informants and their family members and friends by taking advantage of an unmonitored fund to reimburse witnesses, according to a DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility report made public in December. Last week, Howes, in declining comment, referred questions to Cacheris for the first time. Cacheris publicly defended his client. “What’s important to me is no one can say any witness was bought,” says Cacheris, a partner at D.C.’s Baker & McKenzie who is known for representing key figures in high-profile scandals. Cacheris was retained in April 2002 — one month after four Newton Street leaders originally sentenced to life had their prison terms dramatically reduced in a deal with the government as a result of Howes’ alleged misconduct in the case. Cacheris says he filed a response to the bar counsel’s inquiry more than a year ago and has yet to hear back. As of Jan. 30, the bar had not filed any ethical charges against Howes. D.C. Bar Counsel Joyce Peters declines comment. In an interview, Cacheris said his defense of Howes has three prongs: no evidence of witness testimony being changed, no clear policy within the U.S. Attorney’s Office on the payment of witnesses, and the fact that Howes’ made himself available to OPR investigators in 1997. “He went and bared his soul for three days as far as I was told,” says Cacheris, adding that Howes was unrepresented at the time. Howes, who left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1995, is a partner at the San Diego office of Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach. He currently represents the University of California in its class action against the Enron Corp. for lost investments. Howes is licensed to practice, in addition to the District, in New Mexico and California. Cacheris’ argument that there was no DOJ or U.S. Attorney’s Office policy to violate may have some merit. In the aftermath of the Newton Street Crew scandal, the federal government for the first time established rules and policy on the payment of informants. Last month, Roscoe Howard Jr., U.S. attorney in the District, issued an officewide memorandum “reminding” line prosecutors of its policy on paying witnesses. The memo was drafted days after an OPR report on the Newton Street case was made public. “Tighter controls were implemented, in part, as a result of what happened in that case,” says Channing Phillips, Howard’s chief of staff. Reforms began in 1999, when Main Justice issued guidelines to all 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices nationwide on the payment of both fact and expert witnesses. Main Justice left it up to each office to develop specific protocols. The 1999 guidelines, which make no mention of Howes or the Newton Street Crew, banned the use of fact-witness money for “potential” witnesses who meet with prosecutors for “investigative interviews.” The guidelines say that government funds can be used to pay witnesses only if there is a scheduled trial, hearing, or grand jury proceeding at which the person is expected to testify. The guidelines note that pretrial interviews should be limited to three days per witness. Any additional days should be approved by a manager and the reason stated on the voucher form prosecutors use to authorize payment to witnesses. At the time, Wilma Lewis, then the U.S. attorney in the District, issued a memorandum explaining the federal guidelines and setting an officewide policy on witness payments. Lewis’ policy incorporated most of the new DOJ guidelines, although it allowed for line prosecutors to pay a witness who might not have testified as long as the prosecutor had “intended” to call that person to the stand, according to Phillips. In addition, Lewis implemented a plan to keep tabs on witness spending by her line prosecutors. Spokesman Phillips says the expense-monitoring procedures, which are still in place, require section managers to keep a log for every voucher issued, including case name, prosecutor, witness, and amount. There is also a limited amount of people in each section who issue blank voucher forms to line prosecutors. The new system, Phillips says, was designed to capture any “red flags” in witness spending before they become serious problems. In the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, fact witnesses are paid $40 a day for assisting the government in a particular case. The federal fact-witness voucher form filled out by prosecutors notes that a person can be paid for “trial attendance” or “pretrial attendance.” Witnesses can also be paid for food and travel expenses. Every voucher must contain the signatures of an assistant U.S. attorney and the witness, in order for the person to get paid. The vouchers are then presented to the U.S. Marshals Service, which draws a check from the U.S. Treasury. Howes authorized more than $140,000 in witness money to 132 people using Newton Street Crew case captions during a two-year period in the 1990s. The payments went unnoticed until one of Howes’ informants came forward with allegations of misconduct — months after Howes left the prosecutor’s office in 1995. After a two-year probe, OPR investigators concluded that the veteran homicide prosecutor improperly gave thousands of dollars in witness money to several people — some for merely showing up at court and others who had no affiliation with the Newton Street case. In addition to the four Newton Street Crew leaders whose life sentences were reduced in the wake of the probe, three other people convicted in a Howes-led prosecutions have filed motions seeking new trials. At the time of the Newton Street trial in 1994, the OPR found, there was no system in place at the U.S. Attorney’s Office to track a prosecutor’s use of witness vouchers. Blank witness voucher forms were easy to come by. Howes said he got his forms from a secretary sitting just outside his office, according to OPR materials. If the form was filled out properly and signed by a prosecutor, then the U.S. Marshals Service cut a check without asking questions, the OPR report states. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Ragsdale, Howes’ co-counsel on the Newton Street case, said in an interview with OPR investigators in 1996 that it was possible to take a stack of blank voucher forms and have “carte blanche as to their completion.” Contributing to the confusion, the office lacked a clear policy on paying witnesses. While federal law and the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual gave general explanations of how fact witnesses could be paid for trial or pretrial attendance, there was no specific definition of “attendance.” During Newton Street, Howes developed his own, the OPR report found.

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