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When it comes to Jack Abramoff, the Justice Department has a lot to brag about. After all, federal prosecutors have won guilty pleas from both the former lobbyist and his associate Michael Scanlon, as well as former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). Three others have also pleaded guilty, and when former General Services Administration official David Safavian chose to go to trial on charges that he lied to investigators, the jury landed squarely on the side of the government. Yet as the investigation enters its fourth year, there’s no indication that the probe is nearing an end. And that’s raised questions about what’s left to do, who remains under investigation, and whether federal prosecutors, particularly in the Justice Department’s public integrity section, have moved quickly enough to either bring charges or, alternatively, to clear suspects. It’s been a quiet five months since there’s been significant action in the case. And the latest news to come out of the investigation is that former Interior Department official J. Steven Griles received notification that he was a target. There’s been no word on the fate of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — though his lawyer said last week that DeLay has not been notified that he’s a target — or several lower-profile officials caught up in the probe. The public integrity section’s handling of the Abramoff scandal has led to some internal friction with prosecutors from other parts of the Justice Department as well as investigative agents. And despite the fact that the case has been Justice’s largest public-corruption matter in decades, the investigation has been beset by the high turnover of prosecutors and supervisors in the two sections running the probe, both of which have operated without a permanent leader for more than a year, according to current and former government officials and lawyers with knowledge of the case. ( Legal Times interviewed more than a dozen such sources, all of whom were granted anonymity to discuss a pending investigation.) At least one federal official — Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney — became so concerned about the progress of the case that he contacted DOJ supervisors in 2005. By all accounts, the investigation is far from being shuttered, which might surprise those who believe most of the big fish have been hooked. Interviews and court documents indicate that approximately 10 federal prosecutors are currently involved to varying degrees, aided by more than 20 agents from other federal agencies, including the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Interior Department. Prosecutors have also had significant evidence at their disposal. Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff’s former law firm, turned over thousands of pages of the former lobbyist’s e-mails early in the investigation. Additionally, the investigation’s two central figures, Abramoff and Scanlon, began cooperating with investigators more than a year ago. Both are awaiting sentencing — a sign that there are likely still more prosecutions to come. (Abramoff is already in prison serving a sentence in a federal conviction in Florida.) But the pace of the investigation remains a bit of a mystery to some. “It’s beginning to look like the classic independent-counsel investigation,” says one lawyer with knowledge of the probe. “[It] shouldn’t be taking this long.” That’s a view the Justice Department firmly rejects. “The public integrity section, and the department as a whole, aggressively prosecute public corruption wherever it is found,” said spokesman Dean Boyd in a statement. He pointed out that the public integrity section had a hand in 63 convictions across the country last year, nearly twice as many as it did in 2001. “The record of the public integrity section in this case and other public corruption cases speaks for itself.” Nor is the Justice Department alone in praising its record in the investigation, particularly given Abramoff’s far-ranging contacts with government leaders in both the executive and legislative branches. “Even if it was shut down now, you’d have to say it’s been a very successful investigation,” says Randall Eliason, a lecturer at George Washington University Law School and former public-corruption prosecutor who left the Justice Department in 2001. According to sources interviewed for this story, among those who have been most heavily scrutinized by investigators but have not been charged are former DeLay chief of staff Edwin Buckham, former Ney chief of staff William Heaton, and Italia Federici, the former director of a conservative-leaning environmental group with close ties to Griles. A CAUTIOUS APPROACH Though the vast majority of federal criminal matters are handled by U.S. attorney’s offices in each of 94 districts across the country, the Abramoff probe has been jointly led by prosecutors from two groupings at Justice Department headquarters in Washington. The first is the 25-attorney public integrity section, which focuses on assisting U.S. attorneys around the nation in bringing public-corruption cases — most targeting state and local officials. During the 1990s, the section was overshadowed by the various independent counsel appointed to lead probes into the finances and political fund-raising activities of members of the Clinton administration. It also acquired a reputation for being cautious in its approach to big cases — overly so, at least to some prosecutors elsewhere in the Justice Department. “They want more proof than anyone can ever want,” says one former prosecutor who has worked with the section in recent years. “They want way too many fingerprints and hand prints on something before they bring anything.” That reputation has largely carried over to the present day — and contrasts with that of the second group of D.C.-based prosecutors involved in leading the Abramoff case, the fraud section. Those prosecutors, who focus primarily on white-collar and corporate criminal cases, were emboldened to become much more aggressive after a series of high-profile corporate scandals in 2001 and 2002. “The fraud section, given the post-Enron era, was encouraged to bring cases very quickly and handle them as quickly as possible,” says another former federal prosecutor. “There is clearly a tradition in public integrity, particularly when you’re looking at congressmen, to be exceedingly careful.” Of course what seems like excessive caution to one person may be viewed as methodical by another. And there’s little doubt that the fallout from bringing charges against a member of Congress, only to see him acquitted at trial, would damage the reputation of the Justice Department. But in the Abramoff matter, the pace of the probe and its focus on congressional, rather than executive branch, officials led Interior IG Devaney to voice his concerns to then-public integrity section chief Noel Hillman and Hillman’s boss, Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher on at least one occasion in 2005, according to a government source with knowledge of the matter. Those concerns, say this source, weren’t ignored, and additional prosecutorial resources were devoted to examining Abramoff’s contacts with Interior officials. Just last month, Griles, formerly the No. 2 at Interior, was told by investigators he was the target of a grand-jury probe into his contacts with Abramoff. Devaney declined to comment for this article, and the Justice Department declined to comment on this subject. One specific decision that has been a subject of debate among some of those interviewed for this article was the way in which prosecutors chose to obtain Abramoff’s e-mails from his former firm, Greenberg Traurig — a process that began in 2004. One option the Justice Department could have pursued was to send a so-called “taint team” of government lawyers not involved in the case to search Greenberg’s computers. (Taint teams are used to ensure that prosecutors don’t discover attorney-client-privileged material in such searches, which can derail criminal prosecutions.) Instead the prosecutors agreed to let Greenberg’s lawyers — at D.C.-based Williams & Connolly — conduct the searches of Abramoff’s e-mails, and they initially turned over thousands of documents in paper form — making it more difficult to search and analyze the documents than if they had been handed over electronically. The Justice Department declined to comment on how the e-mails were handled. But William Mateja, a former corporate fraud prosecutor now at Fish & Richardson, says having a law firm produce documents can be the most reasonable approach for prosecutors. Mateja says the government must weigh a number of factors when deciding whether to send in a taint team. Those include whether less-intrusive means can be used to obtain the documents, whether prosecutors have adequate resources to staff the group, and whether opposing lawyers can be trusted to respond to requests for evidence promptly and without obfuscation. REVOLVING PROSECUTORS The major constant in the case has been Mary Butler, an experienced line prosecutor in the public integrity section who has served as the co-lead in the case since its beginning in early 2004. But Butler has seen counterparts come and go. William Jacobson, the initial fraud-section prosecutor assigned to co-lead the case, left the government to join Kirkland & Ellis in the winter of 2005 (Jacobson returned to the Justice Department last week, though not as part of the Abramoff probe). Jacobson was succeeded on the case by Guy Singer, who spent a year and a half as co-lead before leaving the government to join the D.C. office of Akerman Senterfitt in November. There’s also been turnover among the supervisors of the two sections heading the case. Though supervisors play a smaller role than line prosecutors in developing a case, they sign off on key legal briefs, assign staff, and personally approve particularly sensitive activities — such as issuing subpoenas to members of Congress. At the fraud section, Joshua Hochberg served as section chief during the early phases of the investigation — while the government built its cases against Abramoff and Scanlon — before leaving in the fall of 2005 to join the D.C. office of McKenna Long & Aldridge. Paul Pelletier, another former federal prosecutor from Miami, was named the acting boss and held that job for nearly a year, supervising the plea agreements of former DeLay staffer Tony Rudy and former Ney staffer Neil Volz, as well as the case against Ney himself. But Pelletier wasn’t named to the post on a permanent basis (he’s now a deputy in the section), and he was replaced this summer by Steven Tyrrell, who currently serves as acting chief. The public integrity section has seen similar flux. Hillman, a former prosecutor in New Jersey and prot�g� of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, supervised the case from its beginnings until he was nominated to a federal judgeship in New Jersey. Hillman left the section in January of 2006, shortly after helping arrange Abramoff’s plea, a deal that required coordinating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Florida on a parallel investigation into Abramoff’s purchase of a casino company known as SunCruz. Hillman has been succeeded by a number of acting chiefs. His initial replacement, Andrew Lourie, left for another Justice Department post in Florida last summer. Lourie was then succeeded temporarily by another prosecutor, Brenda Morris, who was in turn replaced this summer by current acting chief Edward Nucci, a former federal prosecutor in Miami. The turnover meant that new prosecutors had to be brought up to speed on the inner workings of a complex and closely scrutinized case. “That whole section seemed like it was in transition,” says a government source with knowledge of the case. “You had people leaving and new people coming in.” Choosing leadership of both sections falls to Fisher, the head of the DOJ’s Criminal Division. But so far there’s been no indication when permanent bosses for either of the sections handling the Abramoff case will be named. The Justice Department declined to comment on the time line for naming permanent replacements. But in an interview and written statement, Boyd, the Justice spokesman, rejected the notion that the turnover in supervisors has affected the case. “The public integrity section has benefited from continuity and extremely experienced management throughout the investigation,” he said.
Jason McLure can be contacted at [email protected].

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