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After 15 years, G. Paul Howes finally had his chance to explain. “What I want,” he said, “is to tell you why it was going on, how it was going on, and to explain my conduct.” He wore a dark pinstriped suit and twisted a red pen in his hand. And on two days last week, he spoke for hours to a three-member ethics panel about his 25-year legal career and the murderous drug gangs he helped lock up in the 1980s and 1990s. Howes outlined how poor training, a crushing caseload, and a desire to help those in need while at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia led to his authorizing thousands of dollars in improper payments to government witnesses and their families and friends as well as retired police officers. “There were a lot more pressing issues in terms of life and death going on,” he said. Howes, 57, a partner in the San Diego office of Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins, was charged by the D.C. Office of Bar Counsel in February with eight counts of misconduct for allegations that could lead to disbarment. Though Howes has stipulated to six of the eight counts against him, his defense team is fighting the two most serious charges: inducing a witness and committing a criminal act. Last week’s ethics hearing was the initial step in what may be a several-year process and will decide Howes’ legal future — a future that is inextricably tied to witness vouchers, slips of paper worth $40 apiece. His signature was on vouchers totaling about $140,000 in value, which were given to 132 people during the course of several major criminal trials in the early 1990s. At least nine defendants — people serving life sentences for murder and other violent crimes — in two of his cases had their sentences reduced after defense lawyers and judges learned about the payments, and an internal Justice Department investigation concluded in 1998 that Howes’ actions bordered on criminal. Even though Howes practices mostly in California and is also licensed in New Mexico, a suspension or disbarment in the District would place those licenses in jeopardy. THE CASE AGAINST HOWES “He wasn’t a renegade prosecutor,” said Paul Knight, one of Howes’ lawyers, in his opening statement May 7. Knight, a former D.C. legal ethics official, argued that Howes should receive only “minor sanctions” — though he never specified what those sanctions should be — because the rules for witness vouchers weren’t widely known within the U.S. Attorney’s Office and because his actions fell into a “gray area.”
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