Asked about the dismantling of a high-profile unit in the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles that specialized in public corruption cases, a spokesman provided a curious justification: Eliminating the public integrity and environmental crimes section would enhance the effort to prosecute such cases. He explained that the unit’s 17 lawyers would be farmed out to other sections in the office and that those types of cases would now be handled by a larger pool of attorneys, instead of by a select few, reports the Los Angeles Times. Members of the disbanded unit challenged that explanation, saying the move was intended to punish lawyers for a perceived failure to produce and for bad-mouthing their boss, U.S. Attorney Thomas O’Brien.
The lawyers described a meeting last week in which an angry O’Brien derided attorneys for working too few hours, filing too few cases, and for speaking ill of him to subordinates. They said O’Brien also threatened to tarnish their reputations if they challenged in the media the official explanation for the unit’s dismantling. Critics of the move are concerned that it will everely limit the office’s ability to file long-term, complex corruption cases involving elected officials and other high-profile figures. “The whole idea here is to do more, not less,” said O’Brien, a former Navy “Top Gun” instructor and deputy district attorney who took charge of the office last fall. “I guarantee that we will be filing more public corruption and civil rights cases than we have in the past.” Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and ex-federal prosecutor, drew a distinction between O’Brien’s decision and his methods. “There may be merit in his decision — I don’t know,” Levenson said. “But if there’s a legitimate reason to disband the unit, then why do you need to issue the silence order?”