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Senators Want Watchdog To Investigate Federal Prosecutorial Misconduct

A new report from the Project on Government Oversight documents 650 ethics infractions including recklessness and misconduct by Justice Department lawyers over the past decade or so.

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee and Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester cited those findings to introduce legislation Thursday that would require an independent watchdog to investigate those breaches. Under current practice, ethics investigations at the Justice Department are conducted by the Office of Professional Responsibility, an internal unit that reports up through the Attorney General and has been derided for its secrecy.

"Current law invites undue influence from the Attorney General's office into the process and should be changed to ensure the integrity of investigations of misconduct within the Justice Department," Sen. Lee said in a prepared statement.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Republicans Charles Grassley of Iowa and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, would empower the independent inspector general to conduct ethics probes within the Justice Department, with no limit to his jurisdiction. Current IG Michael Horowitz and his predecessor, Glenn Fine, have previously called on Congress to pass just such a measure.

The Justice Department unit that currently examines ethics violations included a few examples — but without lawyer names — in a recent annual report cited by the POGO team. In one instance, an attorney didn't provide information that could have been used to challenge a key witness with the defense team, resulting in a 10 day suspension for the DOJ lawyer. In another case, an immigration judge showed bias and made disparaging remarks about foreign nationals, resulting in a 30 day suspension.

In all, the POGO report mentioned 48 allegations that Justice lawyers misled courts, around half of which were "intentional," and 29 allegations that prosecutors had failed to share exculpatory information with defendants, including one intentional case.

The report by POGO says more than 400 of the cases it has followed involve recklessness or intentional misconduct by federal prosecutors

"The Department, its lawyers and the internal watchdog office itself are isolated from meaningful public scrutiny and accountability," writes the report's author, Nick Schwellenbach.

The Justice Department didn't comment for the oversight project report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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