The change follows a USA TODAY investigation that identified 201 criminal cases in which federal courts had found that Justice Department prosecutors had broken laws or ethics rules — violations that put innocent people in jail and set guilty people free. Although each of the cases was so serious that judges overturned convictions or rebuked the prosecutors for misconduct, USA TODAY found that the department often took years to investigate what went wrong, and that prosecutors faced little risk of being fired.
Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement Tuesday that while most federal prosecutors meet their ethical obligations, the current procedures for disciplining those found to commit misconduct “consume too much time, and risk inconsistent resolution.” He said the new unit “will help change that by providing consistent, fair, and timely resolution of these cases.”
The unit, called the Professional Misconduct Review Unit, will be responsible for disciplining career prosecutors when the department’s ethics investigators conclude that they engaged in intentional or reckless misconduct. Until now, those decisions had been made by the prosecutors’ supervisors, most often U.S. attorneys. The department has faced criticism for not doing enough to investigate and punish misconduct.
Holder wrote in a memo that those procedures “have resulted in delays” because the officials in charge of discipline are also busy with other things. The new unit will have to make decisions more quickly, and will also be able to report misconduct to state bar associations. It will review findings of misconduct that occur after it is fully staffed.
The new unit, which will make referrals to state bar association disciplinary authorities, will handle all findings of professional misconduct that occur after the unit is fully staffed, the memo said. “This is serious business. It’s a sign of a lack of faith in the behavior of U.S. attorneys around the country,” said Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C. “If things have gotten so bad that the department finds willful misconduct and you haven’t been able to figure that out, you’re out of the ballgame. The message is, ‘Manage your office and impose discipline, or we will.’ ”