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Monday, October 6, 2008

So Much for Ethics in the Bush Justice Department

Prosecutors in the Bush Justice Department wanted to ruin an Alabama defense contractor's business, even if he was not guilty of criminal charges against him, according to a new report in the Journal of the American Bar Association (ABA).

Reporter Lynda Edwards writes about "The Curious Case of Alex Latifi," in the October issue of the ABA Journal.

The story focuses on Alice Martin, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama who launched a four-year investigation of Huntsville-based Axion Corp. and owner Alex Latifi. The case involved allegations that Latifi violated federal arms-export laws by falsifying a report and sending a classified drawing of a Black Hawk helicopter part to a Chinese supplier.

Latifi was acquitted of all charges after a seven-day trial in October 2007, but his once-thriving business was in tatters. That, Edwards reports, was the goal of prosecutors all along.

Attorneys for Latifi report grossly unethical behavior by prosecutors during the case. Lead defense counsel Henry Frohsin recounts asking prosecutors if they would drop a related charge if handwriting experts declared the signature a forgery. According to Frohsin and his associates, a member of the prosecution team replied, "We don't care if Latifi is innocent. Our goal is to put him out of business."

The ABA Journal originally attributed the quote to Martin. In a correction on its Web site, the Journal says the quote should have been attributed to Assistant U.S. Attorney David Estes.

Martin, however, made little effort to deny that the comment captured prosecutors' mindset during the Latifi case. Reports Edwards:

When asked later by telephone (about the) statement, there is utter silence for a long moment.

"If you know someone is a bank robber," Martin said carefully, "then you want to put him out of the business of robbing banks, no matter what."

How did Martin and her team "know" Latifi was a "bank robber?" What kind of evidence did they have to support that conclusion? Edwards summarizes:

The trial was potholed with crazy. The government's key informant was a fired company secretary convicted of stealing from Axion and forging Latifi's signature. She said on the witness stand she sabotaged Axion records. The judge excluded a top government fraud attorney from court for bizarre conduct. The drawing at issue was marked both "unclassified" and "uncontrolled." China owns Black Hawk helicopters and can examine the part anytime it wants.

So why did Martin bring the case?

Some observers say it has to do with race and international politics. Latifi is a naturalized citizen born in Iran. The Bush administration had labeled Iran part of its "axis of evil," and that might have helped make Latifi a target.

Other observers note the case might have been driven by Martin's ambition for higher office. Edwards quotes Wendy Wysong, a Washington, D.C. lawyer who prosecuted arms-export cases while at the U.S. Commerce Department. "She says in 2004 the obscure field of law became the hot, starmaking field for U.S. attorneys," Edwards writes.

Whatever the motivations behind the prosecution, it has turned into a mess for the government. U.S. District Judge Inge Johnson called the prosecution's case "sloppy" and awarded almost $364,000 in legal fees under the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act.

More funds could be coming Latifi's way. He has sued to obtain Martin's e-mails, memos, and phone records regarding the case. He is suing under the Hyde Amendment, which allows exonerated defendants to seek compensation from federal officials if the prosecution was "vexatious, frivolous or in bad faith."

Finally, defense lawyers have filed a complaint against Martin with the U.S. Office of Professional Responsibility, claiming she brought a political and baseless prosecution against Latifi.

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