Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Does Restitution Equal Justice in the Alex Latifi Case?

We have mixed feelings about last week's news that the U.S. government had agreed to pay $290,000 in restitution for its political prosecution against Alabama defense contractor Alex Latifi.

On one hand, the settlement seems to vindicate Latifi--and that's a good thing because he, his family, and his employees were put through a six-year nightmare.

On the other hand, the outcome raises serious questions about the Obama Department of Justice. Is Attorney General Eric Holder at all concerned about fundamental matters of right and wrong? Is he providing cover for Bush-era scoundrels such as Alice Martin, former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama? And in terms of dollars paid to Latifi, is the DOJ downright cheap?

We certainly do not fault Latifi or his attorneys, Henry Frohsin and Jim Barger, for agreeing to the settlement. They probably did the best they could in a tough situation. As Frohsin noted, the federal government is not known for voluntarily making restitution to anyone. With that as background, the settlement probably deserves to be called, as Frohsin put it, "revolutionary."

But was justice truly served? Did Holder, who is supposed to be "the people's lawyer," look out for the best interests of the American public--and of Alex Latifi, a man the DOJ essentially admitted it had victimized?

Our answers to those questions, upon further review of the Latifi case, are no. In fact, when you closely examine several key issues in the case, you can't help but ask, "What's wrong with this picture?"

* Did the government try to get off cheap?--To most folks, $290,000 seems like a lot of money. But does that figure even come close to compensating Alex Latifi for the pain and suffering he endured? What about his family, the prosperous company that was essentially shuttered, and the some 60 employees who lost their jobs?

We have written about a number of employment discrimination cases where plaintiffs have received jury verdicts that ranged from $500,000 to $5.79 million. Here are a few of those cases:

Perhaps it is unfair to compare the dollar figure in a settlement to those in jury verdicts. Perhaps those jury verdicts will be overturned, or greatly reduced, on appeal. But you would have to think that the damages suffered by Alex Latifi at least match those of the victims in these discrimination cases. And he got $290,000? The U.S. government considers that a fair outcome?

Our hope is that the agreement in the Latifi case calls for compensation over and above the straight restitution--because $290,000 alone sure doesn't seem to cut it.

* Can the DOJ handle the truth?--One of the most disturbing parts of the settlement story was this quote from Peggy Sanford, spokesperson for Joyce White Vance, Alice Martin's successor as U.S. attorney:

"This was so we could devote our resources to protecting the people in this district rather than expending them on extended litigation in which we believe we would have ultimately prevailed, but the outcome is never certain."

Sanford seems to be saying that the decision to settle was simply a strategic decision. It indicates that neither she nor Joyce Vance had any interest in getting at the truth about Alice Martin's reign of terror. Has it ever occurred to Sanford/Vance that people in their district needed to be protected for eight years from the likes of Alice Martin--that she was far more dangerous than most garden-variety criminals? Did it occur to Sanford/Vance that if Martin gets away with gross misconduct, some other corrupt prosecutor is likely to come along and victimized people of this district all over again? Apparently not.

* Alice and her band of idiots are off limits--News reports indicate that the government showed no interest in settling the Latifi matter until Frohsin and Barger issued subpoenas for Martin and others involved in the prosecution. Apparently the thought of Alice Martin and her prosecutorial associates being forced to answer questions under oath gave some folks in the DOJ considerable pause. So they decided a settlement--a cheap one--was in their best interests.

Here is perhaps the biggest question of all: Why was it left to Henry Frohsin and Jim Barger to try to get the truth out of Alice Martin and others who orchestrated the Latifi debacle? Why didn't Eric Holder want to do that himself?

After all, the DOJ has mechanisms for policing its own. And according to Scott Horton at Harper's, Martin & Co. remain under investigation for professional ethics violations. But does anyone really thing much is going to come of that?

What about possible crimes committed by the Latifi prosecutors? Who instructed them to pursue a bogus case against Latifi in the first place?

The Obama DOJ, with last week's settlement, seems anxious to make sure such questions never receive answers.

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