Newly disclosed documents from inside the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan capture a sense of panic and dread among prosecutors and their supervisors as one of their cases collapsed last year amid allegations of government misconduct.
The materials include a rare look at sensitive emails and text messages between junior prosecutors and their overseers after a federal judge began to inquire about lapses that ultimately led the Justice Department to abandon a conviction in a case it had already won.
Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York wrote each other in March 2020 that "yeah, we lied" in a letter to Judge Alison Nathan about a key document it had failed to share with defense lawyers. The office later retreated from that characterization, arguing instead the trouble resulted from a rush to file papers under a tight deadline.
In another newly revealed exchange, one supervisor in the terrorism and international narcotics section emailed his co-chief after the problems began to surface that the trial team had done some "pretty aggressive stuff here over the last few days."
"This is going to be a bloodbath," the other supervisor replied.
Earlier, a junior lawyer on the case suggested they "bury it" in a stack of other papers they provided the defendant, apparently in hopes the critical document would be overlooked during the rush of the trial.
Judge Nathan did not conclude the U.S. attorney's office engaged in intentional wrongdoing, but she has referred lawyers there to the Office of Professional Responsibility at Justice Department headquarters, a unit that investigates attorney misconduct. The judge also asked FBI inspectors to probe separate allegations against FBI agents on the case.
Nathan expressed astonishment that the disaster continues to unfold. In its latest filing, seven months after the judge began to demand detailed explanations, she said the government had come clean about yet another failure.
"The trial team's failure to promptly investigate the origins of [the key document] and to communicate about discovery with other governmental agencies reflects a systematic disregard of their disclosure obligations," the judge wrote. "Prosecutors then compounded these missteps through a sustained pattern of refusing to fess up."
The extraordinary saga unfolded in a case against Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad, accused of violating American sanctions laws against Iran by moving millions of dollars in payments for his family business through the U.S. financial system. His lawyers, Brian Heberlig and Reid Weingarten, have since ensured Sadr will face no immigration-related consequences from the failed prosecution.
"The prosecutorial misconduct in this case has been shocking and disappointing," Heberlig told NPR. "We applaud Judge Nathan's decision to fully expose this extraordinary saga to prevent it from happening again."
The U.S. Attorney's office had sought to shield their internal communications from public view. But the judge found there's a significant public interest in understanding what went wrong and ensuring it never happens again.
"The Court hopes that as the Southern District of New York puts this unfortunate chapter behind it, these documents will provide other prosecutors and members of the public some insight into how the Government came to so badly mishandle its ethical obligations in this case, some deterrence for misconduct in future prosecutions, and some assurance that the judiciary treats these matters with the utmost seriousness," Nathan wrote.
A spokesman for Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss declined comment on the matter. The office had previously pledged to overhaul its training for prosecutors to prevent the sort of systemic shortcomings the Sadr case identified. With the exception of one supervisor who has left the government for private law practice, the other prosecutors remain in the U.S. attorney's office.
A spokesman for the Justice Department unit that investigates lawyer wrongdoing didn't offer any comment on the judge's referral in the Sadr case. Transparency advocates have long criticized that office, known as OPR, for taking too long and for operating in secret.
On Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee introduced legislation that would expand the jurisdiction of the department's well-regarded inspector general to scrutinize attorney misconduct. They said the move is needed to enhance accountability and oversight.
NOEL KING, HOST:
A legal case in New York about a man accused of violating U.S. sanctions took a strange turn. It started to look like the federal prosecutors trying the case and not the accused man had done something wrong. A judge recently released the prosecutors' email and text messages, and she is demanding that the Justice Department investigate. Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson to explain.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Judge Alison Nathan says prosecutors violated their duty to share evidence and then failed to come clean about it for months. Last year, the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan persuaded a jury to convict Ali Sadr of violating American sanctions laws against Iran only to reverse course and abandon the case altogether after allegations of government misconduct.
BRIAN HEBERLIG: The misconduct that we saw is unlike anything I've ever seen in the 20 years I've been trying criminal cases.
JOHNSON: Brian Heberlig is a defense lawyer for Sadr. He says what makes this case different is the judge demanded explanations from the government lawyers, and then she ordered their private emails and text messages be released to the public.
HEBERLIG: We got another entire round of information that, you know, showed the inner workings of the prosecution team on the critical moments in question, and it was not pretty, I have to say.
JOHNSON: Not pretty - one junior lawyer suggested they try to, quote, "bury" a new document in a pile of old papers they sent to the defense during the trial. Next, supervisors on the case started to worry. Yeah, we lied, one of them wrote about a letter of explanation they sent to the judge. The U.S. attorney's office later retreated from the idea of lying, saying they were simply rushing to file paperwork on a tight deadline. It's the biggest scandal over the Justice Department's failure to share evidence favorable to defendants since the botched case against the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.
Does an experience like this lead you to ask what prosecutors are doing in other cases that we never find out about?
HEBERLIG: I can't help but ask that question.
JOHNSON: That prosecution in New York is now over, but the case is not closed. Judge Nathan wants a Justice Department office that polices lawyer misconduct to investigate the government team, and she's ordered all the lawyers in the U.S. attorney's office to read her opinion. Defense lawyers say that seems to be making a difference already. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.