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How Prosecutor Lam's Case Was Handled


One of the U.S. attorneys whose firing generated so much heat is Carol Lam of San Diego. Lam is best known for pressing corruption charges against Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham. This past week, California Senator Diane Feinstein said she believes that case contributed to Lam's downfall.

But as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, it's not the whole story.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Carol Lam was on a short list of U.S. attorneys to be fired at least three months before the Duke Cunningham investigation even started. An e-mail from the attorney general's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, recommended firing Lam in March of 2005. At that point, Congressman Cunningham was still living happily aboard his houseboat, the Dukester, which a defense contractor had bought for him. The front-page newspaper expose that would begin his downfall was still 14 weeks away.

So if it wasn't the Cunningham case that originally put Lam in the crosshairs, what was it? Sampson's e-mail suggested Lam and others were, quote, "weak U.S. attorneys who've been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against administration initiatives, etc."

The Border Patrol Union complained that Lam wasn't prosecuting enough immigration cases. Union president T.J. Bonner says Lam set the bar so high it was difficult to go after immigrant smugglers in court.

Mr. T.J. BONNER (President, Border Patrol Union): For example, you had to have a minimum of 12 people and a load of illegal aliens in order to secure a prosecution. And the smugglers knew that, so they would routinely come in just under that.

HORSLEY: Another e-mail from the Justice Department's chief of staff last May asked whether anyone had ever, quote, "called Carol Lam and woodshedded her about immigration enforcement." But a subsequent letter from the Justice Department appears to defend Lam's approach of pursuing only the worst immigration offenders who would net the longest sentences. Lam herself declined to comment for this story. Even T.J. Bonner doesn't believe immigration was the real cause of her firing.

Mr. BONNER: This administration could not be any less sincere about enforcing immigration laws. They talk a good game, but they are not sincere at all.

HORSLEY: Others point to a case that Lam handled personally. Twice her office prosecuted a San Diego hospital for Medicare fraud. Both trials lasted for months, and both ended in hung juries. Lam, who specialized in healthcare crime, handled the second trial herself. Dr. Ted Mazer, who heads the San Diego County Medical Society, says while Medicare fraud is a concern, Lam's long hours in the courtroom may have been a distraction.

Dr. TED MAZER (San Diego County Medical Society): I guess the issue in retrospect over her firing is whether she spent too much time doing that kind of prosecution versus some of the other tasks that the office may be apt to handle and people may have wanted them to handle in immigration.

HORSLEY: The hospital case came to a head last May, around the time the Justice Department's Kyle Sampson wrote another email asking a deputy in the White House Counsel's office to discuss quote, "the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam." That same day, the Los Angeles Times reported that Lam's counterpart in L.A. was probing the powerful Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Jerry Lewis. The next day, FBI agents searched the home and office of a high-ranking CIA official with ties to an alleged Cunningham co-conspirator. Cunningham himself was sentenced to more than eight years in prison and became the poster boy for what Democrats called a Republican culture of corruption. There's no evidence the Justice Department ever put pressure on San Diego prosecutors to go easy on Cunningham or other lawmakers. Even after Lam was given her walking papers in December, a San Diego grand jury continued to gather evidence from congressional committees. Two days before she left office last month, Lam announced a follow-up indictment of an alleged Cunningham co-conspirator and that former CIA official, Kyle Foggo. Joining Lam in the announcement was Special Agent Ken Hines of the IRS.

Mr. KEN HINES (IRS): On a personal note, it's been a privilege and honor to stand shoulder and shoulder with Carol Lam during my tenure here in San Diego. She will be missed as a prosecutor, and she will be clearly missed as a U.S. attorney. I thank you very much.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Flowers from well-wishers were already piling up in Lam's office. She suggested the case against corruption would not end with her departure.

Ms. CAROL LAM (Former U.S. Attorney): I'm neither a soothsayer nor a fortune teller, but I expect the Department of Justice will conduct itself as the department always has and as professionally and in the public's interest.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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