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Arrests Have Justice Department Feeling Better

Attorney General Eric Holder announces the indictment of nearly 88 law enforcement officers in Puerto Rico on corruption charges, at the Justice Department on Wednesday.
Mark Wilson
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Attorney General Eric Holder announces the indictment of nearly 88 law enforcement officers in Puerto Rico on corruption charges, at the Justice Department on Wednesday.

The Justice Department is patting itself on its back this week after arrests in two major public corruption cases.

Federal agents arrested almost 90 police officers in Puerto Rico for allegedly moonlighting as private security for drug traffickers. And only weeks before state elections, prosecutors accused four Alabama lawmakers of trading cash for votes.

The public corruption case against Puerto Rico's police department was so sprawling that the FBI secretly flew 750 agents to the island to help with early morning raids Wednesday.

FBI assistant director Shawn Henry tried to suppress a smirk when he announced the arrests.

"Operation Guard Shack is the largest law enforcement corruption investigation in the 102-year history of the FBI," he said.

On Monday, federal prosecutors unveiled criminal charges against Alabama state legislators and lobbyists over what they say was a vote-buying plot involving, of all things, electronic bingo.

At a press conference, Attorney General Eric Holder, was moved to reminisce about his experience three decades ago as a public corruption prosecutor.

"I know firsthand that advancing public corruption investigations and prosecutions is extremely difficult work," he said. "In these cases, the stakes are always high; public scrutiny is intense."

Ted Stevens Debacle

What the attorney general didn't mention was that the public integrity unit has been reeling for more than a year over its mishandling of the corruption case against former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

The department abandoned the Stevens prosecution after it uncovered problems with evidence sharing. And one of the young prosecutors on the case killed himself last month amid a swirl of ethics investigations.

These days, though, the Justice Department prefers to talk about new business.

"We try to keep busy … and it's only going to stay this way," says Jack Smith, the new chief of the department's public integrity unit. "Our mandate is to investigate corruption throughout the United States. That's not just corruption here in Washington, but it's corruption in both federal and state bodies throughout the country."

And the public integrity unit is sinking its teeth into several high-profile cases. This week new subpoenas went out in a probe of how the presidential campaign of Democrat John Edwards may have funneled payments to the mother of his child. Prosecutors are investigating separate financial dealings between the families of Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and his one-time mistress. They're also looking at contracts for work on the mansion of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who's now running for Senate.

Moving Forward

The Justice Department is trying to move on from the Stevens scandal, but it may not be able to shake the public glare quite so easily.

Political figures in Alabama point out that one of the prosecutors involved in the Stevens case is now working on the bingo prosecution. Smith, the new chief of the public integrity unit, says that's old news.

"From day one I wanted … to lead people in the section," he says, "and the Stevens case and the things that happened have not really interfered with that, as you can see by some of the cases we're able to bring."

Even as the department starts to move past the Stevens debacle, some unpleasant reminders linger, like a report from the special prosecutor investigating the government team due out later this year.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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