Lawmakers Look Into 9th Federal Circuit Court Of Appeals Plan For $1 Million Maui Hawaii Getaway At Taxpayer Expense

May 21, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC – On the heels of the scandal surrounding one government agency’s lavish Las Vegas conference, federal judges in the western U.S. circuit are catching flak from Congress for a planned Maui getaway that could cost taxpayers more than $1 million.

The Maui meet-up is scheduled for August under the banner of the 2012 Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference, and will include judges, attorneys, staff and “special guests” from various federal courts spread across nine western states — including judges on the California-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

While in Hawaii, the guests are scheduled to stay in the upscale Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa. And they’ll have the chance to kick back with an array of recreational activities — sport fishing, golf, paddle-board lessons, yoga, Zumba, even a floral design workshop.

The official website for the conference stresses that “government funds are not used for any recreational or sporting activities.”

But Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in a letter to Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, called the activities “unrelated to the business of the court” and questioned whether the Ninth Circuit really needed to ship everyone out to the islands — a trip that incurs substantial costs in travel and lodging alone.

“The programs read more like a vacation than a business trip to discuss the means of improving the administration of justice,” they wrote. “We are concerned about the overall cost of this conference and do not believe that discussions about the administration of justice would be less successful were they held somewhere other than a spa and resort in Hawaii.”

A statement from the senators estimated the trip could cost more than $1 million — pegging the cost of accommodations alone at more than $500,000. That factors in room rates of between $230 and $250 per night for four nights.

The government also provides a per diem — according to the conference website, this per diem starts at a base level of $289.

The hotel itself is situated on Kaanapali Beach, in the northwestern corner of the island on the outskirts of the island’s lush rainforests. The resort features a full-service spa, a salon, 1,800 feet of beachfront property, two pools with waterfalls, a rope bridge and an outdoor whirlpool.

The GOP senators, in their letter, fired off a slew of questions for the Ninth Circuit about the cost of past conventions and the rationale for the upcoming one. They referenced the scandal over the General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas, which cost taxpayers more than $800,000.

“Technology is so advanced that people are earning college degrees online and soldiers serving halfway across the world use Skype with their families at home,” Grassley said in a statement.

“Likewise, a judicial circuit court should be capable of using technology to share information without requiring a trip to an island paradise. It’s especially tone-deaf to plan a pricey conference after the GSA debacle. The taxpayers can’t sustain this kind of spending, and they shouldn’t have to. The court should re-examine whether this is the best use of tax dollars.”

A representative with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has not returned a request for comment.

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For 9 Months Alabama Federal Prosecutors Posted Sensitive Details Of Ongoing Criminal Investigations In Publicly Accessable PACER Database

April 22, 2011

ALABAMA – In a shocking failure to protect sensitive details about dozens of ongoing criminal investigations, federal officials somehow allowed confidential information about sealed cases to be publicly accessible via the court system’s online lookup service, The Smoking Gun has learned.

Over the past nine months, details of 40 separate sealed court applications filed by federal prosecutors in Alabama were uploaded to PACER, the web-based records system that counts nearly one million users, including defense lawyers, prosecutors, journalists, researchers, private investigators, and government officials.

The court applications, made by ten separate prosecutors, included requests to install hidden surveillance cameras, examine Facebook records, obtain credit information on certain individuals, procure telephone records, and attach devices on phone lines that would allow agents to track incoming and outgoing calls. Remarkably, the U.S. District Court records–which covered filings as recent as April 11–included specific names, addresses, and phone numbers that should never have appeared on PACER.

The confidentiality breach was first discovered by a TSG reporter and brought to the attention of Department of Justice representatives and court officials in the Middle District of Alabama, which is comprised of 23 counties and includes Montgomery, the state’s second-largest city. By late yesterday afternoon, prosecutors had the confidential information scrubbed from the online records system and placed under judicial seal at the federal courthouse in Montgomery (pictured above).

It is likely impossible to determine if the sensitive information was viewed or disseminated by other PACER users, let alone gauge whether any cases were jeopardized by the posting of the sealed material.

Prosecutors were incredulous when told that law enforcement sensitive information was available on PACER. A Justice Department source termed it a “disastrous situation” for which prosecutors were not responsible. One government lawyer said they were “shocked” to discover that details from sealed court applications were essentially sitting in plain sight.

While Debra Hackett, the U.S. District Court clerk, initially told TSG that federal prosecutors were to blame for failing to have certain information properly sealed, her position apparently shifted after discussions with United States Attorney Leura Canary (seen at left). Canary, a source said, was “appalled” to discover that court employees had made the confidential information publicly available.

In a statement provided late yesterday to TSG, the Middle District’s chief judge, Mark Fuller, noted that, “The confidential information has been sealed. I regret the error was not identified earlier and have adopted procedures to ensure that it will not occur in the future.” It remains unclear why U.S. District Court personnel believed that, while the documents themselves had to be kept in a safe in the clerk’s office, details from those records could be made available through PACER.

The bulk of the 40 court applications involved prosecutors seeking judicial authorization to obtain telephone records and/or the placement of pen registers and trap and trace devices on targeted phones. A pen register tracks outgoing phone numbers, while a trap and trace captures incoming numbers.

The use of the devices is a standard investigative technique employed by federal agents handling narcotics, organized crime, public corruption, and fugitive cases. Information gathered by the devices can provide investigators with a nexus between suspects, help identify additional targets, and aid in the establishment of the probable cause needed to wiretap phone calls.

While the physical court applications themselves were successfully sealed–as were the related orders signed by federal judges–and not available to be downloaded in PDF form from PACER, the online entries for these cases (known as “criminal miscellaneous” files) included the confidential information.

For example, 35 sealed applications dealt with a total of 39 separate phone numbers being targeted by federal investigators. In each instance, the phone number was actually included in the PACER entry. As a result, TSG reporters were able to use public databases and online searches to identify several individuals whose phone usage is of interest to criminal investigators. Some of the targeted numbers included area codes for cities like Miami, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

The names of five individuals for whom prosecutors sought court permission to obtain credit information were also uploaded to PACER.

Additionally, on March 31, prosecutor Susan Redmond filed separate applications for court orders authorizing the “Installation and Service of Surveillance Camera” at two residences and one business in Montgomery. The applications were approved by Judge Susan Russ Walker, who signed an order sealing documents related to the surveillances.

However, the corresponding PACER entries included the name of the business (which a reporter easily located) and the exact addresses of the two homes now being surveilled by federal agents. Click here to see a since-deleted PACER index page for the three applications, and here for a page containing additional details on one of the applications.

TSG will not further identify where the hidden cameras have been installed, since such a disclosure could compromise the government’s ongoing criminal investigation (though here, here, and here are photos of the targeted locations–blurred, of course, to render them unidentifiable).

Each of the 40 applications prepared by federal prosecutors would have had a notation on its face page that the document was filed “UNDER SEAL,” as seen in this excerpt from a prosecution request for AT&T telephone records.

Perhaps in the future those two words need to be rendered in larger type. And maybe even neon.

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Lawrence Massachusetts Runs Out Of Money To Defend Its Police Department Full Of Bad Cops

February 21, 2011

LAWRENCE, MASSACHUSETTS – Mayor William Lantigua says he will no longer pay legal bills for police officers being sued, including the bills for those officers involved in nine brutality cases pending in U.S. District Court.

The mayor says over the past three years, the city has spent $1.2 million to defend officers in civil cases. Instead, Lantigua says he will hold to the police unions’ contract, which says the city only has to pay the $5,000 retainer for a patrolman and $7,500 for a superior officer. Lantigua says officers have two options when they are being sued — to use one of the three city attorneys or have their unions pay for the defense.

“From Day One, this should never have been allowed. We cannot continue to do business as usual,” Lantigua said.

But Lantigua has hired his own outside counsel to defend the city against a complaint filed by the patrolmen’s union with the state’s Division of Labor Relations. The 10-count complaint alleges Lantigua’s decision to cut the legal payments is

“designed to punish the union and its members for exercising their collective bargaining rights.”

Patrolmen “are currently faced with the prospect of having to finance their own legal defense and personally satisfy any adverse judgments potentially rendered against them,” wrote Mark Esposito, the lawyer representing the patrolmen.

Resolution of the legal payment issue “is particularly time-sensitive, as it is essential that the officers’ rights are made clear so that they may determine how best to proceed regarding the defense of lawsuits pending against them in federal court,” Esposito said.

A “long-standing past practice” and a city ordinance “mandates that employees, including police officers, be indemnified against legal judgments pertaining to the performance of their duties to the maximum extent permitted by law,” he added.

According to Lantigua’s office, the city paid $471,374 to Dwyer and Duddy, the legal firm used by the patrolmen’s union, and $37,318, to McDonald & Associates, which represents the superior officer’s union, in the fiscal year that ended last June. In the previous year, the city paid Dwyer and Duddy $287,649 and McDonald and Associates $38,353.

Lantigua has hired Philip Boyle, an attorney from the private Boston firm Morgan, Brown & Joy, to fight the union’s complaint with the state. Last year, the city paid $53,186 to Morgan, Brown & Joy.

In many of the civil cases, the city, Police Department, police Chief John Romero and individual officers are named. The city recently settled one police brutality case, agreeing to pay $400,000 to the plaintiff, but admitted no wrongdoing.

Six civil trials involving police officers are scheduled to go forward in the next six months, including one brutality case, against officer Ivan Resto, which is supposed to start this week in federal court. These cases have the potential to result in expensive judgements or settlements that could ultimately be paid for by taxpayers.

City Councilor Daniel Rivera, chairman of the budget committee, said he was “inclined to support the administration on this, if it’s going to save the city money.” Rivera also said as the city struggled with budget cuts and layoffs last year, the police unions “made no concessions to help with the larger budgetary issue. And union leadership should know that.”

“There was an outrage over laying off police officers. Meanwhile, we are paying Cadillac prices for attorneys,” Rivera said.

Rivera acknowledged there are staffing issues in the city’s attorney’s office. A paralegal’s position was cut from the office and Richard D’Agostino, a full-time assistant city attorney, is on medical leave.

On Dec. 16, 2010, City Attorney Charles Boddy sent a certified letter to the patrolmen’s union law firm Dwyer and Duddy, stating “effective immediately the city of Lawrence was discontinuing use of the firm in the defense of Lawrence patrolmen against claims brought by third parties arising out of their employment.”

Payments to the firm have “clearly exceeded” contract obligations and “are an unwarranted burden on the municipal budget,” Boddy wrote.

Detective Alan Andrews, patrolmen’s union president, and Lt. Scott McNamara, who leads the superior officer’s union, were unavailable for comment for this story.

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