A federal judge yesterday accused the US attorney's office in Massachusetts of spending too much time on drug and gun cases that belong in state court, instead of focusing on federal crimes such as public corruption and white-collar offenses that he said would have a greater impact on society.
US District Judge Mark L. Wolf, in an unusually frank discussion with reporters, said his fundamental problem is with the type of cases being brought by federal prosecutors under US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan "and the fact that they are being brought, in my view, at the expense of important federal cases that it would take a lot of hard work to develop."
Wolf, who made his remarks during a monthly session sponsored by Chief US District Judge William G. Young and in a follow-up interview, said US District Court in Boston is flooded with cases that have been developed by state and local police but are brought in federal court, where defendants face longer prison terms if convicted.
"When federal prosecutors are preoccupied with presenting cases that have been investigated by state and local agencies, there's a real opportunity cost, and it means they're not doing the longer term, grand jury-type investigations which are likely to get the bigger and morally more culpable people," Wolf said.
Although Wolf just finished presiding over the carjacking and murder trial of Gary Lee Sampson, who became the first person in Massachusetts sentenced to die under the federal death penalty, he repeatedly stressed that he wasn't talking about the Sampson case and that his criticism wasn't related to that case.
Stung by Wolf's criticism, Sullivan said that the judge is "simply wrong" and should focus on his own job, instead of worrying about Sullivan's.
"He obviously believes that he could do a much better job managing the office," Sullivan said. "But the fact of the matter is that's not his job, it's mine.
"I would disagree with his characterization of the office," the US attorney said. "He just doesn't have accurate information."
It was not the first time that Wolf and Sullivan have sparred over how the US attorney's office is run.
In November 2002, Wolf ordered Sullivan to appear in his courtroom to respond to allegations that prosecutors had either failed to turn over evidence to defense lawyers in criminal cases or had belatedly done so.
Wolf is the only federal judge in Boston to order the US attorney to appear before him. He has done so three times, with Sullivan and two of his predecessors.
In the 2002 case, Sullivan was miffed because he was at the dentist when he learned that Wolf had ordered his presence in his courtroom an hour later. Wolf threatened to hold Sullivan in contempt when he didn't show up. He did appear the following week.
Yesterday, Wolf said his comments were not directed solely at Sullivan, who was appointed US attorney by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft in the fall of 2001. Wolf acknowledged that federal prosecutors first started bringing state drug and gun cases into federal courts in the late 1980s, as part of a national initiative to target urban violence.
But Wolf said the trend has become a problem as it has escalated in recent years, with more cases involving low-level drug dealers.
"Drug crimes are very serious; they destroy the lives of individuals, families, and communities," he said. "I'm not suggesting that these crimes are unimportant. But it's never been the case in this country that people felt that every case that was important should be a federal case, and the federal courts have limited resources."
Wolf, a deputy US attorney and chief of the public corruption unit under US Attorney William F. Weld from 1981 to 1985, said he decided to go public with his concerns because he has a reverence for the US Department of Justice and because he believes it should do better.
He worked in Washington for the Justice Department in the 1970s, first as special assistant to the US deputy attorney general and then as special assistant to the US attorney general.
Wolf said he was upset that federal judges have been portrayed as "soft on crime," leading to the Feeney Amendment, which Congress passed last year to require the US Sentencing Commission to keep records of judges who sentence defendants to less time than called for under federal sentencing guidelines.
"The federal judges are not soft on crime, but there are a lot of federal judges who know what a real federal crime is," said Wolf. "We deal with the cases that are brought to us."
In January, Wolf said he sentenced a Cape Cod woman convicted of heroin charges to two years in prison, three months less than called for under sentencing guidelines, because she suffered from bipolar disorder, was a heroin addict, and had a history of other problems. He said he was disturbed that a Rhode Island man who supplied heroin to the Cape Cod ring was not indicted, even though he had been identified.
At that sentencing, Wolf said: "It's entirely up to the Department of Justice to decide how to devote its limited resources. But it's up to every citizen to make a judgment as to whether those choices are being made in a way that really serves the public interest."
Now, because of the Feeney Amendment and the Justice Department's aggressive strategy in appealing sentences in which the judge departed from federal sentencing guidelines, Wolf said it is possible that a federal prosecutor will spend time appealing a three-month sentencing disparity, instead of chasing the drug ring's supplier.
Sullivan said no decision has been made on whether to appeal the heroin addict's sentence.
Sullivan said the crime-fighting strategy employed by federal prosecutors today is much different from what it was when Wolf worked in the US attorney's office 20 years ago. He said Ashcroft has asked all of the nation's US attorneys to develop strategies to reduce gun violence in their districts, an approach they believe has helped reduce violent crime.
"We can't turn our backs on neighborhoods because a judge believes we shouldn't be prosecuting these cases," Sullivan said. "Congress decides what conduct is a federal crime. We decide which cases we're going to bring federally."
Sullivan also insisted that his office's efforts in targeting drugs and guns have not kept his prosecutors from bringing significant organized crime, white collar, and antiterrorism cases. He noted that the office's health-care fraud unit is nationally acclaimed.
Sullivan said he doesn't criticize the federal judiciary, even though he believes there are things the court could do differently and "much more efficiently."