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'Yeah, We Lied': Messages Show Prosecutors' Panic Over Missteps In Federal Case

The building that houses the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York is pictured in 2015. Emails and text messages from prosecutors in that office have come out as part of an inquiry into their handling of a case.
Mary Altaffer
The building that houses the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York is pictured in 2015. Emails and text messages from prosecutors in that office have come out as part of an inquiry into their handling of a case.

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.

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

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.