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Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2007 | Over the past several years, San Diegans could trust that when something in public life or the white-collar world smelled funny, U.S. Attorney Carol Lam would be there to sniff it out.
That was a comforting feeling in a region where confidence in government has been shaken by, among other things, a city teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, a scandal involving city councilmen and strippers, and a congressman who traded his seat for millions in personal riches.
In each of those cases, Lam’s office sought justice for those who violated the public’s right to selfless representation.
In doing so, Lam, her prosecutors and her friends at the FBI set an admirable standard for what kind of actions would be tolerated from San Diego’s elected officials. It had to make some public officials and would-be white collar criminals think twice when confronted with ethical dilemmas.
The message appeared to be spreading beyond San Diego. Lam’s office last month boldly delivered subpoenas to the House appropriations, armed services and intelligence committees.
Now, Lam is done, forced out by her superiors at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
The former Superior Court judge and antifraud specialist came under fire for focusing less on such things as immigrant smuggling and gun cases. Lam argued that she could throw her entire group of 100-plus prosecutors at border cases and still not be able to make a significant impact on an issue that is more political and economic than it is law enforcement.
For that, she made enemies such as U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, and the Border Patrol agents union. But anyone who has spent a morning in a federal courtroom can attest that the system is already jam-packed with smuggling cases.
The way it is, about half of the region’s federal prosecutors are assigned to border cases. Shifting even more resources to such prosecutions would only leave fewer people dedicated to such important areas as public corruption, fraud, child pornography and tax evasion.
Expecting Lam to solve the immigration problem is foolhardy. She inherited a broken system and did her best to prosecute the worst cases of human smuggling, while not turning a blind eye to the host of other serious crimes that impact honest life in our region.
As such, a new moral and legal standard was set for the behavior of San Diego’s most powerful.
Under Lam’s watch, a major drug cartel leader awaits trial. A formerly untouchable congressman, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, sits in a prison cell. A former city councilman faces prison for his dealings with a strip-club lobbyist.
That hard-nosed approach to political corruption and white-collar crime must continue under whatever successor is chosen by the Bush administration.
Her resignation Tuesday leaves a huge gap in San Diego’s law enforcement community; she was one of few who stood up to the region’s tall powers. Her successor must continue to guard San Diego’s public trust with vigilance.
And, with reports that at least one other U.S. attorney elsewhere has been replaced with a political appointee, we hope that a successor is chosen for the right reasons. It must be clear that the federal criminal-justice system will not be controlled by political cronies rather than intellectual, independent thinkers.
Lam had her failures. She overreached in her prosecution of political consultant Larry Remer. After personally handling the Alvarado Hospital prosecution, the case fell flat. Only five mid-level officials have been charged in the city’s pension scandal after years of investigation. If a crime was committed involving the city’s retirement trust fund, these five couldn’t have been the only ones who engineered it. Yet Lam’s continued silence on the status of the probe has allowed the cloud of suspicion — which has long hung over so many at City Hall — to linger.
To this day, some still expect further indictments against City Council members and former top administrators, although the evidence is scant that an investigation even continues.
However, prosecutors must prioritize and make the best use of their resources. They must enforce many laws — not just those on which it is politically convenient to focus. Though she missed on a few of her efforts, she was not reckless in choosing her targets. And we prefer an enforcer who swings and misses once in a while to one who — for all the wrong reasons — would choose not to swing at all.