Federal investigations curtailed amid coronavirus

Del Quentin Wilber
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Federal prosecutors and the FBI have been forced to curtail some operations, like conducting raids, to limit potential exposure to the virus.

Federal prosecutors and agents have delayed executing some search warrants, interviewing witnesses and serving subpoenas in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing restrictions.

The result, Justice Department officials said, has been a massive drop in the number of people charged with federal crimes, like wire fraud and tax evasion. Indictments dropped about 75% last month. In March, they were down about 25%.

“We have had to be very careful about cases we are going to proceed on,” said Justin Herdman, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, who is part of Atty. Gen. William Barr's leadership team focusing on responding to the coronavirus.

Justice Department officials declined to provide the number of indictments, saying the statistics were preliminary. But based on previous years, the decrease would represent at least several thousand fewer defendants being charged with crimes, a sign the pandemic has altered the way the government performs one of its most essential functions.

A major reason for the decrease is straightforward: Grand juries, which issue indictments, have not been regularly convening in order to adhere to social distancing rules. Such restrictions have also slowed investigations because prosecutors have not been able to utilize grand jury subpoenas, a critical tool that allows the Justice Department to demand records from individuals, businesses and governments.

The drop in indictments does not mean violent and dangerous suspects are loose on the streets, officials said. The Justice Department has been relying on charging them by criminal complaint — a type of charge requiring a federal agent to provide probable cause to a judge. Herdman said the number of criminal complaints has held fairly steady during the outbreak and has not compensated for the drop in indictments.

Law enforcement officials said they expect indictments to surge when life returns to something approaching normal.

“There are going to be high-volume grand juries for several months,” said Herdman.

Justice Department officials said investigative activity has also slowed because they have taken steps to protect personnel. Supervisors are taking more time to plan operations and using smaller groups of agents. Though agents are also being encouraged to work from home, that is not always possible. To ensure secure facilities do not get too crowded, prosecutors and agents have been assigned to staggered shifts, officials said.

To better marshal resources at hand, Justice Department officials said they have further sharpened their focus on cases involving national security, terrorism, violent crime and exploitation of children. Except for probes into coronavirus-related frauds, such as those peddling fake medicine, white collar and related inquiries have been put on the back burner, officials said.

"We are prioritizing cases that deal with public safety and national security," said agent Paul D. Delacourt, the assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles Field Office. "We have postponed some operations that would have taken place, but we are not standing down operations. We want to be a reliable partner when the inevitable crisis hits, whether that is in a few weeks or later."

Justice Department officials said they are juggling their workloads in less-pressing probes. While agents and prosecutors are holding off on conducting some raids and interviewing some witnesses, they are using their time to plow through records, something they may have put off in the past.

"When people refocus their efforts, they find other useful information and leads to a case or indictment they wouldn't have otherwise found," said Uttam Dhillon, the acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.