A federal judge has ordered all federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York to read a ruling she issued Wednesday that blasts prosecutors for their handling of evidence in a criminal case involving alleged violations of sanctions against Iran.
U.S. District Court Judge Allison Nathan also said she was unsatisfied with the completeness of the government’s account of why prosecutors failed to turn over one key piece of evidence to the defense until the middle of trial, with one government attorney discussing with colleagues a plan to “ bury” the previously undisclosed letter among other documents being emailed to defense lawyers.
“No responsible Government lawyer should strategize how to ‘bury’ a document that was not, but should have been, previously disclosed to the defense. A responsible Government lawyer should—at a minimum—forthrightly and truthfully reveal late disclosures to the defense,” Nathan wrote, emphatically disagreeing with the conclusion from U.S. Attorney’s Office leaders that there was nothing to “condemn” in the prosecutors’ actions.
“This Court disagrees and hereby strongly condemns this conduct,” Nathan wrote in her 34-page opinion.
Nathan called some of the omissions by prosecutors “shocking.” And she expressed the greatest concern over the explanation prosecutors gave her after the defense for Iranian banker Ali Sadr questioned the late disclosure of the letter prosecutors discussed burying.
“The Court finds that the Government’s representation was misleading, as it implied that it had explicitly informed the defense that [the exhibit] was being disclosed for the first time. Indeed, the Court was misled,” the judge wrote.
A jury convicted Sadr in March of five felony counts related to the alleged sanctions violations. However, in June, prosecutors abruptly sought to abandon the case due to the evidence issues that emerged.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has now acknowledged that a draft of a letter sent to the judge indicated the document was not turned over to Sadr’s defense until the middle of the trial, but the letter from prosecutors was later revised to use more opaque language.
“It is the fervent hope of the Court that no sanctions are necessary. But it is the firm view of the Court that if Government lawyers acted in bad faith by knowingly withholding exculpatory material from the defense or intentionally made a misleading statement to the Court, then some sanction or referral to the Grievance Committee of the Southern District of New York would be appropriate,” the judge added.
In an unusual step, Nathan ordered the prosecutors involved to submit sworn declarations by Oct. 16 answering various questions about their handling of the disputed exhibit, its belated disclosure and the court’s subsequent inquiry.
“The Court cannot yet firmly conclude based on the existing factual record whether any of the Government lawyers deliberately withheld exculpatory information,” wrote Nathan, an appointee of President Barack Obama.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan declined to comment on the order.
The problems related to the Sadr case took place while the office was under the direction of U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman. He left his post in June after a bizarre episode in which Attorney General William Barr announced that Berman was stepping down, only to have Berman announce that he was not resigning.
Democrats and former prosecutors said Barr’s move appeared to be intended to give President Donald Trump and his allies more control over politically sensitive investigations in the lead-up to the November election.
Barr had planned to move Securities and Exchange Commission chief Jay Clayton into the job, but after the reshuffle drew fire, the attorney general agreed to leave Berman’s deputy, Audrey Strauss, in the U.S. Attorney role in an acting capacity.