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U.S. attorneys build a case for themselves as moneymakers for federal government

Updated: 2014-01-21T04:01:43Z

By MARK MORRIS

The Kansas City Star

California truck driver Mario Nambo Escutia may have been the luckiest man alive, until he reluctantly made a half-million-dollar contribution to fight the federal deficit.

Escutia’s odd case, litigated in western Missouri, recently became one of the highlights of an effort to position the Department of Justice and its 94 U.S. attorney’s offices as solid business investments for a government in need of cash.

In a marked change of tone, federal law enforcement officials here and elsewhere noted recently that their collection of fines, penalties, settlements and restitution are good for the government’s bottom line.

The new message emerged after a season of budget cuts and shutdown, which some thought unfairly hit a department that usually does very well for the federal treasury.

Attorney General Eric Holder led the way recently with a statement highlighting more than $8 billion that the Justice Department collected nationwide in fiscal 2013 in criminal and civil actions during the year.

Sounding like a CEO on a conference call with financial analysts, Holder praised his department’s “return to the taxpayer.”

“As these figures show, supporting our federal prosecutors is a sound investment,” Holder said.

The nationwide collections were almost three times more than the appropriated budgets for all U.S. attorney’s offices and his department’s main litigation divisions, he said.

Tammy Dickinson, the U.S. attorney for western Missouri, reflected that theme in her own report. She noted that federal prosecutors here collected more than $26.5 million in 2013, far outstripping her office’s $10.5 million annual budget.

“By generating revenue of more than double our annual budget, taxpayers can be assured we are efficiently allocating our budget resources to safeguard their interests,” Dickinson said.

And Escutia’s ill-fated stop at a Joplin weigh station helped keep the lights on.

Suspicious about discrepancies in Escutia’s log book, authorities looked through his truck and found nearly a half-million dollars stashed under the sleeper berth. A drug-sniffing dog later alerted investigators to the cash, suggesting that it recently had been around drugs.

Asked about the money, Escutia explained his good fortune. While parked at an Ohio truck stop, he had seen two men heave a red duffel bag into a dumpster. Escutia said he scrounged out the bag and discovered that it contained about $490,000, mostly small bills bound with rubber bands or wrapped in plastic.

Though Escutia never was charged with a crime, federal authorities seized the money.

And after almost two years of litigation, a federal judge finally sided with an assistant U.S. attorney, who had argued that the money should be forfeited to the government because it likely was part of a drug deal. Predictably, the prosecutor didn’t think much of Escutia’s story.

“No one throws a half-million dollars into a dumpster, then drives away, hoping that the intended recipient will come by to collect it before the trash man,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia J. Hyde wrote in a court filing.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at Virginia’s University of Richmond, said that boasting about the Justice Department’s ability to be a federal profit center merely reflects its role as the government’s chief legal and collections enforcer.

“If a defendant has done something illegal or inappropriate, why not?” Tobias said. “You have to make an example of them, that’s what the law is all about.”

The new tone began to emerge last fall, when government lawyers began to grouse privately as they prepared for the federal shutdown and looked at plans that eventually would send home about one-third of their staffs.

The complaining went something like this: “Why is Congress penalizing us when we make money for the federal government?”

Though news releases detailing federal collection efforts are an annual ritual, the 2013 reports released earlier this month were tuned to convince citizens that the Justice Department is as good for the bottom line as it is on legal matters.

Federal lawyers in Kansas collected $12.1 million in civil and criminal actions.

“In Kansas, we are fighting to recover funds for victims of federal crimes and the federal treasury,” said Barry Grissom, the U.S. attorney for Kansas.

The money includes fines from civil enforcement cases filed for violations of health, safety, civil rights and environmental laws, and criminal fines and restitution owed to the government and federal crime victims.

The largest portion nationally came from collections from fines and settlements related to health care fraud.

Western Missouri prosecutors recovered almost $4 million from defendants in a cigarette smuggling case by collecting more than $2 million from conspirator bank accounts, auctioning more than 300 cases of seized smokes and selling an aircraft and four large over-the-road trucks.

Though the U.S. attorneys are proud of the money they collect, most of the funds do not stick with the department. It goes into the federal treasury to service the government as a whole or into other pockets.

In western Missouri, about $2 million was paid as restitution to crime victims, which could mean a few thousand dollars to a labor trafficking victim for back wages or many times that to a large bank hit by a mortgage fraud con artist.

About $5.5 million of the western Missouri collections went into federal forfeiture accounts, some of which is shared with state and local law enforcement agencies.

Mary Jacoby, who edits the independent blog Main Justice in Washington D.C., said the considerable sums that the Justice Department returns to the treasury are a source of pride and aggravation for the department because it doesn’t get to keep much of the cash.

“That’s one of the frustrations for the DOJ,” Jacoby said. “They recover a lot of money, but are always under budget pressure from Congress.”

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to mmorris@kcstar.com.

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