Tag Archive: United States Attorney


Texas fertilizer plant explosion

Credit: Andy Bartee

A mushroom cloud rises from the West Fertilizer plant as seen frmo the popular Czech Stop along Interstate 35 in West, Texas on April 17, 2013.

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Authorities launch criminal investigation of West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion

Friday, May 10, 10:45 PM

AUSTIN — Hours after a paramedic in West, Tex., was taken into federal custody on Friday for unlawful possession of a “destructive device,” the Texas Department of Public Safety and the McLennan County sheriff said they are launching a criminal investigation into the fertilizer plant explosion there last month that killed 14 people.

But officials declined to draw a link between the arrest of the paramedic, 31-year-old Bryce Reed, and the disaster.

“At this time authorities will not speculate whether the possession of the unregistered destructive device has any connection to the West fertilizer plant explosion,” a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Reed remains in custody in Waco, Tex., officials said, pending a detention hearing Wednesday. If convicted, Reed faces up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.

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Bryce Reed, paramedic responded to fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, shown in McLennan County Sheriff's Office booking photo, charged with possessing destructive device. (AP Photo)

Bryce Reed, paramedic responded to fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, shown in McLennan County Sheriff’s Office booking photo, charged with possessing destructive device. (AP Photo)

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Texas police begin criminal investigation in fertilizer plant explosion

The Associated Press By The Associated Press
on May 10, 2013 at 4:00 PM, updated May 10, 2013 at 4:05 PM

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texas-plant-explosion.JPGPolice launched a criminal investigation today into the April 17 explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, which killed 14 people.

WACO, Texas — Texas law enforcement officials today launched a criminal investigation into the massive fertilizer plant explosion that killed 14 people last month, after weeks of largely treating the blast as an industrial accident.

The announcement came the same day a paramedic who helped to evacuate residents the night of the explosion was arrested on a charge of possessing a destructive device, though it is not clear whether the charge is related to the April 17 blast at West Fertilizer Co.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said in a statement today that the agency had instructed the Texas Rangers and the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department to conduct a criminal probe.

“This disaster has severely impacted the community of West, and we want to ensure that no stone goes unturned and that all the facts related to this incident are uncovered,” DPS Director Steven McCraw said.

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said residents “must have confidence that this incident has been looked at from every angle and professionally handled — they deserve nothing less.”

The statement did not detail any further reasons for the criminal investigation and said no additional information would be released at this time.

 

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On Thursday, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback received a letter from Federal Attorney General Eric Holder threatening action against the state should it enforce SB102 which Brownback signed into law last month.

The new law states, in part:

Any act, law, treaty, order, rule or regulation of the government of the United States which violates the second amendment to the constitution of the United States is null, void and unenforceable in the state of Kansas

The bill also provides for criminal penalties against federal agents who attempt to enforce specific federal laws on guns manufactured in the state of Kansas and sold within the state – as the state takes the position under the new law that the federal government does not “interstate commerce” authority over such items.

In his letter, Holder didn’t take too kindly to such a proposition.  He wrote:

“In purporting to override federal law and to criminalize the official acts of federal officers, SB102 directly conflicts with federal law and is therefore unconstitutional.”  

He continued, “Under the Supremacy Clause…Kansas may not prevent federal employees and officials from carrying out their official responsibilities.  And a state certainly may not criminalize the exercise of federal responsibilities.  Because SB102 conflicts with federal firearms laws and regulations, federal law supercedes this new statute; all provisions of federal laws and their implementing regulations therefore continue to apply.”

Let’s take Eric apart here.

1. Kansas is NOT purporting to criminalize the exercise of constitutional federal responsibilities.  On the contrary, the bill criminalizes what the state has determined is unconstitutional.   It is the position that such federal acts are indeed a violation of the Constitution.  No matter how much Eric might believe it to be otherwise, his view is obviously not universal – especially in Kansas.

2. The Supremacy Clause.  Holder takes the position that all tyrants do – that everything they do is authorized, anything to the contrary – worthless.  But Holder is wrong.  The Supremacy Clause doesn’t say that “any law in conflict with federal law” is void.  It says that only those laws “in pursuance” of the constitution are supreme.  The new Kansas legislation, again, takes the position that such federal acts are not constitutional, and therefore not supreme.

3. Historical Precedent.  The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was a federal law that basically required all states in the north to act as slave catchers for black people claimed as property in the South.  It’s one of the most disgusting acts in American history.  A number of northern states passed laws similar to the new Kansas law, criminalizing federal agents for attempting to kidnap people in their states.    Although the feds still claimed the same kind of authority that Eric Holder has claimed today, they didn’t have the manpower to enforce.  Read more about that here.    As an aside, if Holder would like to take the position that such resistance to federal slave laws was wrong, he’s welcome to publicly state that.

Eric capped off his letter by assuring the People of Kansas that the federal government will continue to enforce all federal gun laws.  He wrote:

“I am writing to inform you that federal law enforcement agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the United States Attorney’s Office…will continue to execute their duties to enforce all federal firearms laws and regulations.”

4.  Manpower.   That brings us to the most important fact, the federal government simply does not have the manpower to enforce all its laws already.  The new Kansas law doesn’t just deal with firearms made within the state.  It also bans all state and local agents from enforcing federal gun control measures.  (learn about the bill in detail here).  As Judge Andrew Napolitano has affirmed recently, such widespread noncompliance makes federal gun control laws “nearly impossible to enforce” (video here).  So Eric can promise to enforce these federal acts all he wants.  But if Kansas doesn’t help him, he might be able to get a 2% enforcement rate.  Or, he’ll have to pull resources from other states.

WHAT SHOULD THE RESPONSE BE? 

Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann: accountability for prosecutorial abuse

 

Carmen Ortiz

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz is under fire for her office’s conduct in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz. Photograph: US Department of Justice

Whenever an avoidable tragedy occurs, it’s common for there to be an intense spate of anger in its immediate aftermath which quickly dissipates as people move on to the next outrage. That’s a key dynamic that enables people in positions of authority to evade consequences for their bad acts. But as more facts emerge regarding the conduct of the federal prosecutors in the case of Aaron Swartz – Massachusetts’ US attorney Carmen Ortiz and assistant US attorney Stephen Heymann – the opposite seems to be taking place: there is greater and greater momentum for real investigations, accountability and reform. It is urgent that this opportunity not be squandered, that this interest be sustained.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that – two days before the 26-year-old activist killed himself on Friday – federal prosecutors again rejected a plea bargain offer from Swartz’s lawyers that would have kept him out of prison. They instead demanded that he “would need to plead guilty to every count” and made clear that “the government would insist on prison time”. That made a trial on all 15 felony counts – with the threat of a lengthy prison sentence if convicted – a virtual inevitability.

Just three months ago, Ortiz’s office, as TechDirt reported, severely escalated the already-excessive four-felony-count indictment by adding nine new felony counts, each of which “carrie[d] the possibility of a fine and imprisonment of up to 10-20 years per felony”, meaning “the sentence could conceivably total 50+ years and [a] fine in the area of $4 million.” That meant, as Think Progress documented, that Swartz faced “a more severe prison term than killers, slave dealers and bank robbers”.

Swartz’s girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, told the WSJ that the case had drained all of his money and he could not afford to pay for a trial. At Swartz’s funeral in Chicago on Tuesday, his father flatly stated that his son “was killed by the government”.

Ortiz and Heymann continue to refuse to speak publicly about what they did in this case – at least officially. Yesterday, Ortiz’s husband, IBM Corp executive Thomas J. Dolan, took to Twitter and – without identifying himself as the US Attorney’s husband – defended the prosecutors’ actions in response to prominent critics, and even harshly criticized the Swartz family for assigning blame to prosecutors: “Truly incredible in their own son’s obit they blame others for his death”, Ortiz’s husband wrote. Once Dolan’s identity was discovered, he received assertive criticism and then sheepishly deleted his Twitter account.

Clearly, the politically ambitious Ortiz – who was touted just last month by the Boston Globe as a possible Democratic candidate for governor – is feeling serious heat as a result of rising fury over her office’s wildly overzealous pursuit of Swartz. The same is true of Heymann, whose father was Deputy Attorney General in the Clinton administration and who has tried to forge his own reputation as a tough-guy prosecutor who takes particular aim at hackers.

Yesterday, the GOP’s House Oversight Committee Chairman, Darrell Issa, announced a formal investigation into the Justice Department’s conduct in this case. Separately, two Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee issued stinging denunciations, with Democratic Rep. Jared Polis proclaiming that “the charges were ridiculous and trumped-up” and labeling Swartz a “martyr” for the evils of minimum sentencing guidelines, while Rep. Zoe Lofgren denounced the prosecutors’ behavior as “pretty outrageous” and “way out of line”.

A petition on the White House’s website to fire Ortiz quickly exceeded the 25,000 signatures needed to compel a reply, and a similar petition aimed at Heymann has also attracted thousands of signatures, and is likely to gather steam in the wake of revelations that another young hacker committed suicide in 2008 in response to Heymann’s pursuit of him (You can [and I hope will] sign both petitions by clicking on those links; the Heymann petition in particular needs more signatures).

In sum, as CNET’s Declan McCullagh detailed in a comprehensive article this morning, it is Ortiz who “has now found herself in an unusual – and uncomfortable – position: as the target of an investigation instead of the initiator of one.” And that’s exactly as it should be given that, as he documents, there is little question that her office sought to make an example out of Swartz for improper and careerist benefits. Swartz “was enhancing the careers of a group of career prosecutors and a very ambitious – politically-ambitious – U.S. attorney who loves to have her name in lights,” the Cambridge criminal lawyer Harvey Silverglate told McCullagh. Swartz’s lawyer said that Heymann “was going to receive press and he was going to be a tough guy and read his name in the newspaper.” Writes McCullagh:

“If Swartz had stolen a $100 hard drive with the JSTOR articles, it would have been a misdemeanor offense that would have yielded probation or community service. But the sweeping nature of federal computer crime laws allowed Ortiz and [] Heymann, who wanted a high-profile computer crime conviction, to pursue felony charges. Heymann threatened the diminutive free culture activist with over 30 years in prison as recently as last week.”

For numerous reasons, it is imperative that there be serious investigations about what took place here and meaningful consequences for this prosecutorial abuse, at least including firing. It is equally crucial that there be reform of the criminal laws and practices that enable this to take place in so many other cases and contexts.

To begin with, there has been a serious injustice in the Swartz case, and that alone compels accountability. Prosecutors are vested with the extraordinary power to investigate, prosecute, bankrupt, and use the power of the state to imprison people for decades. They have the corresponding obligation to exercise judgment and restraint in how that power is used. When they fail to do so, lives are ruined – or ended.

The US has become a society in which political and financial elites systematically evade accountability for their bad acts, no matter how destructive. Those who torture, illegally eavesdrop, commit systemic financial fraud, even launder money for designated terrorists and drug dealers are all protected from criminal liability, while those who are powerless – or especially, as in Swartz’s case, those who challenge power – are mercilessly punished for trivial transgressions. All one has to do to see that this is true is to contrast the incredible leniency given by Ortiz’s office to large companies and executives accused of serious crimes with the indescribably excessive pursuit of Swartz.

This immunity for people with power needs to stop. The power of prosecutors is particularly potent, and abuse of that power is consequently devastating. Prosecutorial abuse is widespread in the US, and it’s vital that a strong message be sent that it is not acceptable. Swartz’s family strongly believes – with convincing rationale – that the abuse of this power by Ortiz and Heymann played a key role in the death of their 26-year-old son. It would be unconscionable to decide that this should be simply forgotten.

Beyond this specific case, the US government – as part of its war to vest control over the internet in itself and in corporate factions – has been wildly excessive, almost hysterical, in punishing even trivial and harmless activists who are perceived as “hackers”. The 1984 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) – enacted in the midst of that decade’s hysteria over hackers – is so broad and extreme that it permits federal prosecutors to treat minor, victimless computer pranks – or even violations of a website’s “terms of service” – as major felonies, which is why Rep. Lofgren just announced her proposed “Aaron’s Law” to curb some of its abuses.

 

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Woman Helped Firefighters’ Killer Get Gun He Used in Ambush, Police Say

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The police arrested a woman in western New York on Friday who they said helped a man acquire the weapon he is believed to have used to kill two firefighters in an ambush that left two others injured.

According to the police, the woman, Dawn Nguyen, 24, bought a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle and a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun from a gun shop more than two years ago on behalf of William Spengler Jr., who as a felon was not permitted to buy or own a gun.

Mr. Spengler apparently used the rifle on Monday to kill the firefighters, whom he lured to his home in Webster, N.Y., near Lake Ontario, by starting a fire, the authorities said. After shooting at other emergency responders, Mr. Spengler shot himself in the head with another weapon, a handgun, an autopsy revealed. The fire destroyed seven homes.

Ms. Nguyen went with Mr. Spengler to buy the weapons at a shop in June 2010, according to a criminal complaint filed by the United States attorney in the Western District of New York.

When the police asked her about the purchase after the shooting, she claimed the guns were for her own protection. She also said they had been stolen from her car, although the police said no report had been filed to support that claim.

The complaint said Ms. Nguyen had told a friend that she bought the weapons for Mr. Spengler. The police said that assertion was corroborated by what Mr. Spengler wrote in a suicide note, in which he said a neighbor’s daughter helped him acquire the guns.

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CRIME » CURRENT EVENTS

Deputy U.S. marshal Lucio Osbaldo Moya Arrested For Disclosing Identity Of Undercover Agent

December 4, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Lucio Osbaldo Moya

Deputy US marshal accused of blowing agent’s cover

By By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN | Associated Press

 

Deputy U.S. Marshal Lucio Osbaldo Moya’s bond was set at $75,000. Moya, 29, of Rio Grande City, faces charges of being an accessory after the fact and obstruction. He could receive up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the accessory charge.

Moya stood alone in a blue golf shirt and jeans as U.S. Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos explained the charges against him and terms of his bond Tuesday afternoon. He did not speak during the brief proceeding and did not have a lawyer with him.

Reached by phone after the hearing, Moya’s attorney Paul Looney said Moya had been prepared for his arrest after months of discussions with authorities, but denies any wrongdoing.

Besides setting the bond, Ramos ordered Moya to surrender his passport and restrict his travel to the Southern District of Texas. She said he would be under electronic monitoring and home detention, but also instructed him to find a job. The U.S. Attorney’s office said Moya has been on paid administrative leave.

Moya became a deputy marshal in 2009, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The U.S. Marshal’s Service referred questions about the case to prosecutors.

 

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Politics, Legislation and Economy News

Wars And Rumors Of Wars : Blow back

Men sentenced to 5 years each in US militia plot

 

By Kate Brumback

 

GAINESVILLE, Georgia: Two men were sentenced Wednesday to five years each in prison for trying to get an unregistered explosive and an illegal gun silencer in what prosecutors describe as a plot to attack U.S. government targets.

U.S. District Judge Richard Story sentenced 73-year-old Frederick Thomas and 68-year-old Dan Roberts to the maximum sentence allowed under the plea agreement they had reached with the government. The two were also ordered to serve 100 hours of community service during three years of supervised release following their imprisonment.

The two pleaded guilty in April to conspiring to get the explosive and silencer. They were among four men arrested in November after surveillance by an undercover informant who infiltrated their meetings at homes, during car rides and a Waffle House restaurant. Also charged in the case are Ray Adams and Samuel Crump, who are charged with conspiring and attempting to make the poison ricin and are awaiting trial.

The government’s case is pinned on dozens of hours of recordings of the men talking about their anti-government views with the informant and what kind of attacks they could carry out. Prosecutors have said the men are members of a “fringe militia group” who planned attacks on citizens, conducted surveillance on government buildings and took concrete steps toward carrying out the attacks.

Defense lawyers argued the most incendiary parts of the conversations were taken out of context and that the men were actually planning to unite various militia groups across Georgia to create a legitimate army that would answer to the governor and be at the state’s disposal in an emergency.

Their lawyers acknowledged that what their clients had done was serious, but claimed the men had neither the ability nor the intent to kill people or blow up buildings and called the conversations bravado and puffery. The men were gathering supplies and taking survivalist actions to prepare for a possible national emergency or catastrophic situation they believed was imminent, defense lawyers argued.

“It was a bunch of old soldiers talking trash,” said Roberts’ lawyer Michael Trost, later adding, “These might be grown men, elderly men, but sometimes boys like their toys. What these men were doing is playing soldier.”

Defense lawyers also claimed that the FBI’s confidential informant played an important role in encouraging them to keep going with their plot and to take further steps. Thomas’ lawyer, Jeffrey Ertel, called the informant the “ember” that started the smoke.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Brown said the men crossed the line when they took concrete actions, surveying federal buildings in Atlanta, talking about killing government officials and planning to purchase weapons.

“They weren’t talking trash,” Brown said. “They were talking about killing prosecutors, judges, politicians, IRS officials.”

Both men’s daughters and some other members of Roberts’ family asked the judge for leniency, pointing out their past military service for the country, lack of other criminal history and important roles in their families.

The judge said he took no pleasure in sending two veterans to jail and said it sounds like both men have otherwise led good lives, but that the charges against them are serious and the plea deal the government struck with them was generous.

People have a right to talk about whatever they want and to be unhappy with the government, “but when they start buying bombs and silencers, I’m sorry, we have crossed the line,” Story said.