Updated 2:14 p.m.
A former federal prosecutor in Washington who committed "egregious" misconduct during his government service in the 1990s must be disbarred from the practice of law, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals said today, rejecting a lesser sanction of suspension.
The court said G. Paul Howes, a former assistant U.S. attorney, misused federal witness vouchers, misled trial judges and defense attorneys and violated his duties as a prosecutor. The ruling is here.
"The fair administration of justice relies, in large part, upon the integrity, honesty and trustworthiness of prosecutors, and where misconduct causes a prosecutor’s ethics to be questioned, the entirety of the criminal justice system is called into question," Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby said for the unanimous three-judge panel.
The court said "a prosecutor who violates ethical rules and exploits his broad discretion and access to government resources to misuse public funds, both undermines the legal profession and calls into question the fairness of the criminal justice system within which he operates."
Blackburne-Rigsby said the D.C. Court of Appeals, the highest local court in Washington, has previously disbarred attorneys for "dishonest manipulation of funds" that affected a single client.
“Here, disbarment is the only appropriate sanction where respondent’s disregard for the laws of our jurisdiction affected the liberty interests of many and the safety of our larger community,” the court said.
Howes’ misconduct led to the “substantial reduction in prison sentences for at least nine convicted felons,” the judge said. The court concluded disbarment was appropriate because the conduct “was significantly compounded by the protracted and extensive nature of the dishonesty involved."
Howes provided thousands of dollars in government vouchers in high-profile homicide cases to relatives of witnesses, retired police officers and inmates in exchange for information. He did not financially benefit, the appeals court said.
The D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility in 2010 divided over the appropriate sanction. Four members of the board recommended disbarment, but three other members determined a three-year suspension is appropriate. Two members of the board voted for a one-year suspension.
Howes asked the appeals court to suspend him for one year. The D.C. Office of Bar Counsel recommended disbarment.
An attorney for Howes, Paul Knight, a Nossaman partner in Washington, was not immediately reached for comment.
Knight earlier told the appeals court that Howes was a model prosecutor who followed office procedure on witness vouchers.
“We were the murder capital of the world,” Knight said at a hearing in March 2011. “This is a man who spent 15 hours a day, seven days a week, working on these cases. He was following the procedures of the United States Attorney’s Office—the way he was trained. He did what prosecutors do to solve these kinds of cases. He worked as hard as he possibly could. He was protecting the citizens of this city.”
Deputy Bar Counsel Elizabeth Herman in March told the appeals court, which has the final say on disciplinary sanctions, that Howes brought “tremendous harm to the criminal justice system and the public’s perception of the criminal justice system."
The appeals court said Howes "diverted federal funds with which he was entrusted, for an unlawful purpose, justifying his actions based on 'moral reasons.'"
Even if Howes had laudable intentions, the court said, he "nonetheless, intentionally dishonest in his fraudulent misuse of public funds such that his behavior cannot be distinguished from that of other dishonest conduct warranting disbarment."
The appeals court also rejected Howes' contention that the protracted nature of the disciplinary dispute should benefit him.
The voucher misconduct occurred in 1995, the court said, and a disciplinary hearing was held in 2007. "[N]o such delay warrants mitigation of his sanction or demonstrates the prejudice upon which respondent relies in his argument for mitigation," the court said.
"As the Hearing Committee noted, but for the delay, respondent would not have been able to participate actively in a high-profile Enron-related litigation until he disclosed to his client his pending disciplinary charges in February 2007," the court said.
NLJ Staff photo by Diego M. Radzinschi