Legal Ethics

DC Court of Appeals Disbars Lawyer for 'Egregious' Murder-Case Misconduct While a Federal Prosecutor

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Updated: Former assistant U.S. attorney G. Paul Howes was disbarred today by the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals.

It is the first time in at least 10 years that a lawyer anywhere in the country has been disbarred by judges over conduct as a federal prosecutor, USA Today reports.

Howes misused $42,000 in vouchers he was supposed to give to witnesses for expenses related to their testimony in court, instead providing them as payments to informants’ relatives and girlfriends in high-profile murder and gang cases. Once this came to light, sentences were substantially reduced in at least nine cases, says a three-judge panel in the court’s written opinion (PDF).

In addition to giving vouchers to individuals who weren’t supposed to receive them, Howes “compounded this initial misconduct by failing to disclose the voucher payments to either the court or opposing counsel, pursuant to District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 3.8 (e), Brady v. Maryland, and Giglio v. United States, even though such payments were relevant to the jurors’ credibility determinations of key government witnesses’ testimony,” the opinion continues. “Finally, respondent intentionally misrepresented to the court that such disclosures had been made.”

The Board on Professional Responsibility recommended, by a 5-4 vote, that Howes be suspended rather than disbarred, and Howes, who sought a one-year suspension, pointed to his lack of prior discipline, lack of any financial gain, cooperation with bar authorities and what the court described as his “altruistic motivation.”

However, calling Howes’ misconduct “decidedly egregious” and saying that it was “significantly compounded by the protracted and extensive nature of the dishonesty involved,” the court decided to disbar him.

“Respondent exhibited a consistent, aggressive disdain for statutes, rules and procedures as a prosecutor, which resulted in his use of the voucher system as a discretionary fund to be distributed at his will. Respondent’s steadfast determination to achieve convictions led him to circumvent federal laws and ethical rules, displaying ‘a continuing and pervasive indifference to the obligations of honesty in the judicial system,’ ” the opinion states, quoting from an earlier case.

“The severity of this conduct is amplified when misconduct as subtle and undetectable as voucher distribution is actively concealed from both the courts and criminal defense counsel,” the panel continues. “Additionally, failure to sanction respondent with our most extreme sanction would endorse respondent’s reasoning that honorable ends justify unlawful means, failing to deter others from adopting similar attitudes. Not only does this type of conduct impugn a prosecutor’s moral fitness to practice law, but prosecutorial actions such as these can place another’s liberty interests in the balance. The appropriate sanction should reflect this gravity.”

A USA Today page provides a link to a series of previously published articles in its “Misconduct at the Justice Department” investigation.

Additional coverage: “Disbar Ex-Federal Prosecutor for Alleged Ethics Issues in Criminal Cases, DC Appeals Court Is Urged”

Updated at 4 p.m. to link to and include further information from appellate opinion and link to USA Today page on prosecutorial misconduct coverage.

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