Legal Ethics

Federal Judge Sanctions US $600K for Secretly Taping Defense Lawyer

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In a blistering 50-page opinion (PDF) today criticizing the “win-at-any-cost behavior” of federal prosecutors who secretly taped a defense lawyer, a federal judge in Florida has awarded more than $600,000 in sanctions against the government.

The money, which the United States must pay to a South Florida physician it accused of prescribing pain medication without a proper medical purpose, will cover more than half of Dr. Ali Shaygan’s defense costs, reports the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The 36-year-old doctor, who lives in Miami Beach, was acquitted in March of 141 counts of unlawful prescribing. As a result of his overprescribing, the government had contended, a West Palm Beach man died of a drug overdose.

The prosecutors who tried the case were Sean Cronin and Andrea Hoffman. Midway through trial, the defense team learned that attorney David Markus, one of three lawyers representing Shaygun, had been secretly recorded by witnesses with approval from the government. The conversations—which the government says were made to investigate possible witness-tampering—violated legal ethics rules and U.S. Attorney’s Office policy, according to the newspaper, because they were not disclosed to the defense prior to trial.

Alicia Valle, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, says mistakes were unintentionally made in the case, and that it has been referred to the U.S. Department of Justice for further investigation, apparently concerning the conduct of the prosecution, according to the Sun-Sentinel.

After a two-day hearing after the jury’s March 12 not-guilty verdict, U.S. District Judge Alan Gold awarded $601,795.88 to Shaygun. In his opinion, which accorded the most criticism to Cronin as lead prosecutor, the judge castigated the government for pursuing an “unfounded” witness-tampering probe based on “personal animus against the defense team,” the newspaper writes.

Gold says he also intends to forward his sanctions ruling, which found that both Cronin and Hoffman acted unethically by not disclosing the recordings, to attorney discipline boards.

His opinion today follows another blistering blast earlier this week by a federal judge in Washington, D.C. He appointed a special prosecutor to investigate possible obstruction of justice by the federal prosecutors who tried former Sen. Ted Stevens in a corruption case last year and expressed concern that similar prosecutorial misconduct is occurring elsewhere.

Like the prosecutors in Shaygun’s case, the Department of Justice lawyers who tried Stevens admittedly did not provide exculpatory evidence to the defense as required before trial.

Related coverage: “Special Prosecutor to Investigate Government Lawyers in Sen. Stevens Case” “Alaska Seeks Hatch Act Probe in Stevens Case, Supports Possible Tort Claim”

Politico: “Fed judges are fed up”

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