The story came and went with little fanfare, but on July 14, 2014, Citigroup agreed to settle allegations stemming from its role in the mortgage crisis for $7 billion. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Citigroup were previously miles apart on terms of a settlement and the government was ready to move forward with legal action against the bank. After months of unsuccessful settlement negotiations, the stage was set for the announcement of a civil action against Citigroup on June 18.
Too big to fail Citigroup was given an eleventh hour reprieve and $5 billion savings by publicity obsessed federal prosecutors
The DOJ flew John Walsh, the U.S. attorney for the District of Colorado, to Washington where he was scheduled to appear at an elaborate press conference announcing the lawsuit. Citigroup's fate appeared to be sealed as the government lined-up their media partners to report what would doubtlessly be trumpeted as a major accomplishment for federal prosecutors and the DOJ.
(image by justice.gov)
U.S Attorney for the District of Colorado John Walsh was slated to be the government's chief point man at the hastily cancelled press conference
But then something completely unexpected occurred. The night before the planned event, commandos captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, one of the suspected ringleaders of the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi that killed four Americans. The capture may have pleased some, but it rained on the DOJ's parade and led federal prosecutors to conclude that headlines applauding the capture would overshadow their announcement of the Citigroup case.
Despite federal prosecutors' claim that they are impartial protectors of the public, only interested in the administration of justice, the decision was made to delay the filing and announcement of the suit. The DOJ had no interest in moving forward with the matter if it could not be fully exploited.
The DOJ was coy as they advised Citigroup of the change in plans. "We've got a lot going on right now, so we're putting the lawsuit temporarily on hold," Associate U.S. Attorney General Tony West, the government's lead negotiator in the matter and the DOJ's third ranking official, said to Citigroup's lawyers in a phone call made just hours after telling them that the lawsuit was coming.
Associate U.S. Attorney Tony West pulled the plug on the Citigroup lawsuit when he sensed the matter would likely be overshadowed in the day's news cycle (image by justice.gov)
Prior to the federal prosecutors fearing that their thunder would be stolen by the Khattala announcement, they were reportedly seeking $12 billion from Citigroup. Their inability to milk the suit for the maximum amount of publicity caused its delay, and ultimately resulted in a settlement for far less than was previously acceptable. The federal prosecutors working the Citigroup case have made their prosecutorial priorities clear. Recovering $5 billion less from the defendant was evidently more palpable than having their press conference needlessly overshadowed.
Khattala may have played a role in murdering Americans, but his capture was viewed as a decided negative by the federal prosecutors pursuing Citigroup. Nevertheless, his capture has had the unforeseen benefit of helping lay to rest the myth of federal prosecutors working foremost for the benefit of the public. In reality, the public is just a convenient vehicle for federal prosecutors to realize goals that are much nearer and dearer.
The capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala may have been celebrated by some, but his apprehension caused nothing but consternation for the federal prosecutors pursuing Citigroup
Experienced federal court watchers recognized that what transpired in the Citibank matter was unusual only in the sense that the federal prosecutors involved were so shamelessly transparent in their self-serving acts. Manipulating the content and timing of press releases to appear to enhance the actions of federal prosecutors is standard fare in U.S attorney's offices throughout the country, but it is typically accomplished covertly. Journalists or those purporting to be such, routinely rely almost exclusively upon the representations of federal prosecutors for their stories involving federal criminal justice matters. What passes for journalism are often regurgitated DOJ press releases, sometimes repeated verbatim.
One of the worst offenders of this perversion of the prosecutorial process was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Prior to becoming governor, Christie served as the U.S. attorney for the district of New Jersey, where he developed and benefitted from a symbiotic relationship with his carefully cultivated media myrmidons.
Former U.S. attorney and current governor of New Jersey Chris Christie shamelessly and often illegally used his tenure as the chief federal prosecutor for the district to manipulate the media in order to position himself for higher office
Former Christie acolyte David Wildstein, currently at the center of Christie's burgeoning scandals, previously operated a political blog where he wrote under the nom de guerre "Wally Edge." The blog was popular with readers largely because of its ability to regularly break justice stories early. Wildstein was a routine recipient of leaked information from Christie's U.S. attorney's office, including illegally leaked grand jury information.
Former Christie stooge David Wildstein has recently appeared to be willing to deliver Christie to federal prosecutors investigating various misdeeds
Christie's U.S. attorney's office was masterful in its manipulation of the media. The office's public information officer was Michael Drewniak, who continues to operate as Christie's de facto minister of propaganda. Drewniak spoon fed carefully crafted stories to select media outlets whose part in this quid pro quo was to report the stories exactly as directed by Drewniak. Co-opted reporters were told where and when to be in order to benefit from Christie's campaign of self-serving press manipulation. Largely forgotten in this campaign of self-aggrandizement and career advancement are the defendant victims of Christie's perversion of what passes for justice on a federal level.
Christie's chief disseminator of propaganda, Michael Drewniak, was recently subpoenaed to testify about his role in Christie's various scandals
Rarely, if ever, reported was the importance Christie placed upon the burnishment of his image. As elucidated in the Citigroup case, what mattered most was how the prosecution impacted the prosecutors. Specifically, the central issue in many of the "crimes" pursued by Christie's office was the relative media value of the case.
Christie successfully parlayed his dubious crime fighting credentials into a successful run for governor. His ascension essentially confirmed his and other prosecutors' belief in a prosecutocracy, a system in which people prosecute their way to the top.
While Christie may present a particularly egregious example of the self-serving federal prosecutor, his actions are far from unique. U.S. attorney's offices are regularly and routinely staffed with federal prosecutors whose overriding goal is moving up the judicial-corporate ladder. Convictions and lengthy sentences are what fuel their ascendency. Conversely, exculpating the innocent and urging the economical use of prison resources are largely considered by federal prosecutors to be drags on their careers.
The Citigroup case offers a unique insight into a key element of the federal criminal justice system that has hitherto been largely hidden. The popular prevarication that federal prosecutors are tirelessly protectors, committed to the principles of justice, should be finally recognized as shameless propaganda. Were it not, the timing of when an alleged terrorist was caught halfway around the world would never have been allowed to so significantly impact a major matter for the DOJ.
Barry Scott Sussman- Born and raised in New Jersey. Graduated from Rutgers University with a BA in Sociology. Graduated with a JD from the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law specializing in Federal Criminal Procedure and Federal Prosecutorial (more...