Washington — To hear prosecutors talk about it, the budget squeeze at the Justice Department is, well, a crime. Over the last year, at least one top-priority investigation and countless smaller cases have been hurt by the worst budget crunch to hit the government's criminal prosecutors in 20 years. While the situation is temporarily improving, it is expected to deteriorate again next year.
``It's a very critical situation,'' says Cary Copeland, the budget expert in the office of the associate attorney general. The Criminal Division is ``way short of people,'' he says, at a time when the division is involved in several massive investigations, including the defense procurement fraud case, fraud in the savings-and-loan industry, and drug-related investigations.
The budget ax has also fallen on the 94 United States attorneys' offices around the country. The US attorneys prosecute their own criminal cases and work with the Criminal Division in investigations like the defense probe. ``We refuse to take cases below a certain - substantial - size,'' says Dexter Lehtinen, the US attorney in Miami. ``All kinds of guilty people go unprosecuted.''
While no major investigations have been dropped, some have been slowed down considerably, according to department officials. The most dramatic example is the massive investigation into fraud in the savings-and-loan industry in Texas.
The Criminal Division, which sets law-enforcement priorities, is devoting about 10 attorneys in the fraud section to the top-priority case. Until recently, the attorneys spent half their time in Dallas, working with investigators in the US attorney's office, the FBI, and the Internal Revenue Service. Since the travel budget was cut earlier this year, the Fraud Section attorneys have seen their travel time sliced in half, making it harder to interrogate witnesses, put them before the grand jury, and help with the investigatory legwork.
``We won't lose any cases'' because of the delay, says Marvin Collins, the US attorney in Dallas, ``but we have lost some significant time.''
Mr. Collins notes that several minor indictments in the investigation have been delayed four or five weeks. ``If it takes an extra four or five weeks to bring minor cases,'' he says, ``that may push a major case back as much as eight months, since we have to get some people before we can get to others.''
Asked about the problems besetting the Dallas investigation, Dick Thornburgh, the new attorney general, said in a recent interview, ``No essential investigation or prosecution will be prejudiced because of budgetary matters, no matter what it takes.''
A Justice spokesman says that the travel restrictions have just been eased. This week Collins plans to empanel a second grand jury in Dallas to hear evidence on the investigation, since so much has been backlogged over recent weeks.
Prosecutors out in the field face the same problems, says Mr. Lehtinen, the Miami US attorney. Over the last year, as the war on drugs has intensified, a beefed-up FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration staff in Florida has swamped his office with additional and more complicated cases. At the same time, his staff has been cut from 103 attorneys to 96, and will soon be down two more.
Consequently, his office is forced to ignore ``substantial'' cases, he says - including narcotics cases that would qualify for a mandatory five-year prison term, such as possession of five kilograms of cocaine. The result: ``contrary signals'' to suspected criminals.
``The doper is told by Congress, that's a serious offense,'' Lehtinen notes. ``Then we [Miami prosecutors] have to say, that's insufficiently serious to prosecute. I find that to be incredible.''
Lehtinen is not alone. In January, the all US attorneys were told to cut their staff work hours - which were already running 5 percent below their desired levels - another 4 percent.
``The US attorneys are now going to their congressional delegations and saying, `We're not getting the staff we need to do the things we need to do,''' says Warren Kane, counsel to the Senate appropriations committee that oversees the Justice Department. ``I've never seen US attorneys make direct pleas to Congress before,'' he says.
Over the past few months, the Criminal Division has successfully wiped out its $1.2 million worth of red ink. To do that, the division has taken some unusual steps.
For example, eight Criminal Division attorneys - and the salary expenses they incur - have been transferred to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to process requests for parole or repatriation to Cuba from the Mariel Cuban refugees at two federal prisons. The equivalent of two more attorneys are being loaned to INS beginning this week.
``Criminal [Division] has been taking in washing to make ends meet,'' says Mr. Copeland in the budget office.
The division has done more than washing, however. Two internal memos, one on Jan. 26 and another on March 18, put criminal prosecutors on a strict diet. Among other things, the division reduced travel; froze any future hirings, including summer hires; delayed bringing on people who had already been promised jobs; deferred promotions and relocations; and cut down on the use of computerized legal services, such as Lexis and Juris, which help attorneys in researching their cases. Department officials made up contingency plans for temporary layoffs or partial cutbacks, but those have been dropped.
Some Justice prosecutors grumble that the austerity was not shared by all. In the midst of budget cuts in the spring, the National Obscenity Enforcement Unit reportedly received an extra $40,000 in travel funds.
The unit, which was a favored project of former Attorney General Edwin Meese III but not of many others inside or outside of the department, does not get congressionally approved funds. Instead, it ``begs, borrows, and steals'' its eight attorneys from the Criminal Division, one budget official says. The unit plans to expand to 19 attorneys next year.