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Spotlight on Carol Lam, Southern California

Amy Griel for ePluribus Media
Original Publication Date
Carol Lam

On January 16th, 2007 Carol Lam, US Attorney for California's Southern District, announced she would step down from her post, and her last day will be February 15th, 2007.

According to an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Lam was targeted for dismissal because of "performance-related" issues after the Justice Department received complaints from members of Congress about her handling of immigration enforcement cases, said Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.

However, there is another side to the dismissal. From the same Union-Tribune article:

The critics have speculated that Lam is being removed to cripple an investigation into corruption in Congress. Lam's office prosecuted former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, and that case has led to investigations of other lawmakers.

There have been no announcements of the California congressional delegation recommending a replacement to the President, but several candidates were interviewed by video for an "interim" position.

And today, February 15th, 2007 an interim replacement was announced:

The Justice Department announced Thursday the appointment of Karen P. Hewitt, currently the Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney in San Diego, to be the Interim U.S. Attorney, replacing Carol Lam.

The three who were interviewed were:

Each interim candidate declined comment.

Clark won convictions in the 1996 corruption case against three Superior Court judges and an attorney and in a billing fraud case against former La Jolla eye surgeon Jeffrey Rutgard in 1995. He also handled the 1989 fraud and tax-evasion trial of Nancy Hoover Hunter.

Hewitt joined the San Diego office in 2000 and prosecuted civil fraud cases before she was appointed Executive Assistant U.S. attorney a year ago. Before coming to San Diego, she was a lawyer in the Justice Department's civil division in Washington, where she specialized in constitutional law and civil rights cases for about eight years.

Coughlin is known for his prosecutions of drug lords from the Arellano Felix cartel, the Mexican Mafia and others. Castetter, a 32-year veteran of the office, has held several leadership positions during his long tenure, including chief of the appellate, criminal and general crimes divisions.

When Carol Lam was confirmed in 2002 as US Attorney for the Southern District of California, the reaction was a sigh of relief. Despite being one of the busiest jurisdictions in the country, the prosecutor's office was often underfunded, understaffed and the victim of political intrigue. Indeed, the road to Lam's nomination had been rife with politics, despite the appointment of a bi-partisan search committee. Early in the process, the 3 member search committee, as well as Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and the San Diego Union Tribune endorsed Charles La Bella1 , a former assistant US Attorney whom many had felt had been passed over for the post in 1999 for political reasons. (La Bella was at that time the head of the Justice Department's investigation into Clinton/Gore campaign fundraising issues.) Republican Congressmen Duke Cunningham, Darryl Issa and Duncan Hunter, on the other hand, petitioned the White House to nominate San Diego City Attorney and Bush supporter Casey Gwinn. Lam applied for the post, as did several other attorneys from around the nation. As late as February 2002, however, the Bush Administration was still asking for names. It was not until 6 months later, on August 2, 2002 that Lam's nomination was announced. The editors of the Union Tribune urged the Senate to confirm Lam, remarking that:

Although this page argued ardently for a different choice, we find Lam clearly qualified. There should be no doubt that she can serve capably as the chief federal law enforcement officer on the Southwest border. That will entail due attention to the urgent issues of cross-border drug trafficking and illegal immigration, among other border-related problems. Dealing effectively with these, in turn, will require the coordination and cooperation with Mexico that is now essential.

Lam was a federal prosecutor for 14 years before her appointment to the Superior Court bench by Gov. Gray Davis in 2000. Her experience includes prosecuting white-collar crime and organized crime cases. She built a credible reputation as a diligent prosecutor, and is well regarded as a judge.

When Lam was finally confirmed by the Senate in on November 12, 2002, it marked the first time there was a permanent, presidentially-appointed, senate-confirmed US Attorney in the Southern District since 1998.2

Lam was a seasoned prosecutor, having served for 14 years as an assistant US attorney before becoming a Superior Court judge. Her specialty was white collar crime, and she became chief of that office's Major Frauds Section from 1997 to 2000. Upon taking the helm of the prosecutor's office as Interim US Attorney in September 2002, she began refocusing the district's priorities. The San Diego Union-Tribune, reporting on her confirmation, quoted Lam as saying "I think white collar crime has received less attention than it deserves...There's a lot of new money in San Diego and that creates new opportunities for investment fraud, telemarketing fraud and health-care fraud."3 One of the first such investigations undertaken by Lam reveals the strategy she applies to complicated corruption cases and the course the Cunningham investigation might take had Lam not been asked to resign.

Peregrine Systems

On the heels of the spectacular collapse of Enron, agencies across the country were taking a serious look at corporate dealings. In May 2002, major accounting irregularities at Peregrine Systems4, San Diego's biggest software company, came to light. By June, Peregrine was the subject of over 40 lawsuits brought by stockholders. The company reorganized, bringing in former chairman (and San Diego Padres owner) John Moores to helm the organization and former federal prosecutor (and one-time front runner for Lam's new job) Charles La Bella as Vice President and legal counsel. By the time Lam was appointed Interim USA, Peregrine was under investigation by the SEC and the DOJ and had filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Lam's approach was simple. In a 2003 interview with the Editorial board of San Diego Union-Tribune, one of the interviewers noted that "The process seems to involve cutting a deal with a middle manager, then working up the corporate ladder."5 This was certainly true in the case of Peregrine Systems. The first indictment came in November 2002. Former Peregrine assistant treasurer Ilse Cappel pleaded guilty to conspiring6 with others in the company to commit bank fraud. Cappel was a small cog in the Peregrine machine, but her case started a process that is still ongoing 4 years later. So far 8 former Peregrine executives have pleaded guilty. In the same 2003 interview, Lam was asked if plea bargains expedite the process of prosecuting corporate fraud. She answered "The plea bargain process definitely expedites that. And the general understanding in the area of organizational crime, whether you're talking about narcotic cartels or white collar fraud in corporations, is that if people plead guilty early in the investigation and agree to cooperate in ways that will help the investigation, usually the person who cooperates gets a benefit from his or her cooperation."7

Recent Developments

The Associated Press reported on February 1st that federal prosecutors in San Diego are preparing to indict Duke Cunningham co-conspirators Brent Wilkes and Kyle "Dusty" Foggo on fraud and conspiracy charges. These indictments will undoubtedly be among the last issued by the US Attorney's office under the direction of Carol Lam, who is preparing to leave her position on February 15th, after being asked to resign by the Bush administration. Despite coming quickly on the heels of the much publicized ouster of Lam and other US attorneys across the nation, the latest developments in this case reflect a long and methodical process on Lam's part to dismantle the network of corruption that reaches from San Diego to the halls of Congress, the Pentagon and the CIA.

Foggo was indeed indicted on Tuesday, February 13th.8

A federal grand jury returned 11 counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering against Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, executive director of the CIA until he resigned in May, and San Diego defense contractor Brent Wilkes.

Foggo is the highest-ranking CIA officer to be charged with crimes allegedly committed while working for the agency. The charges grew from the bribery scandal that landed former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham in prison.

And on that note, Ms. Lam is able to depart her office as of February 15th , with her head held high for a job well-done.


1Copyright 2001 The San Diego Union-Tribune ,Choose La Bella; The best choice for U.S. attorney, August 27, 2001, Monday, SECTION: OPINION;Pg. B-8

2Copyright 2002 The San Diego Union-Tribune, November 13, 2002, Wednesday, SECTION: LOCAL;Pg. B-2, Lam is confirmed as U.S. attorney

3Copyright 2002 The San Diego Union-Tribune, November 13, 2002, Wednesday, SECTION: LOCAL;Pg. B-2, Lam is confirmed as U.S. attorney

4Copyright 2003 Associated Press, All Rights Reserved, The Associated Press State & Local Wire, April 16, 2003, Wednesday, BC cycle, SECTION: Business News; State and Regional, Former Peregrine CFO pleads guilty to conspiracy, fraud

5Copyright 2003 The San Diego Union-Tribune, March 23, 2003, Sunday, SECTION: OPINION;Pg. G-5, Carol O. Lam; U.S. Attorney, Southern District of California

6Copyright 2003 Associated Press, All Rights Reserved, The Associated Press State & Local Wire, April 16, 2003, Wednesday, BC cycle, SECTION: Business News; State and Regional, Former Peregrine CFO pleads guilty to conspiracy, fraud

7Copyright 2003 The San Diego Union-Tribune, March 23, 2003, Sunday, SECTION: OPINION;Pg. G-5, Carol O. Lam; U.S. Attorney, Southern District of California


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