Ken Buck, the leading Republican candidate for Colorado’s U.S. Senate race, just made files available to the public from his years at the U.S. Attorney’s office documenting his concerns about a weak case former U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland wanted to file against some pawn shop owners. Buck turned materials on the case (that included private personnel records otherwise not subject to disclosure) over to the Denver Post, as reported today by Allison Sherry.
The story starts with a pair of Russian immigrant brothers who ran a gun store and pawnshop in Aurora in the 1990s. Gregory and Leonid Golyansky were friends and contributors to the Republican Party — Buck says he knew Gregory Golyansky at the time from Republican society gatherings. …
Federal investigators went to the gun shop in several undercover sting operations from 1996 through 1998, posing as “straw purchasers.” That means two people would come in together, but only the person paying for the gun would have to pass a background check.
Authorities figured this was how career criminals commonly gained access to weapons.
Agents first presented the investigation to the U.S. attorney’s office in 1998, when Buck was chief of general crimes. At the time, Buck and a prosecutor below him declined to file charges because of weaknesses in the ATF probe, Buck said.
Henry Solano, who was then the U.S. attorney appointed by President Bill Clinton, said the ATF never appealed the decision to him. Solano, a Democrat, served in that post until December 1998.
In his view, declining the case “was an appropriate decision,” Solano said in a recent interview.
But when Tom Strickland was sworn in as U.S. attorney the day after a pair of Columbine High School students killed 12 kids and a teacher before killing themselves in April 1999, one of his first priorities was to mount an offensive against gun violence.
So Buck thought the case was lousy, and so did his Dem boss, Solano. Then Strickland comes in with Columbine on his mind, and obviously sees political opportunism beckoning. This is the same Tom Strickland that now serves as assistant Interior Secretary under Ken Salazar. This would be the same Tom Strickland that had to be air-lifted out of a rafting trip on the Grand Canyon on April 20 so he could attend to his duties in the gulf oil spill.
This case is also what has had some Jane Norton supporters all abuzz in the comments sections of the conservative blogosphere, including the People’s Press Collective. So what is Buck’s non-crime here? He told an attorney for the defense his opinion that the case was weak. Strickland thought this violated the attorney client privilege under some tortured interpretation. I say tortured, because the “client” wasn’t Tom Strickland. The client is the United States of America, and the duty of a prosecutor is not to prosecute a case as hard as possible just because your boss wants you to do that. A prosecutor has a duty to seek justice on behalf of the public.
Is this the big smoking gun in Ken Buck’s tenure as head of Criminal Prosecutions at the U.S. Attorney’s office that we’ve heard cryptic allusions to? Ironically, even Bill Ritter’s big bud, Stephanie Villafuerte, thought this case was a dog. She wrote a memo about the case that the defense attorneys sought to obtain. Strickland charged the case as a 37-count felony indictment, but it was plead down to the lowest possible misdemeanor, and one day of probation, for one defendant. Charges against two other defendants were dropped.
By this time Strickland was busy in his failed U.S. Senate run in 2002. Suthers was aboard as U.S. Attorney, and based on Strickland’s filing of an internal ethics complaint against Buck, issued a letter of reprimand in late 2001. This letter would have remained a private, personnel file matter but for the disclosure by Buck (though details surrounding it seem to have been leaked by the Norton campaign, possibly via her endorser, Suthers). And this internal reprimand was in no way a Bar-discipline of any kind against Buck. Ken Buck has a spotless record with the Colorado Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel.
Buck now admits his disclosures were a mistake, though I think that’s debatable. We need more prosecutors who take their responsibilities seriously and speak out when the boss is pursuing cases for his own political motives and not the pursuit of justice. As the recent felony mountain biking prosecutions by fellow Penryite and Suthers endorsement recipient, Mark Hurlbert, illustrates, overcharging by prosecutors is a pernicious form of government overreach. Buck himself recently spoke to me about his concerns about the “overcriminalization” of society.
My only beef with Buck would be that he received about $700 in reported contributions for his Senate run from the Golyanskys. While this is technically legal, I think it creates an appearance of impropriety, and I have argued the same about the $2,000 in contributions Mark Hurlbert received from Ali Hasan and family (whom Hurlbert investigated, but declined to prosecute, in 2008). Unlike Buck, Hurlbert failed to reveal details of his investigation (thereby preventing the public from making its own decision of the merits of Hurlbert’s conduct). Still, returning the $700 contributions would be the high road for Buck to take.
Buck’s stance in the Golyansky prosecution was a brave one, and given two well-known Democrat prosecutors agreed with him, and the one who didn’t was Tom Strickland, speaks volumes. The Penry-led Norton campaign, as Don Johnson recently pointed out, seems truly desperate. If this is the big dirt they have on Buck, and given the latest polling numbers, maybe Norton should just bow out now.
Updated: Dems on the attack in predictable fashion. Good coverage by The Independent’s John Tomasic. Read the whole DP piece by Sherry, including the 53 comments after the article. A lot of people seem to get it about how political prosecutor’s offices work.