Don Perata is nothing if not a political and public relations genius. His decision last week to publicly lambast the US Attorney's Office in Sacramento for taking over the once-dormant federal corruption probe of him was a masterstroke. His spokesman Jason Kinney called the US Attorney's move late last year politically motivated, a "highjacking of the case by a Bush appointee in the waning days of the Bush administration." In short, the former Democratic state senator claimed that he was a victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy. It's a charge he has leveled repeatedly during the past four-plus years. But a closer look at the case reveals little evidence of any conspiracy against him. Still, there's a chance that Perata's allegations may influence prospective jurors or intimidate prosecutors into not filing public corruption charges against him.
Perata has been under investigation by the FBI since 2003. The case originally focused on his former aide and onetime Oakland lobbying powerhouse Lily Hu. The feds have been examining whether the senator traded official favors in exchange for illegal bribes or kickbacks funneled through Hu; Perata's son, Nick Perata; or Perata's longtime pal, Timothy Staples. All have said they did nothing wrong.
Last summer, it looked like the US Attorney's Office in San Francisco was on the verge of finally filing charges against Perata. Both this newspaper and the Wall Street Journal published stories, citing anonymous sources who said they expected that the Perata indictment was going to happen soon. But then the summer and the fall came and went, and nothing happened. Sources now tell Full Disclosure that the San Francisco federal prosecutors backed off after the Perata defense team convinced them that they could never persuade a jury that the senator was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Perata has a first-rate, highly paid team of lawyers, led by former federal prosecutor George O'Connell. It appears that the San Francisco US Attorney also was nervous about Perata's repeated claims that the probe was a product of the Bush administration, which had an undeniable track record of politicizing the Justice Department under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Perata claimed last week that Sacramento US Attorney McGregor Scott, another Bush appointee, poached the case in a GOP-motivated vendetta. However, neither the senator nor his defense team has provided any evidence to back up that allegation. But there is evidence that FBI agents were unhappy with the decision by the San Francisco US Attorney and decided to take their case to Sacramento. "We don't reach out, the FBI reached out to us," Lawrence Brown, the new acting US Attorney in Sacramento, who took over for Scott when he retired in January, told Full Disclosure. "It's an absurd allegation that we 'highjacked' the case. It smacks of desperation. The FBI approached us. McGregor Scott, the US Attorney, did not seek this case out. It's simply false that there is anything improper in the case."
If Perata's allegation is true, then Brown must be lying. But it sure doesn't sound like it. Brown said his office felt the Perata probe was "serious enough" to examine. Brown also noted that if his office ultimately decides to bring charges against Perata, they will effectively be coming from the Obama administration's Department of Justice, now run by Attorney General Eric Holder, thereby making the right-wing conspiracy allegation patently ridiculous. Brown said that the Holder Justice Department Public Integrity unit is working on the Perata case with his office. And he indicated that no charges will be filed without the okay from Washington, DC.
So what about the FBI? Are they on a right-wing witch hunt, too? That seems unlikely. The FBI was one of the few agencies within the federal government to show some independence from the Bush White House. It was the FBI, for example, that refused to go along with torture. In fact, FBI Director Robert Mueller spoke out against torture, and forbade his agents from engaging in so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" after learning that the CIA and military interrogators were using them.
In a subsequent interview, Perata's spokesman Kinney backed away somewhat from his earlier claim that the Sacramento US Attorney's Office was politically motivated. Instead, when asked to respond to Brown's assertion that his office did not poach the case, Kinney pinned the blame on "rogue FBI agents" who have it out for Perata and were frustrated that San Francisco prosecutors dropped the case based on a "lack of merit." "This is about rogue, runaway FBI agents who have now found someone who will continue to demonize Senator Perata," he said.
The Perata defense team also claims that the Sacramento US Attorney has violated agreements it had with the San Francisco US Attorney's Office. Specifically, the Perata defense had repeatedly agreed to suspend the statute of limitations on allegations against the senator in exchange for the promise that prosecutors would give them a thorough chance to counter those allegations before bringing charges. By all indications, San Francisco prosecutors lived up to that bargain and it apparently resulted in their decision to ultimately not file charges against the senator. But Kinney said they would never have signed off on the agreements if they knew that the case would transfer to another US Attorney's Office.
On closer look, however, that claim appears shaky. Typically, in these types of deals, prosecutors ask defense attorneys to suspend the statute of limitations, telling them if they refuse then they will be forced to bring immediate charges against the defendant. So Perata had a strong incentive to agree to such a deal. If he hadn't, then he would probably been on trial by now. Instead, he took the deal, and for a time, it looked like it had worked out for him.
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