Thank You Honorable Roger T. Benitez
By Dan Coffey
Honorable Roger T. Benitez, United States District Judge, exercised his proper powers as an objective, Article Three federal judge on April 6, 2010. In doing so, he dismissed all five innocent defendants originally named in the “honest services” pension case brought on Jan. 6, 2006, by controversial former U.S. Attorney, Carol Lam. Those defendants are: Ronald Saathoff, Cathy Lexin, Teresa Webster, Lawrence Grissom and Loraine Chapin.
In a well-reasoned and clearly considered 28-page opinion addressing the superseding federal indictment against the defendants, Judge Benitez marched through the legal brambles erected by participants in a witch hunt. He cut the brambles asunder one by one. He brought common sense to what has seemed at times to be several chapters from “Alice in Wonderland.”
This bizarre federal prosecution was advocated and cheered on by former City Attorney Michael Aguirre, along with his supporters, Diann Shipione and Patrick Shea, but it turned out to be political fluff masquerading in an artfully crafted, contrived and inscrutably vague indictment.
Judge Benitez sagely observes at the end of his opinion dismissing the defendants: “Fortunately, due process forbids turning citizens into criminals through the application of novel, untested applications of a criminal statute.”
When stripped to its core, “novel, untested applications of a criminal statute” is precisely what both the District Attorney and the United States Attorney offered the public in support of San Diego’s version of the Salem Witch Trials.
The public owes Judge Benitez great thanks and applause for his courage and objectivity. He did the right thing for the right reasons and achieved substantial justice in the process.
No one, unfortunately, can put right what has been done to the defendants. Judges, as powerful as they may be, cannot place their finger upon the clock face and push back the hands of time to a happier posture, before all of the loss, destruction, fear, tears, and isolation caused by such dubious prosecutions.
Most astonishing, and history may well reveal more in the future, the isolated, cloistered and intertwined relationship between Lam, Shea, Shipione and Aguirre raises the serious question: What ultimately led to such an absence of objectivity and internal checks and balances? Collectively, it appears that within the tight knit U.S. Attorney community, there was no one willing to say: No.
Apparently no one in the U.S. Attorney’s office prior to destroying five people’s lives had sufficient power or presence of mind to say the following: “In this case, the defendants have been charged under a novel, untested, application of the vague mail and wire fraud honest services statutes for carrying out pension fund business. A reasonable person of ordinary intelligence would not have known that what the defendants were doing violated the federal mail and wire fraud statutes. Under our Constitution, people are not to be punished for ‘violating an unknowable something.’” How could this bedrock concept utterly elude the entire U.S. Attorney’s office?
It seems the whole office of the U.S. Attorney could find no way to apply that simple, well-grounded principle. Indeed, today they must be left scratching their heads and asking what to do in response. Why? How can that be? What is going on inside that legal fortress? Maybe they need to get out more often and talk to regular people?
Fortunately, Judge Benitez knew those exact words and understood what to do with them in his opinion dismissing the defendants.
L.P. Beria, head of Stalin’s dreaded secret police, counseled Stalin on how to eliminate political enemies: “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime.” Have we come to a stage in the legal development of our country where our justice process requires no actual crime, but mere press-driven public hysteria or an unpopular cause, in order to indict? Astonishingly vague laws enacted by Congress presently allow unrestrained prosecutorial discretion, a matter which should evoke great concern in each of us.
A grateful nation must thank judges like U.S. District Court Judge Carney, 9th Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan in Alaska, and now U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez for protecting us all from the passions and proclivities of an almost invisible, immensely powerful and virtually unaccountable segment of our society: our United States Attorneys and Department of Justice.
Thank you Honorable Roger T. Benitez.
Dan Coffey’s opinion column, “On San Diego,” can be read every Friday in the San Diego Daily Transcript, and online at http://www.sddt.com/ Commentary/column.cfm?Commentary_ ID=176