The acting U.S. attorney for Pennsylvania's Eastern District announced last week that the office's organized-crime strike force will be merged into a unit prosecuting drug dealers.
This is shortsighted.
A little history: The public first became aware of the national scope of organized crime in 1957, when police in Apalachin, N.Y., raided the private home of Joseph Barbero and discovered a meeting of nearly 100 mob chieftains from across the country. It was a national meeting, and it exposed the broad geographic reach of organized crime.
Until then, organized crime had been regarded as confined to small, localized, ethnic areas. In response to the growing awareness to the contrary, the organized-crime strike forces were created in the 1960s. They comprised an independent, nationwide network of prosecutors, directed by the Department of Justice in Washington, with expertise in conducting investigations into the widespread networks of organized-crime families.
The strike forces were in the forefront of sophisticated federal law enforcement. They initiated the use of the investigating grand jury, the process of immunizing reluctant witnesses, electronic surveillance, and witness protection for cooperating accomplices.
They moved federal law-enforcement agencies into the investigation of labor racketeering on the waterfront, and of the construction, hotel and resort, and casino-gaming industries. They initiated investigation of the misuse of union pension funds. Because strike-force attorneys were not burdened with the day-to-day cases that confront U.S. attorneys, they were able to concentrate on the many activities of the mob.
I'm not talking about prosecuting mobsters for killing one another. That is important, but the real danger of organized crime is the threat to the economic fabric of the country.
I'm talking about prosecuting organized crime as a sophisticated business, which requires experience and expertise in investigation and in the courtroom. The strike-force attorneys were successful because they had the time and skill to concentrate on this highly structured illegal enterprise.
The strike forces were merged into the U.S. attorneys' offices in the 1980s as a result of an internal bureaucratic struggle within the Department of Justice. Once that occurred, it was only a matter of time until those strike-force attorneys would be reassigned to whatever hot area needed support in the U.S. attorneys' offices.
I headed both the Chicago and Philadelphia federal strike forces and was the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia. I sat in both chairs a long time - a total of 15 years as a prosecutor.
My fellow U.S. attorneys often joked that they welcomed the assignment of special task forces to cover the latest crisis, because they would eventually absorb the new personnel and quietly assign them to local-office roles. This should not happen to the strike-force attorneys.
Organized crime's operation has not declined. It simply has become more sophisticated and taken on different forms, and there is a need to pursue organized crime in its modern, more sophisticated mode. Once established in any industry, it does not disappear with the prosecution of a few associates.
The strike-force attorneys do not work alone, but in tandem with units in other cities. Using this exchange of intelligence and skills, they have been able to make significant cases in numerous cities against the full scope of organized crime in national industries.
Joel Friedman, the former head of the Philadelphia strike force, went to Chicago in the 1970s to assist me in setting up a sting operation that he originated in New York. Such cooperative efforts aren't formed in an instant; they take months or years to forge.
Dismantling this machinery at this point destroys years of effort, as occurred when the Carter administration removed the agent operatives from the intelligence agencies. We are still paying for it.
I do not diminish the need for drug prosecutions. Drug dealers have been a major problem for more than 30 years. Numerous national task forces and drug czars have not diminished their influence and significance. Perhaps it is time to rethink the national law-enforcement strategy on drugs, but that's beyond the scope of this article.
Transferring the strike-force attorneys to a drug unit may aid that effort for a short while. However, in time, the strike-force attorneys will simply be removed from organized-crime prosecutions. They will be assigned to the next crisis area instead of devoting their skills to prosecuting the most sophisticated organized crime.
Thanks to Peter Vaira