Aaron Swartz's Prosecutors Employ Outrageous Bullying Tactics as Standard Operating Procedure
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But those corporations have extensive financial and legal resources, and would put up much more of a fight than a small business owned and operated by a single family. Before a public interest law firm took on his case, Mr. Caswell had already spent over $100,000 and was near bankruptcy.
Ms. Sterling maintains that Ms. Ortiz’s office has no discretion in which properties are targeted. They simply act as the lawyers for other agencies of the federal government, in this case the DEA.
The Kingpins of Patronage
In March 2012, former Massachusetts Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien was indicted by a federal grand jury under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). With two of his former deputies and alleged co-conspirators, he was charged with “one count of racketeering conspiracy and 10 counts of mail fraud,” according to The Patriot Ledger. Each of the 11 counts carries a sentence of up to 20 years.
The lengthy indictment alleges that the three ran a hiring system for the Massachusetts Probation Department that gave preference to friends and family members of certain legislators and politically connected prospects. Those aforementioned counts of mail fraud consisted of “sending rejection letters to applicants they knew from the start they weren’t going to actually consider.” By this standard, any boss who ever hired a friend’s child—yet sent letters to other applicants in which he claimed they were considered before being rejected, as per standard hiring procedure—has committed mail fraud.
Enacted in 1970 to enable prosecutors to convict leaders of criminal organizations who order subordinates to commit crimes but who are never themselves at the crime scene, RICO statutes have most widely been applied to drug cartels, the Mafia, and terrorist organizations. The logic is simple: if a mob kingpin orders a hit on someone, he has a strong First Amendment case that he isn’t at fault for the murder. Under RICO, the government only needs to prove a relationship between murderer and kingpin within an ongoing criminal organization.
Mr. O’Brien and his codefendants are also under indictment for violating state campaign finance laws. But those are charges being brought by the Attorney General of Massachusetts, Martha Coakley, and are unrelated to the federal indictments issued by Ms. Ortiz’s office.
It is the job of prosecutors to bring malefactors to justice with tools appropriate to the alleged offenses — for example, RICO vs. the Mafia or al-Qaeda. But excessive prosecutorial zeal that regularly aims the biggest guns in the government’s arsenal at the smallest fry can only undermine public support for the justice system itself. In cases like that of John J. O’Brien and Aaron Swartz, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s penchant for bringing disproportionate charges intended for serious criminals against defendants who pose little or no threat to the public’s well-being suggests either puritanical vengeance or brazen self-promotion.
Speaking While Brown (and Bearded)
Now consider the case of Tarek Mehanna, a Massachusetts pharmacist sentenced to 17 years in prison after being convicted in 2012 of supporting al-Qaeda and conspiring to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Ms. Ortiz’s office claimed in the indictment that Mehanna travelled to Yemen with the intent of joining a terrorist training camp — although he never found one.
Upon returning to the U.S., prosecutors allege, Mehanna translated documents written by members of al-Qaeda and posted YouTube videos in support of suicide bombings. The 2010 Supreme Court case Holder v. Humanitarian Law held that “protected speech can be a criminal act if it occurs at the direction of a terrorist organization.” Mehanna was eventually found guilty, although no causal relationship was established between his controversial advocacy against American foreign policy and direction by a designated member of al-Qaeda.