PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Federal agents and prosecutors around the country have repeatedly broken the law over the past decade in pursuit of convictions, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said it found as the result of a two-year investigation.

The newspaper, in a 10-part series that begins Sunday, said it found examples of prosecutors lying, hiding evidence, distorting the facts, engaging in cover-ups, paying for perjury and setting up innocent people to win indictments, guilty pleas and convictions.

Federal officials rarely were punished for their misconduct, despite the fact that they caused some victims to lose their jobs, assets and even families, the newspaper said. It also reported that some victims went to prison because prosecutors withheld favorable evidence or allowed fabricated testimony, while some criminals walked free as a reward for conspiring with the government.

``It's a result-oriented process today, fairness be damned,'' said Robert Merkle, who served as a U.S. attorney in Florida from 1982 to 1988 and is now a defense lawyer in Tampa.

``The philosophy of the past 10 to 15 years (is) that whatever works is what's right,'' he told the Post-Gazette.

The U.S. Justice Department, which oversees federal prosecutors, denied the newspaper's allegations.

``Our prosecutors live by strict, comprehensive and effective ethics rules,'' Myron Marlin, a department spokesman in Washington, told The Associated Press. ``They are governed by the rules in the states where they are licensed, the courts where the case is tried and by federal regulation as well.

``Our office that oversees prosecutorial conduct (Office of Professional Responsibility) reviews every complaint and vigorously pursues prosecutors who cross the line.''

During the newspaper's investigation, the Justice Department did not respond to questions it posed in writing, nor would it return phone calls requesting comment.

The Post-Gazette said the problems have worsened as Congress has eliminated many of the checks and balances designed to prevent the abuse of power. For instance, federal sentencing guidelines say a person who pleads guilty to a crime and is cooperative should receive a lesser sentence than someone who fights a charge and is convicted at trial.

``The courts used to be a buffer between prosecutors and the rights of defendants,'' said Bennett Gershman, a former New York State prosecutor who teaches law at Pace University. ``They are now simply a rubber stamp.''

No matter what offense a federal prosecutor may commit in pursuing an investigation, a criminal defendant is practically powerless to sue for damages, the newspaper found.

The Post-Gazette also said it found hundreds of examples of abuse in discovery, which requires that federal prosecutors turn over to criminal defendants any evidence that might help prove the defendants' innocence or show lack of credibility on the part of prosecution witnesses.

``My attitude was that if you can't take the truth and win, then you weren't supposed to win,'' said Gary Richardson, who had an ``open file'' discovery policy during his tenure as a U.S. attorney in Oklahoma, which ended in 1984.

In Richardson's office, defense lawyers were permitted to come in and look at anything prosecutors had collected on a particular case.

Now that ``open file'' discovery policy simply doesn't exist, said Richardson, now a defense attorney in Oklahoma City.

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., tried to rein in federal prosecutors with legislation called the Citizens Protection Act, which would have established an independent oversight board to monitor federal prosecutors and require them to abide by state ethics laws. It also provided sanctions against prosecutors who knowingly committed misconduct.

Murtha decided to draft the legislation after watching an eight-year federal investigation nearly destroy Rep. Joseph McDade, R-Pa., who in 1996 was acquitted of charges that he accepted gifts from defense companies in exchange for helping them win lucrative contracts.

That case ``made me recognize the tremendous power a prosecutor has. I could see that if they did this to a Joe McDade, an ordinary citizen has no chance,'' Murtha said.

Source: Associated Press.

Date received 11/22/98