Judge Slams Prosecutors on Botched Case, Makes Them Read Ruling

A judge sharply criticized federal prosecutors for failing to turn over important evidence to a businessman accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran -- and then ordered the whole high-powered Manhattan office to read her 34-page opinion on the botched case.

U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan found “serious and pervasive issues related to disclosure failures and misleading statements to the court,” detailing problems with the government’s handling of the case against Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad.

“The cost of such government misconduct is high,” Nathan wrote. “With each misstep, the public faith in the criminal-justice system further erodes. With each document wrongfully withheld, an innocent person faces the chance of wrongful conviction. And with each unforced government error, the likelihood grows that a reviewing court will be forced to reverse a conviction or even dismiss an indictment, resulting in wasted resources, delayed justice, and individuals guilty of crimes potentially going unpunished.”

The case is a significant black eye for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, one of the most prestigious and powerful in the country. The judge called for a “full investigation” by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.

Nicholas Biase, a spokesman for Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, declined to comment on Nathan’s opinion.

“The court implores the Acting United States Attorney to take seriously the numerous deficiencies set out in detail above and to take action to ensure future prosecutions brought under the aegis of her office do not suffer from the same,” Nathan wrote.

She ordered Strauss to submit a declaration within a week stating that all the prosecutors in her office had read the opinion.

Sadr was accused of helping funnel $115 million through the U.S. financial system to Iranian-linked entities from a construction project in Venezuela. He was convicted in March, but prosecutors three months later asked Nathan to throw out the conviction and dropped the charges, acknowledging they failed to turn over evidence.

Some of the documents at issue showed U.S. authorities were aware of Sadr’s transactions early on but never took action to block them. The government also acknowledged at least one misstatement to Nathan and revealed internal chats in which one prosecutor contemplated a plan to “bury” exculpatory evidence.

Nathan identified several systemic problems with the prosecution, including the large number of prosecutors -- 14 -- who worked on the case; failures to communicate with the FBI and the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which originally investigated the case; insufficient training of agents and prosecutors; and inadequate procedures to guarantee compliance with disclosure obligations.

Nathan ordered that the prosecutors on the case submit declarations, under penalty of perjury, about the late disclosure of a key document in the case. Lawyers for both sides may file letters telling the judge whether additional fact finding is needed. She said she retains the authority to sanction the prosecutors if she determines they knowingly withheld evidence or intentionally misled her.

The case is U.S. v. Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad, 18-cr-00224, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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