Series grew out of ‘Protected Witness’
This series of stories examining federal law enforcement officials’ misconduct grew from another investigative series that Post-Gazette reporter Bill Moushey completed in 1996.
That probe into the federal witness protection program exposed a secretive bureaucracy that too often rewarded violent criminals with money and freedom, only to watch as they committed violent crimes again.
Titled "Protected Witness," it led to a congressional investigation, won the prestigious National Press Club’s Freedom of Information Award and was named a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting.
While reporting Protected Witness, Moushey uncovered more than 100 cases in which defendants, lawyers and witnesses questioned the motives and actions of federal agents and prosecutors.
He expanded his research, contacting families, academics, advocates and congressmen; interviewing lawyers, many of them former federal agents and prosecutors; and mailing letters to hundreds of federal prison inmates.
He sifted through hundreds of other misconduct allegations via the Internet, where he also researched opinions from the 13 U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.
He had soon collected more than 14 boxes of misconduct complaints, based on an examination of more than 1,500 cases, from Boston to Omaha; San Diego to Atlanta.
Some were simply sour grapes, but many included detailed court records and documents obtained through desperate searches — prisoners and their families sometimes waiting years before getting answers from federal agencies through Freedom of Information Act requests. Many times, the answers included information about key evidence that had been hidden from the defendants at their trials.
Since the vast majority of federal criminal cases involve drugs, the vast majority of the misconduct complaints involved drug cases, but victims also included engineers, teachers, business owners, organized crime figures, lawyers and politicians — including former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
Through them all, Moushey found a common theme: a growing gap between the protections that the Constitution guarantees and the U.S. Department of Justice’s aggressive pursuit of convictions.
He also found hints of change. For two decades, get-tough-on-crime legislation enjoyed an almost free ride in Congress, even when it contained few safeguards against overzealous agents and prosecutors. Earlier this year, the House passed a Citizen’s Bill of Rights to address some complaints against federal prosecutors, although it was gutted when Congress approved its annual appropriations bill last month.