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Archive for January 9th, 2012

US Soldier Ditches the Army, Tried to Join Terror Group in Somalia

By Danny Fenster
ticklethewire.com

A former Army soldier was charged Monday in federal court in Greenbelt, Md., with  attempting to provide material support to al Shabaab, the terrorist organization, the FBI said in a statement.

Craig Benedict Baxam, 24, of Laurel, Maryland, was arrested on Friday, January 6, when he returned to his home state from a visit to Africa, the FBI statement says.

A criminal complaint alleges Baxam “intended to travel to Somalia and join the terrorist organization al Shabaab,” U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said. “Mr. Baxam was caught in Kenya before he reached Somalia, and there is no allegation that anyone assisted him.”

According to the FBI, Baxam joined the US Army in 2001, where he completed training in cryptology and intelligence before being deployed to Baghdad. Afterwards, he reenlisted. He deployed for a one-year assignment in Korea in August of 2010. But a month before finishing his stint in Korea, Baxam left the Army and returned home to Maryland in July 2011.

The affidavit that came with the criminal complaint claims Baxam had converted to Islam just before leaving the Army, intending to move to Somalia and live under Sharia law and join al Shabaab–a group designated by the US Department of State as a foreign terrorist organization in February of 2008.

Baxam cashed in his approximately $3,600 in savings and hopped a flight to Kenya,  and planned to travel with $600 or $700 to by road to Somalia. He planned to give the remaining money to the terrorist group as an offering. He was stopped by Kenyan police near Mombasa, Kenya on December 23, 2011, where he was detained and interviewed by the FBI.

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Mich. Boy Scout Camp Director Gets 95 Years for Child Porn

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

A 40-year-old director of a Boy Scout camp in Western Michigan got socked on Friday with a 95-year prison term in Grand Rapids federal court for child pornography charges.

Specifically, Scott Allan Herrick surreptitiously videotaped boys as they were dressing in the locker room in the YMCA in Muskegon, and kept a massive collection of 100,000 images of child pornography with him at the Gerber Boy Scout Camp in Twin Lakes, Mich., federal authorities said.

On the first day of trial, Herrick pleaded guilty to two counts of distributing child pornography and one count of possessing child pornography.

U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney said at sentencing that that the sexual exploitation of children by using institutions like the Boy Scouts and the YMCA “tears at the social fabric of our country.”

Herrick was the camp director for Gerber Boy Scout Camp in Twin Lakes, Mich., and also worked as a pool safety instructor for third grade children at the YMCA in Muskegon.

Authorities said he was trading child pornography and was discovered during a series of undercover FBI operations. He was arrested July 8.

U.S. Attorney Donald A. Davis echoed the judge’s concerns: “Herrick used and abused his position of trust in organizations dedicated to the health and welfare of children to satisfy his own perverse sexual interest in young boys.”

 

Sentences Go Up While Crime Falls, Legal Experts Say

By Danny Fenster
ticklethewire.com

When Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) was convicted on public corruption charges in 2009, he got hit with a  13-year sentence–the highest prison term a Congressman has ever received. Bernie Madoff, the financial scammer who pleaded guilty in New York in 2009 to running a massive Ponzi scheme, was handed a whopping 150-year sentence. And just recently, the ever-chatty former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, convicted of public corruption charges, was given 14 years–the harshest sentence an Illinois governor has ever received in a state known for its history of public corruption.

In federal courts across the United States, criminal sentences collectively have risen steadily in recent years, all while actual crime levels are falling.

“The national data is crystal clear on this,” Harvard Law Professor Ron Sullivan said in a phone interview with ticklethewire.com. “Sentences are getting increasingly harsher even though the crime rate is lower.” Sullivan teaches courses in criminal law and criminal procedure at Harvard Law.

Sullivan attributes the change in the last couple decades to a shift from discretionary sentencing to sentences often determined by federal sentencing guidelines — even after the guidelines went from mandatory to discretionary.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 sought to bring more consistency to federal sentencing, with mandatory sentences for certain convictions and for determinate sentencing–a firm and automatic sentence for different crimes and actions. The act created the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) and the federal sentencing guidelines used in federal cases today. It also put some judges in a regrettable position when they felt the guidelines were excessive, but could do little about it.

Duke Cunningham/gov photo

 

But in 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the mandatory guidelines were in violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury, in the case United States v. Booker. The guidelines then became legally regarded as suggestions, not requirements.

Still, judges almost always at least start with the guidelines, and a federal case law requires a judge to write their reasoning for departing from the guidelines if sentences exceed them by a certain percentage.

Studies clearly point to the hike.

In November of 2004, the USSC published a report called “Fifteen Years of Guidelines Sentencing,” a look at the impact of the changes since sentencing reform was initiated.

“The data clearly demonstrate that, on average, federal offenders receive substantially more severe sentences under the guidelines than they did in the pre-guidelines era,” the report states. The first year in which a majority of federal offenders were sentenced under the guidelines–a period between 1987 and 1989–the average prison sentence nearly doubled; by 1992 it had more than doubled, from 26 months in 1986 to 59 months in ’92.

A 2006 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission evaluating the impact of the Supreme Court’s Booker decision found that “the majority of federal cases continue to be sentences in conformance with the sentencing guidelines.” The report placed the rate at which federal judges conformed to sentencing guidelines at 85.9 percent, and found that the average sentence length had actually increased after Booker. Above-guideline sentences doubled after Booker, according to the report.

The decade between 1997 and 2007 saw about a ten percent rise in the rate of prison sentences for federal offenders, according to a January 2009 report by the United States Sentencing Commission entitled “Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System.” That corresponded with a decrease in alternative sentencing like probation, or combinations of lower prison terms with probation and other alternatives.

Legal experts suggest the shift to tougher sentences is also, at least in part, due to changing attitudes about incarceration. They say the popularity of the rehabilitative component of incarceration declined in the 1970s, which precipitated the reform of the 80s. Incarceration became more about taking the criminal element out of society.

The crew of crooked Illinois governors provides a little snapshot of the upward climb in sentences. In 1973, Ex-Gov. Otto Kern Jr. was convicted on 17 counts including bribery, conspiracy and perjury, and was sentenced to three years in prison.  He was released early after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Ex-Gov. George Ryan was convicted on public corruption charges in 2006 and got 6 1/2 years in prison.  As an aside, Ex-Gov. Daniel Walker, who had already left office, was convicted in 1987 on charges related to the First American Savings & Loan Association in Illinois and got seven years.

Before Congressman Jefferson’s history-making 13-year sentence, former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif) set the record in 2006 when he got eight years for bribery involving the defense industry.  Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the legendary Illinois Democrat,  got 17 months after pleading guilty in 1996 for mail fraud. (Jefferson is free pending his appeal).

The tougher sentences involving public officials may also be a sign that the public and judiciary are becoming increasingly agitated about crooked politicians, and politicians in general. Real Clear Politics reports the average job approval rating for Congress at 12 percent, though some polls report as low as eight.

Bernie Madoff

“The quid pro quo–taking money in exchange for improper use of a public office–is viewed as undermining confidence in government and fostering distrust of public officials,” said George Washington University Law Professor Stephen Saltzburg, “which ultimately harms a democracy.”

“Federal judges have been increasingly tough on most, if not all, defendants who have breached the public trust by seeking to profit through the illegal acceptance of funds,” said Saltzburg.

Legislators see higher sentence recommendations as a low-cost means to look tough, even though they know judges will most often hand down sentences well below the highest recommendations, Harvard Prof. Sullivan says. “They know that most people probably are not going to get the top level sentences, but will get some sentences somewhere lower on the range,” which are still tough and pushes sentences up overall, he said.

Further more, prosecutors are more often using very high sentences instrumentally to induce plea bargains. “Most rational actors can’t take the risk of extraordinarily high sentences,” said Sullivan, “so they are kind of forced to accept plea bargains.”

John Janiszewski, an attorney in Detroit, agrees. “Only about five to ten percent of cases go to trial,” he says. “Most end in a plea deal.”

“Determinative sentencing and mandatory sentences really take the human element of any case out of the judge’s hand,” Janiszewski says, “and in criminal cases the human element is really important; every case is different.”

 

 

At FBI, Hope for Wounded Soldiers Returning Home

By Danny Fenster
ticklethewire.com

It was an IED that did it for Povas Miknaitis.

After an initial deployment to Iraq in 2008, he was later sent to Afghanistan as a Marine rifleman. In Afghanistan, an IED blast sent shrapnel flying; some hit his arm and abdomen; larger pieces struck his face, shattering his jaw and blowing his right ear clean off of his head.

“Part of my mouth was missing,”  Miknaitis tells ticklethewire.com. “It just broke my jaw completely.”

It was in a hospital, recovering from the blast in 2009, that Miknaitis heard about an FBI training program for injured soldiers called Wounded Warriors. He began filling out paperwork and initiating the process of joining the bureau’s Wounded Warriors internship program. In 2011, when the program was launched, he landed a spot in a program that seems to be taking off.

So far, so good.

Of the 21 soldiers who have completed various internships, two have been hired full time; one as a clerk and another in IT. Another 43 are currently serving as interns, 78 are being processed and more are in line pending a funding evaluation, says FBI spokeswoman Amy Thoreson. Interns work in a variety of capacities, from logistics, intelligence, investigations to computer- and technology-focused jobs.

“Our goal is to give them working experience and the clearances they need,” to get back to work, says Thoreson. “We think this is a really wonderful program. It’s really helping people get their lives back.”

The San Diego field office, where Miknaitis interned, is among the few offices that are participating in the program. Others include the Washington Field Office, Sacramento, Charlotte and the FBI’s International Operations Division, Operational Technology Division, and Laboratory.

As expected, landing a spot with the FBI — even a temporary one — requires an intensive background check.

“This was not the same background check I went through for the military,” says Miknaitis. Agents called friends and family of his. “I had relatives calling me from Chicago asking if I was okay, saying the FBI had called asking questions about me,” he recollects.

Once Miknaitis was cleared, he began he began an internship researching cases for ongoing FBI investigations. “I was always interested in law enforcement,” he says, “and the internship program really let me learn a lot more about it. It got me employed while I was still recovering.”

Miknaitis still spends much of his time at a San Diego hospital. “It takes a while to go through the treatment, for the doctors to make sure they have done absolutely everything they can,” he says.

The program had its genesis in November of 2009, when president Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13518. That order focused on employing veterans in the federal government. The following July, president Obama signed Executive Order 13548, which focused on increasing the number of federal employee hires with disabilities.

As for Miknaitis, he’s grateful for the experience, but learned that the FBI might not be for him.

“I want to be able to go home and talk about my work,” he says, “not to have to say, ‘well, I really can’t talk about that honey, that’s classified information.”

After much physical therapy and plastic surgery, Miknaitis is doing well and poised to begin school in the fall, possibly for sports medicine, he says.

“I actually got pretty lucky,” he says. “If you saw my face and my body after the injury, you would not think I would have come out looking this good afterword.” He remains deaf in his right ear, but he and his doctors have spoken about cochlear implants in the future.

More than 47,000 soldiers have been injured in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

 

DEA Agent May Lose Gun After Fight with Girlfriend

By Danny Fenster
ticklethewire.com

A DEA Agent may have his gun and ammo taken away from him after being arrested on domestic violence charges in Foster City, Calif., reports the Lagonian.

Jay Anderson, a 29-year-old special agent with the DEA, was arrested on October 8 but will not face prosecution for the charges. He faced felony domestic violence and false imprisonment charges, but the District Attorney for San Mateo cited insufficient evidence in deciding to press charges, said District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, the paper reported.

Still, the Foster City Police Department filed a Dec. 1 petition to keep and destroy one of Anderson’s two guns because returning the items “would be likely to result in endangering the victim or the person reporting the assault or threat,” according to the petition, the paper reported. His other gun was not cited in the petition.

Anderson was at a wedding at a local recreation center on Oct. 7 when he got into a fight with his girlfriend, according to a police report, when a man called police to report a physical altercation between a man and a woman shortly after midnight. The responding officer wrote in the incident that Anderson had “forcibly grabbed the female victim on both of her shoulders then intermittently shoved the victim’s chest, causing her to slump down into the area between the driver’s seat and the driver’s door panel.”

To read more click here.

ICE: Federal Immigration Program to Become Mandatory by 2013

By Danny Fenster
ticklethewire.com

Provisions which allowed local law enforcement officials more choices in complying with the federal Secure Communities immigration enforcement program will be “streamlined” or “eliminated,” bringing law enforcement groups in line with federal mandates, reports the LA Times.

The information-sharing program between the FBI and local law enforcement, which allows the FBI to share with ICE fingerprints collected from county jails, was implemented two years ago as a way to focus immigration enforcement on “serious convicted criminals,” according to the LA Times. However, it has come under fire as a large portion of the immigrants in the system were never convicted of crimes or were low-level offenders, the Times reported.

Dated Oct. 2, 2010 but only released recently, a 9-page letter from a legal advisor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that “choices available to law enforcement agencies who have thus far decided to decline or limit their participation in current information-sharing processes will be streamlined and aspects eliminated. In that way, the process, in essence, becomes ‘mandatory’ in 2013.”

To read more click here.

Money Wasted in Cook County Police Program, Lawmakers Call for FBI Probe

Cook County Board Pres. Toni Preckwinkle

 
 By Danny Fenster
ticklethewire.com

Would you believe that federal money was wasted in Illinois’ Cook County, home of the city of Chicago?

A report by the Department of Homeland Security claims that millions of dollars may have been wasted on a troubled $44 million county program that put faulty cameras in police cars, reports the Chicago Tribune.

U.S. Sen.  Mark Kirk and and U.S. Rep Michael Quigley scheduled a press conference for later on Monday calling the FBI to investigate “potential criminal misuse of federal funds” on “equipment that does not perform as intended,” according to the Tribune.

Cook County officials ended “Project Shield” in June after a review by the County Board President Toni Preckwinkle found an “ill-conceived, poorly designed and badly executed program that put the lives of emergency responders in danger.” The $65,000 cameras the county had purchased for police not only didn’t work, according to the Tribune, but also obstructed the air bags in police cars, said Michael Masters, director of the county’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

To read more click here.

ATF Agent’s Death Result of Decisions of “Career Criminal,” Officials Say

John Capano/atf photo

By Danny Fenster
ticklethewire.com

ATF officials are calling the man ultimately responsible for the death of off-duty agent John Capano a “career criminal who chose to resume his life of crime” on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, reports Wantagh-Seaford Patch.

Capano, a 23-year veteran of the ATF and originally from the New York town of Seaford, was fatally shot when he tried to interrupt a robbery at a local pharmacy he had entered to pick up his aging father’s cancer medication. An off-duty police officer came to his rescue, but ended up shooting Capano accidentally.

The lawyer for the off-duty police officer expressed remorse on behalf of his client, Christopher Geraghty, in a letter to the Associated Press. Geraghty shot Capano as Caoano wrestled with the thief, James McGoey, and is “devastated” by what happened, Patch reports.

“Ultimately the responsibility for the tragic events that occurred on December 31, 2011 lies with the career criminal who chose to resume his life of crime,” said Joseph Anarumo, the Bureau’ of ATF’s special agent in charge of the New York field division.

To read more click here.