Hogsett lifts US attorney's public profile

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Joe Hogsett made a point after he was confirmed in 2010 to visit each of the 60 counties he represented as the new U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Indiana.

He met with local police, prosecutors and law enforcement officials. But he often needed no introduction due to his long involvement in Democratic politics, including election to statewide office as secretary of state under Gov. Evan Bayh.

il-joe-hogsett01-1col.jpg U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana Joe Hogsett said his office is focused on prosecuting gun crimes, public corruption cases and white-collar crime. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

After his appointment by President Barack Obama, Hogsett’s new persona was an aggressive law-and-order federal prosecutor. He told officials his office would train its resources on gun violence, going after “the worst of the worst” offenders, public corruption and white-collar crime.

“For the most part, they congratulated me, wished me well,” Hogsett said in an interview. But he said another reaction commonly followed.

“In many cases they’d pull me aside and ask me, rather sheepishly, what the U.S. attorney does,” he said. “I came into office with a real desire to raise the profile of the office, because I know firsthand the importance of the work this office does.”

Hogsett said he also wanted to give credit to the approximately 30 attorneys and 50 support staff who work in the district’s Indianapolis and Evansville offices.

Hogsett also found law enforcement officials were frustrated that cases they recommended for federal prosecution didn’t get made. His response: “We’re not going to promise you the moon. … We’re going to turn over a new leaf and open up channels of communication we’ve never opened up before.

“If you are genuinely successful in reaching out to local law enforcement, if you are there to assist them … 50 percent of your job is accomplished right there,” he said.

But some question why particular cases end up in federal court and similar cases don’t, and wonder about motivations of a far-more public federal prosecutor.

Making federal cases

Since Hogsett took office, more than twice as many people have been prosecuted in federal court compared to the number prosecuted under interim U.S. Attorney Tim Morrison, who retired in 2011.

Hogsett said 442 defendants were charged in federal court in 2011 – he called it “a banner year for the U.S. Attorney’s Office” in a press release – compared with 216 in 2009. Former U.S. Attorney Susan Brooks, who resigned in 2007, prosecuted 369 people in her final full year.

Brooks and Morrison declined requests for comment.

Hogsett said that in 2010, 103 indictments were issued for felony gun charges compared with just 14 in 2009.

Federal charges increase the likelihood of pretrial detention and severity of sentences. Federal prisons require 85 percent of a sentenced be served; Indiana Department of Correction guidelines can cut time served on a sentence by half or more.

But Indiana Federal Community Defenders Executive Director William E. Marsh said the numbers cut another way. There’s reason to be troubled by the spike in federal prosecutions and by a higher profile for the U.S. attorney, he said.

“I don’t know exactly what the purpose of raising the profile is. There are potential downsides to raising the profile,” Marsh said. “From my perspective, that has the potential of changing the balance between state and federal prosecutions. We’ve always had what I consider a good balance … they’ve federalized a lot more things that traditionally have been state court matters.

“It’s a change in our district for sure,” Marsh said.

Longtime Butler University history professor George Geib said such debates have existed as long as have federal courts. “The beauty and the curse of the American system is the federal/state balance is imprecise,” said Geib, who with Indianapolis attorney Donald B. Kite Sr. co-authored “Federal Justice in Indiana: The History of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.”

“It’s very hard to compare different U.S. attorneys one to the other because they operate at different times, the membership of the court changes, and to a degree the personality and the procedures of a courtroom change,” Geib said. “Much more serious, the issues change.”

The key issue for Hogsett is gun crime. “If you are a convicted felon, you have no right to possess a firearm, period,” he said. “Yet there are enormous numbers of violent felons in possession of firearms.”

Hogsett also has prosecuted “straw purchases,” in which firearms are bought and supplied to felons who use them to commit crimes. He gained federal convictions against 14 people peripherally involved in the murders of Indianapolis police officer David Moore and Terre Haute police officer Brent Long. At least two gun dealers also have been charged in federal court with selling to felons and/or failing to collect required documentation.

Such crimes require the force of federal law, Hogsett said. But Marsh said federal prosecutors also are picking “low-hanging fruit.”

“One concern that I’ve seen a little bit of evidence of is there may be a tendency to take into federal court some cases we would say are easy cases,” Marsh said, “because it raises the number of arrests. The reality is that for every gun case filed in federal court, there are probably 50 out there that can be filed in federal court but aren’t. We’ve seen some really unjust sentences.”

Image and perception

Hogsett also is targeting public corruption, appointing a working group to investigate allegations that includes members from such diverse federal and state agencies as the FBI and state police to the U.S. Postal Service. A hot line at the U.S. attorney’s office has been established for whistleblowers.

Prosecutions such as that of former Indianapolis City-County Councilman Lincoln Plowman on charges of attempted extortion and soliciting a bribe often come to light when Hogsett steps in front of cameras in news conferences to announce them. Marsh said such publicity disadvantages defense attorneys, who often can say little publicly.

Hogsett said it’s part of the job. “I’m in the unique position of being the only person able to speak for the federal (judicial) family.”

Geib said federal prosecutors have become more visible nationally.

“Many of the changes that have come about, including the use of publicity, is reflected in the way that a new generation of prosecutors have chosen to try the case,” Geib said. “It’s not so much Joe as it is the spirit of the times. You’re swimming in a stream, and you have to adjust to the currents and the eddies that are there.”

In a sense, that’s how Hogsett’s life in public service has been. Elected secretary of state in 1988, he unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate and U.S. House in the early 1990s. A former Democratic state party chairman, he managed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in the state.

Hogsett was a partner at Bingham McHale (now Bingham Greenebaum Doll) in Indianapolis when Obama tapped him.

While Hogsett doesn’t rule out potential future political aspirations, he acknowledges that he serves at the president’s pleasure.

“I would like to continue doing what I’m doing,” he said. “If there is a change in the White House, there will be a change in U.S. attorneys. It’s all up to the voters.”•

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  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.