Prosecutor targeted porn, kept politics out
Prosecutor targeted porn, kept politics out
When Catherine Hanaway was tapped as U.S. attorney for eastern Missouri, many people worried about having such a highly political person in charge of the law enforcement agency.
But as the one-time Republican state House speaker leaves office after three years and returns to private practice, observers say she was savvy in overseeing the federal prosecutor’s office.
She kept experienced attorneys around, stepped back, let them do their job and didn’t turn the office into a political operation.
It’s also how Hanaway sees her record.
“I just played it straight and did the work,” Hanaway said in an interview with Missouri Lawyers Weekly, as she was setting up her new office in Chesterfield as part of the national law firm known in Missouri as Ashcroft-Hanaway. “Telling people you aren’t going to be partisan isn’t going to help. You have to show it through your actions.”
She said the people she hired while U.S. attorney came from all over the political spectrum. Once, her staff was nervous to recommend a hire because he was related to the late George “Buzz” Westfall, a Democrat, she recalled. But she assured them that if someone could do the job, she didn’t care what his political stripes were. And he has been a great hire, she added.
“When she was first appointed, a lot of people had concerns … that that office would become more of a political tool than a law enforcement tool,” said criminal defense attorney Richard Sindel of Sindel, Sindel & Noble in Clayton. Both prosecutors and defense lawyers had those fears, but in the end, “that didn’t happen,” he said.
Hanaway placed high priority on certain kinds of cases, particularly child pornography and prosecuting those who prey on children through the Internet.
Hanaway noted that the last major law she got passed in the Legislature overhauled the state system for handling abused children, and she said prosecuting child porn was a logical next step.
“Definitely it was something I came with a desire to prosecute,” she said. “This seemed like a good way to continue to try and protect children.”
While Hanaway focused on prosecuting certain types of cases, criminal lawyers say they never felt she was unfair.
“During her administration those very crimes were aggressively prosecuted, and the numbers of those offenses increased dramatically,” said defense attorney John Rogers, of Rosenblum, Schwartz, Rogers & Glass in Clayton.
Asked to describe Hanaway’s work as a prosecutor, Rogers said he and others perceived her as tough but also fair and consistent.
When Hanaway was sworn into office in April 2006, she identified five areas as priorities: fighting terrorism, methamphetamine, child pornography, guns and white-collar crime.
A look at some snapshot numbers shows those areas got key attention from the office.
Upon request, the U.S. attorney’s office provided data indicating 803 people were prosecuted for gun crimes; 650 for methamphetamine; and 190 for child porn during Hanaway’s roughly three years in charge.
For perspective, the office reported handling about 2,800 indictments in 2006, 2007 and 2008 combined.
But Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Reap warned that the way the cases are counted can be misleading. That’s because the numbers lump together so-called petty crimes, such as parking tickets at the Arch, with major felonies. Plus, total indictments don’t equate to people, as some indictments can cover a dozen or more defendants.
It’s hard to compare Hanaway’s record with the previous U.S. attorney’s because the prosecutor’s office refused to provide similar case information.
Another way to get an idea of Hanaway’s priorities is to study news releases the office regularly issues informing the media and public about criminal indictments or convictions. From May 2008, the oldest available online, through April, the U.S. attorney’s office issued 152 releases. In all, 26, or about 17 percent, in that time dealt with child porn cases. Nineteen were related to meth, and 20 were gun and weapon cases.
Hanaway also made headlines regularly for efforts to curtail another vice conservatives often attack: gambling.
Soon after she started as prosecutor, her office worked to shut down an online gambling company, BetOnSports, charging that it operated in violation of federal racketeering and fraud laws. Some defendants have pleaded guilty, and others are set for trial this fall.
But Hanaway said that investigation was under way before she took office, and that her personal philosophy really wasn’t a factor in those pursuits. Rather, she said, the connection between child porn and gambling prosecutions was that both are “sophisticated computer crimes.”
Federal Public Defender Lee Lawless said Hanaway was aggressive in prosecuting child porn cases, and her office “continued to be aggressive in firearms prosecutions. They were more aggressive in meth prosecution. Those were all things she said she was going to do, and she did.”
Sindel practices in other federal jurisdictions and said Hanaway pursued child porn more aggressively than others.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a kiddie porn case in any other district,” he said. “She pursued some cases more aggressively than anybody else has for a long time over there.”
Last year, Hanaway’s office prosecuted more child exploitation cases than all but one other U.S. attorney’s office, she said.
As further evidence of Hanaway’s attention to the issue, the national conference of Project Safe Childhood took place in St. Louis in 2007, with Hanaway speaking and hosting the group and then-recently installed Attorney General Michael Mukasey as a key speaker.
Lawless said he found her approachable and his staff respected her. They worked together on how to handle people with crack cocaine sentences after new sentencing guidelines came out, and he appreciated her allowing the prosecutor’s office to be involved in a federal drug court.
The types of cases focused on by a particular U.S. attorney are in part guided by directions at the national level but also are a reflection of that individual’s priorities, explained Stephen Easton, a federal prosecutor in North Dakota in the early 1990s.
“We are now at the point – with expansion of federal criminal jurisdiction that has occurred over the last few decades – there are now way more federal crimes than any U.S. attorney could ever possibly prosecute,” said Easton, who now teaches law at the University of Missouri.
One unusual case that really made a difference, Hanaway said, was her office’s prosecution of American Healthcare Management.
Basically, the charge was that the nursing home care the company provided was so abysmal, she said, that their billings to Medicare amounted to fraud. The company and an official in charge eventually pleaded guilty.
“It was a novel case for our jurisdiction,” she said. And it was one of the first nationally. The case was worth pursuing because if she lost, it would signal to Congress that the law needed to change, she said. Because she won, she said the strategy serves as a model for others.
“It’s opened up the ability for more nursing homes to be prosecuted,” she said.
As for meth, the former federal prosecutor said she made it a priority because Missouri consistently leads the nation in meth labs, even though the Drug Enforcement Administration generally focuses more on major dealers and drugs coming in from Mexico. With meth, she said, it’s important to also shut down the mom-and-pop labs in rural and even suburban areas.
“With meth, the source is a trailer in some part of rural Missouri,” she said. “The DEA just didn’t want to do that.”
Reap, who has worked in the federal prosecutor’s office since 1973, said child porn and meth prosecutions were more abundant during Hanaway’s tenure than in the past because investigative tools evolved.
“We were not doing that many even when she came here because it was just kind of an emerging issue on the Internet that became a very refined, sophisticated investigation in an organized fashion by our office and other offices around the country,” he said.
Also, in the past, child porn was often mostly handled by local law enforcement, he said. Indeed, Sindel said some local prosecutors felt the U.S. attorney’s office was sometimes reaching and taking cases local prosecutors would normally handle. He also said as a defense lawyer he prefers drug cases go through state court because of more flexibility, prison alternatives and access to treatment.
Meth prosecutions also soared in recent years thanks to changes in state law that moved a key ingredient, pseudoephedrine, behind pharmacy counters and required pharmacies to keep logs of those who made a purchase.
Overall, those who interacted with Hanaway – even coming from the opposite side of a case – thought she treated people fairly.
“The times I met with her she listened – she didn’t always do what I wanted, but she listened,” Sindel said. “That’s what you want as a defense lawyer.”
Hanaway doesn’t see herself pursuing elected office again anytime soon. She said her toughest decision was whether to run for state attorney general last year, but after much discussion and prayer she decided not to while her daughter and son, Lucy and Jack, are still young.
As speaker and a candidate for secretary of state in 2004, “I really missed our daughter being 5 and 6. I didn’t want to miss her being 9 and 10,” she explained.
“I may or may not get another opportunity to run for office,” she said. “I only get one opportunity to be their mom.”